Back to the Wilderness? (A sermon on Luke 4:1-13)

It’s the first Sunday in Lent and we are heading back to the wilderness with Jesus!

I’m choosing my words very deliberately here, as I think it is the intention of the church to travel with Jesus into the wilderness each year at this time.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent is that time in the church year that is set aside every year as a time of reflection and self-examination in the lead-up to Easter. Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we read about Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness, and it is no coincidence that Lent itself is a period of forty days.

Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness. And so we likewise do our forty days in the wilderness every Lent – at least figuratively – taking time to do a personal moral inventory and test and strengthen our spiritual muscles. That’s the idea I think, at any rate, though it occurred to me this year as I read through the temptation narrative again what an entirely inappropriate response to this passage that is!

I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with doing a moral inventory, nor with working on strengthening the spiritual muscle. What occurred to me though as I read again through this passage in from fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St Luke is that there is nothing archetypal about Jesus’ wilderness wandering. I don’t think the Gospel-writer gave us this story as a pattern that we were supposed to emulate!

And I say this as someone who has spent a fair bit of time in the wilderness – certainly more than most people in our church community, at any rate. Our bush retreat (Binacrombi) might not qualify precisely as wilderness in the Luke four sense of the word, and I’ve never spent a continuous forty days out there either, but I have been out there for weeks at a time, and I certainly have spent days on end where it’s just been me and ten thousand kangaroos, with not another human being in sight!

I appreciate that we normally envisage Jesus’ wilderness experience as taking place in a desert rather than amidst the gum trees. Even so, it really struck me as I read through the Gospel account again this year that this is by no means the only difference between the two experiences.

Jesus faces temptation when He is alone in the desert. I face most of my temptations when I’m with other people, as I suspect we all do!  When we think of all the commandments that we might be tempted to break – everything from stealing to murder to coveting your neighbour’s ass – these temptations only happen when you’re with other people. You generally can’t get into too much trouble when you’re by yourself. This is indeed why we send people out to Binacrombi. It’s because it’s such a remote place that you generally can’t get yourself into too much trouble there.

I won’t mention the name of one of our dear brothers who was out there for a couple of months last year, but he was a member of our church community who had struggled with a long-term gambling problem, along with other related issues, and I thought Binacrombi might give him a chance to recover.

He used to call me up regularly, often late at night, saying “I’m having a bad day today, Father.” I’d ask him “did you gamble anything away today, brother?” He’d say “no”. I’d ask him “did you get drunk and misbehave today, brother?” He’d say “no”. I’d ask him “did you get into any fights today?” He’d say “there’s nobody here to fight with, Father!” I’d say “it sounds to me as if you’re doing really well!” He’d say “I’m having a great day, Father!”

It’s hard to break too many commandments when you’re out in the wilderness. It’s a place for sobering up rather than spinning out. You go there to get away from temptation rather than to get into it. Our wilderness experience is at sharp variance therefore with Jesus’ at this point for – let’s face it – when we go on a wilderness retreat we do so in the hope of encountering God, not to meet the devil!

I appreciate of course that the two often go together, and perhaps that’s the beauty of the way we’ve set up Binacrombi. We have both a chapel and a boxing ring, more or less side by side, and you can meet God in one and then go and deal with the devil in the other!

I mean that quite literally too. I have found over the years that nothing is more effective in helping young men to face their demons than the boxing ring. When you get a solid punch in the nose it really can bring out the inner demons!

If you’ve got anger-management issues or lack self-control, the boxing-ring is guaranteed to bring the devil out of you! I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve counselled young men who have come out of the boxing ring in a rage, with blood on their bodies and steam coming out of their ears, and we’ve talked about what they are feeling and why they are so angry and how they intend to get themselves under control. And, in all honesty, some of those sessions have been the most valuable pastoral moments I’ve experienced in my twenty-seven years as a priest!

As I say, at Binacrombi we have the chapel and the boxing-ring side by side, and there can be a very powerful spiritual movement from one to the other. Even so, when we send people off on a wilderness retreat, the ultimate goal is to always to see them spend time with God rather than with the devil, which is another reminder of the fact that Jesus’ wilderness experience and ours are quite distinct!

The third, and in many ways the most obvious, point of distinction in Jesus’ temptation experience is that the temptations He experiences are not ones we are even remotely familiar with!

To be blunt, I have never been tempted to turn stones into bread! Neither have I ever been tempted to throw myself off the Harbour Bridge, confident that angels will catch me before I hit the water! I’m not saying I’ve never struggled with the old black dog and the temptation to throw myself off something, but that’s quite a different temptation to the one Jesus experiences. 

I’ve never been tempted to become ruler of the world either! I may have struggled at times with the temptation to become the sole and undisputed ruler of my household (which many in the Sydney Anglican Diocese would tell me is a duty rather than a temptation). Either way though, that’s hardly lust for power on the same scale!

“All power tends to corrupt” Lord Acton would remind us, but it’s the “absolute power that corrupts absolutely” that is on offer to Jesus. I’ve never been tempted to assume absolute power, and I doubt if many of us here have been either.

My point is a simple one – that the Gospel account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness was probably never intended to be read as an archetype for our own spiritual experience. Jesus’ experience does not parallel our own. There are parallels to be drawn, but not between our experience of temptation and His. The connections in the mind of the Gospel-writer, I believe, are almost certainly with the wilderness concept as such, and with the number forty.

The story of the Torah is, from the book of Exodus onwards, the story of the people of God wandering through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. They wander for forty years rather than forty days. Even so, the parallel is most surely deliberate. Jesus’ forty-day wilderness wandering parallels the journey of the people of God as a whole, and the key point is that what Jesus accomplishes in forty days is what the people of God as a whole fail to do over forty years. Jesus overcomes temptation and thwarts the devil!

The story of the wilderness wandering for the people of Israel is largely a story of failure! I’m not suggesting that their temptation experiences match Jesus’ experience any more precisely than our own do. Even so, broadly speaking, the people of Israel deal with hunger and the need for food, they play power-games, and they struggle not to put the Lord their God to the test!

Jesus’ temptations are like intense condensed versions of the forty years of struggle experienced by the people of God in the desert, and the key point is that Jesus succeeds where they failed. He overcomes temptation and He beats the devil, and the point that the Gospel-writer is making, I believe, is not simply that Jesus is therefore the man, but more so that He is the man who represents the people of God in their battle with the devil!

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our great high priest (Hebrews 4-5), designating Him as the one who represents us to God. Like the high priest of old, Hebrews says, Jesus stands between us and God, representing us to God. I think that’s the sort of role the Gospel-writer envisages for Jesus here too.

I suspect that the closest thing we can approximate this to in our experience is in sport (which is how most Australians experience religion). When we see an Aussie athlete on the Olympic podium, receiving a gold medal, there is a sense in which they represent not simply themselves but all Australians at that moment!

In truth, I tend to be quite cynical of this sort of vicarious sporting accomplishment, and suspect that most of these athletes have their own reasons for training that don’t go beyond their own personal ambitions. Even so, I appreciate that no one who represents their country in any sporting endeavour ever really experiences either victory or defeat alone.

If you’re like me, you probably appreciate this communal dimension of sporting achievement more when it’s someone like Cathy Freeman or Anthony Mundine or someone who self-consciously represents a minority group in the larger community. Even so, as I say, nobody who represents their country or their tribe ever truly experiences either victory or defeat alone.

This coming Friday night I’ll be competing myself, of course, and I’d like to think that when I enter the boxing ring on Friday night that I will, in a very real sense, be representing our church community in that battle.

I appreciate of course that not everybody is going to feel equally connected to me in that endeavour, and I appreciate that I am not solely there as a representative of the parish either. Even so, there are inescapable points of connection. For example, if, by the grace of God, I manage to raise a million dollars this year in boxing, nobody else here will have to worry about how we fund our youth work!

Of course it’s not likely that I’ll raise quite that much. Even so, I’m setting the bar high and I’m full of hope at this stage!

The point is that there are times when one person’s victory is a victory for everybody, and that, I believe, is how the Gospel-writers viewed Jesus’ victory over the devil in the wilderness. It wasn’t just that Jesus showed us that the devil could be beaten.  He shows us that the devil has been beaten! That battle has been fought and the victory has been won – for all of us – and so we don’t have to live in fear of the power of evil any longer!

None of this is to say that spending time in the wilderness is not a good and worthwhile thing to do. Far be it from me to discourage anybody from taking time out from the hustle and bustle of daily life to spend time alone in the wilderness, to pray and to work through your spiritual self-inventory. Taking time out in the wilderness is always a good thing to do. You just don’t need to wait until Lent to do it, and you don’t need to feel that you have to repeat the experience of Jesus when you do.

Self-examination is a good thing. Struggling with our weaknesses and facing our demons is a good and necessary thing. The older I get though the more I appreciate that every step forward we manage to make in this area is just a gift of grace!

Forgive me if that sounds obsequiously pious. I can only say in my defence that this is something I think I’ve learned more from being a boxer than as a priest!

The great thing about being a boxer is that you bleed. When you lose, it hurts, and you bleed. When you win, you still bleed and it still hurts! There is no miraculous formula that allows you to somehow avoid the pain, just as there’s no way of winning every round. You win some but you never win them all.  On the contrary, you get knocked down, you get up again, and if you feel you’re getting ahead by the time the bell goes then you’re thankful, as you always know deep down that you’re made of the same flesh and blood as everybody else.

This is the spiritual life, I believe – one of struggle and failure as well as glory and triumph – but I’m not suggesting that it therefore needs to be a depressing daily grind. On the contrary, it can be a joyous walk, but the key, I believe, is to recognise that the decision on this fight has already been given, and we won! Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), has already won this fight for us.

Jesus was tempted. Jesus resisted. Go Jesus!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 14th of February, 2016.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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