Into the Wild Within

Preacher: Randall Westfall

Scripture: Synthesis of Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13 (Hart, NASB, NET)

By day four the hunger pangs subsided. And in their place another kind of hunger emerged. 

I’d been in this secluded Pacific northwest wilderness for half a week with nothing but the clothes on my back and the knowledge and skillset that was now being put to the test. It was called Survival Week, the culminative rite of my nine-month deep nature connection training. I arrived at this juncture of my journey because I had experienced a spiritual dryness. The contemporary form of the church was no longer keeping my spirit green. I sought solace in an ancient rite hoping for what Thoreau called “the tonic of wildness” to water my dry roots. 

And that night while tending my small fire, I experienced what I can only describe as a numinous warming in my heart. And I remembered. My biblical ancestors experienced this same ancient rite. They too had known the feeling of hunger and loneliness in wild spaces. The fire of God’s presence was now made manifest in my own isolation from the world. I spent the rest of that night doing something I had not yet done since arriving days earlier. I prayed. Apart from foraging on a few wild edibles, I was already fasting, so prayer only made sense. I must have prayed the Taizé song Veni, Sancte Spiritus a thousand times that night. 

And as I awoke the next morning, the weariness had dissipated. My hunger, gone. No longer was this to be a test of my physical ability to survive, rather my ability to thrive in the Spirit. In this threshold space of testing myself and intentional cultural deprivation, my life’s vocation was given new meaning. My body had absorbed the wild tonic and my spiritual roots replenished by the Spirit of God. And I will testify that the man that emerged from the forest a week later, was not the same one that went in.

That was twelve years ago. 

Two years ago, during the onset of the pandemic, I recognized that we were being thrust into a threshold space and rather than trying to fight it by getting back to normal, I created another wilderness rite of passage. This time, for 4 hours a day in the wilderness for 40 days (an equivalent of 10 days total). This message is my attempt to speak to the fruits of those liminal experiences. Even then, whether it was seven full days in the wilderness or the equivalent of ten days in the wilderness still only amounted to less than a fourth of the time Jesus was in the Judean wilderness. 

I’ve come to believe that what may end up saving/reviving the church in this age, is our ability to fully live into the liminal spaces in our lives, both literally and metaphorically, so that we might fully encounter God’s Holy Spirit and be tested in a way that reveals the truth of who we are, who the church really is. So, let’s dive into this Lenten text and journey with Jesus in the wilderness. 

  • Thanks to Tim Mackie for helping with a few points of clarity and richness to this text.

Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, immediately left the Jordan and was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the Accuser.

  • Following his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus is driven by the Spirit to this arid bioregion known as the Judean Wilderness. 
    • Word driven in Greek is the same word used when Jesus drove demons out of people. He’s being forcefully compelled, and he doesn’t have a say in the matter.
  • The Judean Wilderness extends from the mountainous region of western Judea to the Dead Sea in the east. Its mountains, cliffs, hills, and plateaus are interrupted by riverbeds and canyons, which have drop offs as much as 1500 feet. This land is both inviting and inhospitable; breathtaking and unforgiving. 
  • The Greek word eremia used for wilderness in this passage describes not a desolate place lacking in vegetation, rather a place of solitude that lacks population. This landscape will serve as a threshold space for Jesus to endure physical, emotional, and spiritual tests. We might be tempted to not see the Judean Wilderness as an additional character in this passage. Make no mistake. It is. 
  • And driven by the Spirit to do what? Be tempted by the Accuser. 
    • Tempted (Gk. peirazo) to tempt or to test
    • In western mind, “tempt” is often referred to in the negative but it can be meant to draw out good qualities as well i.e. Pharisees peirazo Jesus. 
  • In truth, a test is meant to reveal the truth, in this case the truth of who Jesus really is.
  • He is not alone. The Spirit is with him, has been since his baptism.

He was with the wild animals, and after fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

  • In Pre-Hellenistic times, remaining unharmed by large predators was a sign of a true prophet
    • The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures interacted with lions and bears
    • The mention of wild animals/beasts is meant to serve as a verification of divine protection and favor. 
  • Now I’m not sure how many of you have any wilderness living training but there is a rule that I teach all my wilderness campers. It’s called the Rule of 3’s and if only I had one of my former wilderness campers among us…. wait a minute… I do. I’ll let him tell you what the Rule of 3’s is. (Cue Zander).
    • 3 minutes without air; 3 hours exposure to extreme weather conditions; 3 days without water; 3 weeks without food; 3 months without human contact. 
  • A true fast is only without food, not water. We can go 3 weeks without food, but only about 3 or so without water. 
    • Some have suggested that it was a desert fast, only eating what the desert would have provided. Jesus would have had limited water resources but could have gotten water from succulent desert plants and still be considered a fast. 
    • It said he was hungry, not thirsty. 
  • The length of time is symbolic as well
    • Moses’ 40 days without food on the mountain (Ex. 34:28). 
    • Elijah’s 40 days in flight to the mountain of God (1 Kgs. 19: 4-8). 
    • It’s a similar narrative to Israel wandering the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years
      • out of Egypt, pass through waters, wander the wilderness, the number 40 
  • The etymological root of quarantine means “40 days”.
    • First used in the Venetian language and France in 14th and 15th centuries
    • Designated in the period during which all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague.
    • A fitting note in history for our recent times of lockdown and quarantine. 
  • Jesus’ eremia testing encounter will be a forty-day quarantine from both the political oppression of Rome and the religious oppression of the Pharisees. It will be a season of preparation and give meaning for his mission and ministry. 

And drawing near, the Tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written, humans shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

  • This is a departure from the Hebrew wilderness tradition where angelic beings are encountered (Jacob wrestling, Hagar’s protection etc). This time, it’s not an angelic presence but a demonic one. 
    • Afraid of wilderness? Why has church lost its wilderness tradition?
  • So, you’re the Son of God huh… what are you doing out here in the wilderness starving? 
    • Tempter takes advantage of our vulnerability, hunger, anger, hangry 
    • You can solve this problem yourself by turning these stones into bread. 
    • This undermines Jesus’ trust in God. 
  • Bread alone: You can have food, clothing, shelter and still not be flourishing.
    • We need purpose/meaning/story/community/belonging and Word from Creator to reveal truth about ourselves. 
  • Jesus: The Word of God is more real than the circumstance I find myself in.

Then the Tempter took him to the holy city and had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “cast yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Conversely, Jesus said to him, “It is also written: “Do not put the Lord Your God to the test.” 

  • Jesus has a vision and is in an in-between/liminal space (i.e. Ezekiel, prophets) where Satan takes him to the temple (where God’s presence is most felt)
  • Satan engages in rabbinical debate and quotes Psalm 91 using “So you’re the Son of God, huh?”
    • Employs new tactic of triple dog dare tapping into a “prosperity gospel thinking” that God gives you health, wealth, and prosperity… so long as you believe, name, and claim it. 
    • PSA folks: Scripture can be used to oppose obedience to God and to undermine the purposes of God. It’s why we need to study and know the Scriptures. 
  • Jesus: quotes Deut. 6, Look, God tests us, we don’t test God.

Again, the tempter took him to a very high mountain and displayed to him all the kingdoms of the world. “All of this has been given to me and I can give it to anyone I wish,” he said, “it will all be yours, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” 

  • Another in-between/liminal world now on a great mountain, it had to be so because there are not mountains in the Judean wilderness east of the Jordan. 
  • Third time’s a charm, right? This time Satan does not lead out with Son of God language, rather goes right to the power trip
    • What kind of King are you? What kind of Kingdom do you want?
      • Cuz, if these kingdoms are what you’re after, I can deliver the goods. Just take a knee and revere me. 
  • Jesus has been cool and calm but now shows emotion: Get the @#$! out of here! There’s only one God whom I serve, and you aren’t it!

Having exhausted every temptation, the Tempter departed from him until an opportune time. And angels came and attended him.

  • Another opportune time: casting out demons, rebuking Peter as Satan; Judas’s betrayal
    • Oh yeah, there were other opportune times. 
  • The defeat and departure of Satan can only be marked by the return of his holy counterparts and in the tradition of Elijah and Hagar, angelic messengers attended to Jesus likely with food and water.

Check-in: Okay, how are you folks doing? Feeling like you’ve endured a theological wilderness? 

Then let us feast on the fruits of this passage. 

  • In the many times that I have intentionally cultivated a liminal/threshold/thin space amidst creation, I have discovered the Wild Within my own soul… The changes are profound. What emerged on the other side didn’t look like what entered. That’s what ritual, threshold spaces will do to you. 
    • The fiercer the landscape or situation, then greater is the need to navigate the inner terrain of the soul as well. If allowed, the outer terrain will act as a mirror.
  • As we read of Jesus’ wilderness rite, we see how he reenters Galilee with a razor focus about his ministry and mission.
    • As the author of Hebrews wrote in 4:15:  For Jesus is not some high priest who has no sympathy for our weaknesses and flaws. He has already been tested in every way that we are tested; but He emerged victorious, without failing God. (The Voice translation)
  • After that, the wilderness solitude time is not a time for testing, but a time for resting, and recharging.
    • You see, before discipleship in Jesus, the wilderness is a scary place but once you rest in Jesus it morphs into a place for retreat, recharge, restoration, and renewal meant to give you clarity when you reenter the ordinary world.
  • As we attempt to live more deeply during this Lenten season, may we experience it the way that the early church understood it, as a 40-day wilderness sojourn into a liminal/sacred/thin space where we are both tested and tended by the Spirit. 
    • That’s the intention behind “giving something up” for Lent. A wilderness fast and cultural deprivation. 
    • If we aren’t co-creating that space with the help of the Spirit (remember the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness), then perhaps we haven’t fully understood the Lenten season. 
      • We too, must be “led by the Spirit” so that our relationship with and reliance upon God is fully revealed.
      • Otherwise, life circumstances will create it for you in seasons where trials, pain, grief, and loss weigh heavy on our hearts. 
    • For many, the inner terrain of their psyches and souls can be as unforgiving as the Judean Wilderness. And that is when the Tempter draws near, when we are most vulnerable. 
  • That’s when you will start to hear voices (internally and externally)
  • If you are a son of God… If you are a daughter of the King…
  • Are you going to tell me that God loves you? 
  • Look at your life. Look at the decisions you’ve made. 
  • This whole thing is a circus and fantasy.
  • You can solve this problem yourself. 
  • These powers and principalities that dehumanize and degrade you and the social injustices and oppression of the world are in direct opposition to love, health, wholeness, and the peace that Christ gives us. And they are evil.
  • Brothers and sisters in Christ, modeling ourselves on all that is Jesus, we then have but only once response to point to the door and say: 
    • Get the @#%! out of here! You do not define me and my life.
    • For my life is rooted in the Word of God made alive by Jesus. Amen. 

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