TEXT: Matthew 4:1-11


There once was a time out in the Rocky Mountains when the clouds on the mountains got very full. They hung lower and lower until one day they could hold back no longer and rain began to fall from the clouds down onto the mountain peaks. It began slowly, and each droplet of water found a place on the mountaintop, wondering what had happened. At first the droplets felt frightened and alone in this new experience, but as the clouds began to rain more heavily, the droplets soon found they had company. Soon many droplets had come together to form a small stream, and they began to make their way down the mountainside, to make room for the new droplets that were coming.

The stream picked up speed on the way down the mountain and as it rushed on its way, it knocked over stones and moved the dirt of the mountain along with it. Soon the streams began to find one another. Many streams joined together and became a river, and they discovered that together they were very powerful. Now they moved much bigger rocks as they rushed on their way, and when the rocks would not move, they carved their way through them, making deep canyons in places where the rocks thought themselves invincible.

The river rushed on in its mighty power down the mountain, through the canyon, and right up to the edge of the desert. The river could not rush as quickly on the flat ground, and it began to move more slowly. Instead of moving the rocks or making a canyon, all it could do was gently smooth out the rough edges. But the river could see the mountains start up again on the other side of the desert and the river knew if it could just get to the other side, it could go back to being powerful and could once again rush down the mountain, move boulders and carve canyons. So the river set out to cross the desert.

The river found a little hill, and with all its might, it rushed down the hill to the edge of the desert sands. But it could not cross. Every time the water met the sand, it just sank in and disappeared. No matter how many times the river rushed down the hill and into the sand, it could not even begin to cross the desert. The desert just drank the river, and the faster the river came, the more the desert drank.

The river grew angry and then despondent. It looked across the desert and longed for the mountains, where it had known power and freedom. At last the river prayed to God. "God," said the river, "I must cross this desert and get to the mountains. This desert is drinking me so quickly that I will perish if I cannot get to the mountains." God answered the desert. "There is only one way to cross the desert," said God. "You must give yourself up to the desert wind and be carried by the desert itself to the mountains." "No!" said the river. "I will not give myself to the desert. The desert wants to destroy me." And the river threw itself all the harder at the desert sands. But the river could not even begin to cross, and the desert drank and drank and drank.

Finally, some of the droplets in the river gave up. "What does it matter?" they asked themselves. If we keep rushing into the desert sands, we will die. Why not try trusting ourselves to the desert wind? If we die, that was our fate anyway, but if we don't, we might cross the desert as God has said. We have nothing to lose." And so, one brave droplet called for the desert wind. With a great burning rush, the wind swept across the desert, blowing the sand as if it were nothing. It came and hovered over the river, and the river could feel its hot breath.

The one droplet who had called, looked at the fiery face of the wind. It shuddered for a moment, took one last look toward the mountains and then bowed its head. The other droplets watched, holding their breath, as their companion vanished in a puff of steam and rose into the hot wind. Another droplet did the same and another and another, until the river itself did not have enough left to resist the heat of the wind.

The droplets were all quiet in the wind, too frightened to notice that they were not alone or that the wind was slowly carrying all of them across the desert sands. By the time the wind reached the mountains, it had grown heavy with its load. It labored up the side of the mountain. It was losing its fierce heat as it traveled farther from the hot sands. Finally it lost its strength and could hold itself no longer. It began to rain. At first the droplets felt frightened and alone in this new experience, but soon they found each other and joined together to form a stream. The stream began to run down the mountain, and the wind, now free of its burden, whistled as it ran back to the desert.

It is tempting to end the sermon right there. This old folktale about the river, the wind and the desert is the story of our Christian experience. We step with faith into the unknown and discover that we have stepped into joy and power. But just as the going gets good, we come up against the desert, and it threatens to drink us dry. What is a desert doing in our Christian lives? How come everything isn't smooth sailing once we embrace the faith? How did we get from the glorious, exciting mountains into the barren wilderness?

I think the account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness has some clues. How did Jesus end up there? Did the devil drag him there? No. Did sinful people push him there? No. Perhaps the oddest part of the whole story is the very first sentence. "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." Jesus did not end up in the wilderness with the devil as some cruel twist of fate. It was God who sent Jesus into the desert, knowing full well what awaited him there. That's going to take some thinking through.

It was the same in Exodus. The Israelites leave Egypt and end up in the desert. The desert was not the quickest or most direct route to Canaan from Egypt. It was the long-way round. But Israel didn't end up there because Moses forgot his compass. Israel ended up in the desert because God, in the form of a cloud by day and a fiery pillar by night, led them there. In both Exodus and Matthew, the desert experience is ordained by God. God goes with the Israelites, and we see angels coming to sustain Jesus--God is in the desert, but he doesn't follow us there, he leads us there.

This is not the way we are used to thinking, and yet from the witness of nature as we heard in the story to the witness of Scripture, it appears that the fierce disciplines of the desert are somehow necessary to our lives. In our world, we tend to think that anything that causes us pain or difficulty is bad, and those who inflict pain or difficulty are evil. On the flip side, whatever increases our comfort and happiness is good. We are so ingrained in that way of thinking, it becomes almost impossible to think of God leading us into the desert without also saying that God is evil.

But that is exactly the possibility that I want us to try to imagine this morning. Suppose God does in fact lead us into the dangerous and terrifying wilderness and suppose that is a good thing. Notice how the devil tempts Jesus. The devil is not trying to make Jesus suffer. The devil is offering a way out of the suffering. Hungry? Make yourself some bread. Having a hard time convincing people who you are? Give them a show--throw yourself off the temple--you know God will catch you. Want to help all those poor lost souls out there? You don't need to go to any cross or have any pain--just worship me, and I'll give you all of it. You don't need to take the hard road.

Most of the time, the offerings of the devil are offerings of ease and comfort, while the message of the Gospel is that of Cross and suffering. The message of the Cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, and it is still a stumbling block for us today. We can't hear Cross with the devil yelling "Comfort" so loudly in our ears. Where is the church vibrant and alive? Where it is persecuted. Where is the church dead? Where it is rich and comfortable. It is those who have an easy life, Scripture tells us, who will have a hard time getting into the Kingdom of God. Read the beatitudes--who is blessed? The poor, the hungry, the mournful...those in the wilderness. It is all over Scripture, crowned with a suffering Messiah who himself prayed in the Garden for an easier path and was told "no."

And yet we find ourselves in the desert and say, "Look what the devil has done to me." I may stand alone in this, but I don't think the devil has much to gain by inflicting suffering. He can do much, much more with ease and pleasure. When we suffer, our minds are turned toward the ultimate questions of life. When you live in the desert, you discover the things that are truly important in life. Suffering evokes questions of justice and peace and love and community and of our relationship to God and creation. We might be mad at God, but for many of us, it is the first time that God's name has come up. To be mad at God is at least to acknowledge his existence and the belief that he has the power to get us out of whatever we're in.

Throughout Scripture, suffering and salvation are linked. Do we have to suffer to be saved? I don't know, but I think there's a good chance that we do. Our sufferings may be of different types, but I have a hard time imagining how someone living in this world could be obedient to Christ without following him into the wilderness and ultimately to the Cross. It might be more comfortable to believe that, but I don't think Scripture supports it.

I know this is not the way we are used to thinking, and maybe it seems jarring or even blasphemous as you listen to it. But try to imagine what the world would be like if Christians thought that way. I know in my own life, most if not all of my sins have been committed because I was trying to avoid suffering. Think about it. We lie to avoid punishment or shame or perhaps to help someone else avoid suffering. We withhold from the poor to avoid being in want ourselves or to avoid the accusation that we are enabling dysfunctional behavior. We shun those who are different from ourselves out of fear that the culture might begin to label us as unfit or unwanted. The list goes on and on.

Think about your own life and try to come up with times that you have sinned, either by doing something wrong or failing to do something right, that has not been ultimately a result of the fear of suffering or the want of pleasure. In my own life, I can't come up with any.

Given that, what would it mean for our Christian lives if we saw suffering as one of the marks of our faith. Suppose we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God always goes before us into the desert and that no matter how terrible the pain, God was using the desert to teach us, to shape us, and to strengthen us for battle in the front lines. What would our military be like if we trained recruits in lawn chairs on tropical islands? Can we possibly think that the training for God's special forces should be a cake walk?

Now be careful--this is not a call to go home and beat yourselves. I'm not saying go inflict suffering on people to save them, or that those oppressed by cruelty should sit back and glory in their suffering.† To glory in our sufferings is one of the devil's last-ditch temptations.† Iím not saying that God causes all of our sufferings. I'm not even saying that it is wrong to pray that the suffering might be taken from us. Jesus prayed for that in the Garden, and if he did it, we should feel no qualms about doing it either. I AM saying that I believe the witness of Scripture, both in the printed word and in the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, is that the people of God are formed in the desert. And the desert will drink us dry unless we call to the desert itself and give ourselves into the hands of the fiery Spirit who led us there.

Don't mistake the Spirits, just because the breath is hot and the transformation painful. The maker of the mountains also made the desert, and if we follow him, he will one day lead us there. We don't know what we will find in the fierceness of the desert. The Israelites found manna and quail, water from a rock and the law of God. They found themselves together and emerged as a nation. Jesus found the devil there. His strength was tested.† He also found angels to comfort him, and he emerged ready to save the world. Both Israel and Jesus found that God was with them in the desert. God led them in, God dwelt among them, God transformed them, and God led them out.

Do not fear the desert. You will be thirsty, you will be tried to the breaking point. It will hurt, you will cry. But God is there, and God will use your time in the desert to save your soul and the souls of others. You are not being punished in the desert, God has not abandoned you. God is saving you in the fierceness, and when you are spent, the wind of God will carry you back to the mountains, the angels will come to minister.

God in the mountains, God in the desert, God in the Cross, God in our hearts. Always and everywhere, God.† Amen.

Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson

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