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Food, Faith & Fellowship

FOOD IN THE BIBLE – JESUS IN THE WILDERNESS – NOT A MEAL!

In our new series of FFF’s based on feasts, faith and fellowship, it may seem odd but the first one in the series was not only NOT a feast, there was no food whatsoever, as we consider the 40 days of Jesus being in the wilderness. So no food, complete fasting.

So my first question – 2 minutes with your neighbour.

Have you ever fasted and if so, for what reason?
For how long and how did it make you feel?

Has anyone ever fasted for religious purposes? How was that?

If we’re thinking about food and the fact that Jesus ate nothing, then this FFF is now finished! You may be pleased to know, but instead I want to share with you some thoughts on the wilderness or desert experience that Jesus went through and what that may have to say to us.

Wilderness or desert places are a recurring theme in the Bible. With few exceptions: the ‘great names' of the Bible were 'wilderness’ people. Though born in the small city of Ur, Abraham spent his middle and old age, in the ‘wilderness’ into which God had called him. There Abraham learned the will of God; and discovered how to obey it. There he received love and grace, and all the things he needed to become the Founding Father of the new people of God.

In Bible terms, the 'wilderness' is always a place of both physical and spiritual journeying and discovery. Isaac and Jacob wandered there; and Jacob, in particular, became a changed man through the experience and his wrestling with God.

Moses wandered in the 'wilderness', during the later years of his life. He discovered much about the power of God, and, to his surprise, became the man appointed to share with the nation of Israel what it means to be the 'People of God'.

Elijah the prophet, wandered in the 'wilderness' for three years; waiting for God’s instructions until the day came for him to return to Israel, and help restore true faith and practice to the nation.

John the Baptist lived many years in the 'wilderness'. There he discovered what his mission and purpose was, as God spoke to him. In so doing, John became the forerunner of Christ. And it is his wilderness experience that has much to teach us.

Jesus has gone from the highs of his baptism by John in the Jordan and then depending on which Gospel you read, Jesus was either led by the Spirit into the Wilderness or driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Either way, after his baptism and before his ministry begins Jesus finds himself in the wilderness.

Watch video…(Youtube clip “Jesus in the wilderness)

Then – 5 minutes

What do you feel as you watch the video?
What about the way Satan is portrayed?
Some people don’t believe in Satan. How do you feel about him?

The wilderness, for Jesus was a place of tempting, a place of hunger, but also a place of formation and transformation. So, in that place where Jesus received no food for 40 days, it wasn’t all bad! And neither is the wilderness always a bad place for us.

Many milestones mark Jesus’ early life. His memorable birth, his refugee status in Egypt, his first visit to the Temple in Jerusalem to his testing in the wilderness.

Mark sums up the latter in a nutshell:

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” At once the same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him.”

Jesus’ desert contest with Satan is played out against a particular background.

For 30 years Jesus had lived in obscurity. His relationship with his Father has deepened. He has grown aware that he possessed exceptional powers. He has realised that one day, when the time is right, he must leave Nazareth. Something within him tells him that John’s emergence from the desert is his cue. Saying goodbye to his home, he journeys to the Jordan where he witnesses the crowds hungry for God, who have flocked to listen to his cousin speak.

Wanting to identify himself with this growing tide of resurgence of the desire for God that is taking the nation by storm, Jesus descends into the waters for baptism. Rising from the Jordan, he prays. While he’s praying he hears God speak directly to his heart “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” A love that does not embrace Jesus for what he does – his public ministry has not yet begun, but a love that enfolds him simply because he is.

He leaves the banks of the Jordan with a mandate: to fulfil his costly Messianic role – to usher in the kingdom of God. He is surrounded by hundreds of people whose hearts are wide open to welcome the good news of the Kingdom. The crowd is ready. He’s ready. Jesus is on the starting blocks. Surely the time for his ministry has begun? Isn’t this the moment he has been waiting for?

In a sense “yes”, but also “no”. God’s Spirit doesn’t allow him to preach or teach. Instead, the Spirit silences him and drives him to the desert. A valuable lesson for us – ok, for me – before a person acts or speaks they need space and time to listen. The Spirit knows that at the outset of him ministry, this is a lesson Jesus must learn.

Is he reluctant to go? Mark uses a very forceful word “ekballo” that means to thrust away, to push, to drive, to send him to the desert. There is a definite sense of urgency about it. Possibly, he’s reluctant to go – Jesus is probably raring to get on with meeting the people. But there is no choice and he obeys. He exchanges the eager faces, hungry eyes and clamouring questions of the crowd for a different set of companions – the wild beasts that live in the desert; the angels that support him, his arch-rival, Satan and above all, God the Father, who always accompanies all who enter desert places.

The desert – is a place of devastation

Picture Jesus reaching the Judean desert – a 35 mile by 15 mile stretch of wilderness that is so terrifying that it’s known as “The devastation”. Here he is surrounded by long stretches of sand, crumbling, blistering, limestone, scattered shingle hills that look like dust heaps and bare, jagged rocks. The ground shimmers and glows with heat as intense as a furnace; ground that sounds hollow to the footsteps, ground from which towers contorted strata, with warped and twisted ridges running in all directions. Terrain that leads to spectacular cliff edges – a 1200 foot drop of limestone and flint which, via a series of crags and precipices, eventually reaches the Dead Sea.

Imagine sleeping night after night under the black star studded night, after the intensity of the daytime, intensely cold. The sounds of night – wild animals scurrying for food, crying out in the darkness.

And yet a place of silence – utterly alone, no other human contact for miles. A place that provides him with the solitude he needs to answer the question that has been exercising him since he left the Jordan “How am I going to win the world for the Father?” He’s been turning this question over for 40 days as he’s walked and slept; prayed and fasted. It’s vital that he does so. The Spirit has thrust him into the desert to force him to think strategically. Do you ever think about Jesus being a strategic thinker? His way ahead is fraught with difficulties and dangers. As steel is tested in fire to prove its strength, so the Son of God must endure the fierce testing of the desert. The Spirit intends that Jesus will emerge from the test with clarity of vision and clear goals, equipped and empowered for the challenges ahead.

The leader of the opposition party – Satan, has other ideas. So before Jesus can step back into the mission field, he attempts to derail him.

The desert – is a place of temptation

We know how the enemy works. The Bible tells us “he is a subtle as a serpent and as ruthless as the lion.”

He attacks our minds with doubts and fear. He distorts the truth in such a way that our minds become confused and befuddled. He’s cunning, manipulative, intimidating, he fills us with fear and encourages us to focus on ourselves.

“Look after no. 1” he whispers to Jesus. “Use your miraculous powers to make life more comfortable for yourself. Turn these stones into bread…!

Jesus hasn’t eaten for 6 weeks. Satan’s suggestions sound so sensible, so plausible and so right – on one level. Yet on another level, they’re questionable. The battle of the minds begins. Jesus’ motto is “Your will, not mine” you’ll see it throughout his life. So how can it be right to use his miraculous powers for himself. They are to be used as the Father directions, not as the Son wishes. Yet, Jesus is hungry, faint, full of fear. Is this the kind of war that rages in his mind and heart before he responds with a resounding “Away from me Satan.”? Probably. The Jesus of the desert is the human Jesus – tempted in every way as we are.

“Impress that clamouring crowd. Jump from the pinnacle of the temple. They’ll love it… they’ll love you. They’ll flock to you. It’s the kind of thing they expect” the tempter whispers again. Doe he also fill Jesus with a fear of failure? Does he force Jesus to focus on the seeming impossibility of the task. A lion tears at its prey. Does Satan tear at Jesus’ heart and will creating inner havoc, smothering him with a blanket of despair, tying his minds in knots so that he can no longer think clearly? Probably. Such things bear the hallmarks of the enemy’s tactics.

“Come over to my side. I’m the prince of the world. I’ll stop competing with you and give you what you want – the world and it’s people.”

What an alluring suggestion for a man now weakened by fasting and wearied with so many suggestions and counter suggestions. But he’s the beloved. He’s focused on the Fathers love. He’s been strengthened and renewed by it. It’s a love that flows both ways. Love for the Father reigns and deep within strength rises, dislodging doubt, fear and the desire to capitulate, it erupts and a definitive resolve.

I refuse to live for self
I refuse to seek popularity
I will not crave for possessions
I refuse to seek power for myself

Round one of a life-long battle is over. Jesus returns to the still hungry crowd transformed, triumphant and energised. Not simply Spirit-filled, but Spirit empowered, purposeful and ready to begin his ministry.

For each of us there will be variations on the themes of Jesus temptations to seek popularity, possessions, prestige or power, to let life revolve around us rather than God and others.

Temptations come when we’re lonely, stressed. They come when we’re near to God – no need to bother otherwise.

When are the times you are most likely to give into temptation?
So, the desert is a place of temptation

The desert – a place of solitude

Jesus never forgot the value of the wilderness, it’s a place he willingly returned to again and again. Throughout his ministry he seeks solitude – retreating to places where, in silence he is reassured of the Fathers’ love for him, where he seeks healing for the wounds inflicted verbally on him by friends and enemies alike. He finds places of solitude to get God’s perspective before making crucial decisions. He is drawn to places where he can open himself again to God’s strength, wisdom and direction as he prepares for particular tasks or as he recovers from them.

These times of solitude recharge his emotional, spiritual and physical batteries. Befriending and working with people drains us of energy that needs to be replenished. And Jesus is almost always surrounded by people, wanting time, attention, some need or other.

Besides his disciples Jesus was rarely without a crowd around him. His own personal space was constantly invaded – not just in terms of time but in actual physical contact. Throughout the gospels a picture builds of someone under incessant pressure.

Jesus ensures that priority is given to days away. Throughout his life he fleshes out the resolve he’s made in the wilderness “your will, not mine”. A Catholic writer says this of Jesus “He is not in bondage to the need to achieve, nor neurotic about the success of his mission, nor puffed up by popularity, he is free.”

And because he is free, he flatly refuses to submit to “the tyranny of the urgent”. He refused to allow the disciples or the crowd or the Pharisees or anyone else dictate the agenda. He lets God set the agenda and he says a firm “no” to anything that is clearly not from God.

Jesus made it a discipline in his life to return to the wilderness whenever there was a need for spiritual refreshment or enabling.

Mark 1:35 says: ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’. There are enough similar texts, to show that Jesus made a regular practice of going back to the ‘wilderness' and they imply that he invites us to follow his example.

In spiritual terms, the wilderness offers retreat from the mundane things of life, where in the quietness; the deeper things of God can be found and discovered. It is a place to return from, in order to undertake particular tasks; and a place to return to, when further resource is needed.

Where are the places you go to re-charge your spiritual batteries?
Do you have a special place?
How do you keep your relationship with Jesus focussed?
Have you ever been on a retreat? Details?
Would you ever go on a retreat?

The desert – is a place for us

Since Jesus was so radically formed by the wilderness, his life-motto “written” and crystallised; his goals clarified; envisioned and empowered and re-energized with love, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves in a desert-like place. Instead of feeling guilty or afraid to admit that we’re wandering in a spiritual wilderness, perhaps like Jesus we should accept the worst and best the wilderness offers?

Perhaps if we did we could look back on our wilderness experiences with awe and gratitude, certainly with a different prospective? Perhaps this would enable us to learn more from the wilderness lessons.

Wilderness experiences make a positive contribution to life – if we let them.

In our spiritual journeys, it does not take us very long to find our personal wilderness. What do we discover there; and how do we respond to what we find? Are we afraid? Is our wilderness a place that is parched and barren? Is it lonely; desolate or sad? Do we wander alone, feeling that we’ve lost contact with God, with others – even ourselves. The wilderness has been called a place of abandonment so our prayer could be an echo of Jesus words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

From the experience of Jesus, and from our own, we know that the 'wilderness' can be a place of trial and temptation. In overcoming, Jesus clearly demonstrated the enabling power of the true 'wilderness' experience; particularly when he returned from that place, and began his ministry.

And so it can be with us, the 'wilderness' is the place where deeper levels of God’s love are found; and the place to which there must often be a returning.

Ii is a place of purpose given and grace received. It can be constructive, positive. A working out of a spiritual discontent. Wilderness experiences can help to refresh our vision, and restore our sense of direction and purpose, as we seek to follow where Christ leads. An active waiting - though our waiting in the wilderness is different!

How do the psalmist put it? ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning’ (Psalm 130: 5+6) ... alert ... expectant...ready! It is a time of great reward, once the waiting is over!

We may enjoy the 'peak' or mountain top experiences of our lives of faith, because these bring their own refreshment, and encouragement; but in actual fact real spiritual growth and development is often to be found in the 'wilderness' that we have sometimes feared.

In our 'wilderness' experiences there is new life, and refreshment. In that place, we too, are attended just as Christ was: but, in our case, not by angels, but by Jesus himself.

God sometimes needs to push us into the desert until we learn valuable lessons. It may well be that we often go wrong because we fear the wilderness and are afraid to be alone. But there are certain things that a person has to work out alone. There are times when no-one else’s advice is good enough. There are times when a person has to stop acting and start thinking. It may be that we make mistakes in life because we do not give ourselves chance to be alone with God.

A life without a lonely place or a quiet centre can easily become shallow or lacking direction. The busier life is the more need there is for a quiet centre, a place to withdraw after the day-to-day storms. A place where we can reflect on experience or make sense of life. A place to mull over events or savour them more fully. A place where we can listen to what our feelings and fears are saying to us, and above all, what God is saying. All these things pass us by, like scenery from an express train window, if we do not learn to stop and stand still at times and do some stock taking and reviewing. God refused to allow Jesus to ride on such a spiritual roller-coaster. It’s not a healthy place to be. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after the Father had reminded him that he was a much cherished child.

We may be busy, busy, busy in God’s service and yet have no deep down awareness that God loves us uniquely. We can be so busy working for him, we neglect our relationship with him. In todays spiritual climate we may find ourselves drawn into the desert so that God can whisper into our love hungry hearts. This is vital for our survival. Only when we are rooted and grounded in love will we discover the resilience and the desire to resist the tempter and place our feet into the footsteps of Christ.

Like Jesus, we can be transformed by the desert experience. It may feel a place of devastation and abandonment and a place where we would rather NOT visit - we can all testify to those experiences, but it is always a place of growth, a place of replenishment and a special place of overwhelming love.

So, no food for Jesus in the wilderness, but food for the soul instead.

What is the “motto” (like Jesus’ “your will, not mine”) that governs your life, attitudes and behaviour?
Who, or what, is setting the agenda for your life?
If you don’t have a “special place” could you find one and commit to going to it alone on a regular basis?

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