Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.
I’d like to ask you a question this morning. Who is a good example to you of grace under pressure? I’m talking about someone who can rise to a challenge without panicking or taking shortcuts. How would you rate yourself at handling pressure? We’d all like to think we could pass a sudden test or challenge with ease, but then we read the news story about a woman in Illinois who gave birth in the middle of taking her bar exam and we wonder.
She was scheduled to take her bar exam at about the mid-point of her pregnancy. But then the law school postponed the exam for a few months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The new date fell squarely within a few weeks of her due date.
The online bar exam is administered in four 90-minute segments over two days. Her water broke during the first 90-minute segment. She completed the segment, then called her husband, her mother and a midwife. The midwife assured her that she could finish the second 90-minute segment even while undergoing early labor pains. So, Hill finished her second test segment and headed to the hospital to give birth to a precious baby boy.
The next day, she completed the other two segments of the bar exam from her hospital bed while suffering from anemia and lack of sleep. And yes, she passed the exam and got her dream job soon afterwards.
Don’t you just hate people like that? Not only passing the bar exam but giving birth at the same time. I’d rate myself high at handling pressures and unexpected challenges until I hear this story. Passing the bar exam while in labor is a whole different kind of pressure.
In contrast to her story is a story I read about a woman who needed to hire a plumber for a few jobs around the house. She and her husband were surprised when the plumber showed up in a suit and tie. And they were even more surprised when he asked to borrow their tools. He hadn’t brought a single tool with him, not even a pair of pliers. Over the next few hours, it became apparent that this man was completely unprepared for the job. It’s sad to say, but I doubt this man gets much repeat business. It’s hard to put your confidence in a person who doesn’t take the time to prepare.
Our Scripture lesson for this morning is about Jesus’ confronting temptation in the wilderness. On a deeper level, it’s about how our wilderness times are the training ground for experiencing God’s power in our lives.
In Luke 3, Jesus is publicly Baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit comes down on Him in the form of a dove, and God speaks from heaven and confirms Jesus as His beloved Son. Pretty exciting stuff! Jesus must have been feeling pretty good.
And then we read in Luke 4, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil.
Wait, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness where He was tempted by the devil? That sounds like a mistake. Except it isn’t. Look at the stories of every person in the Bible whom God has chosen to do mighty things. They all had to endure a wilderness time, a time of fears and questions and doubts and pain. A time when God seems silent. It’s not a punishment. It’s God’s way of preparing those whom He has called to be leaders. God reserves His greatest work for those who have been through the wilderness. So, we get from today’s story is, if you’re planning to do anything significant with your life, prepare yourself for the wilderness. Preparation is the pathway to power and peace.
A former instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, discovered that many young recruits needed more than just intense physical and mental training. They needed to hear real-life stories of the life-and-death challenges they would face on the field of battle. They could never understand the dangers of warfare from simply reading a textbook.
So, he brought in soldiers who had been through some of the toughest battles, who had been captured by the enemy, who had spent time in prison camps. He recalls the impression that one pilot made on his recruits. This pilot had managed to escape from a Viet Cong prison camp. The young recruits kept asking him questions about the weapons he carried or the training techniques he used to survive. The soldier stopped them with one comment: I survived all right, but it wasn’t because of what I had on me. It was what I had in me that made the difference. What happens if you’re unprepared for your wilderness experience?
Many of us will experience periods of questioning and doubting God. It’s a natural part of our faith journey. But it’s when we’re unprepared for the dark moments of questions and doubts that we’re most likely to reject God’s will for our lives.
There’s going to be pain in the wilderness. Expect it and turn it over to God. It’s not easy. It’s not a one-time decision. It’s a decision that you may have to make ten times a day every day until you come out on the other side of your pain with some new wisdom, some new growth, some new clarity.
It’s a huge step of faith when you’re enduring a wilderness time to say, Lord, I don’t understand why You’ve brought me here. But I’m placing my total trust in You. Please teach me what You want me to learn here. Please make me into the person You want me to be. That’s a painful prayer. But it’s freeing too.
There’s something special that happens in the lives of those who trust their pain to God and refuse to become bitter. One day, when they look back over their lives, they will see that God used their pain to plant seeds of hope and strength in others’ lives. You’ll become a “wilderness guide” for others in need. Someone will thank God for the lessons you taught them with your life. And you’ll be able to look back at your wilderness time, not with bitterness, but with gratitude and joy.
Every answered prayer, every victory, every storm that has been calmed by His presence which keeps us from falling, losing hope, or worse yet, losing our faith. Trusting God to use your pain for His purposes can serve as a anchor to strengthen you to endure your time in the wilderness.
We should focus on our long-term growth more than on our short-term relief. The number one reason people don’t reach their goals is that they trade what they need most for what they want now. That’s a temptation we all face, especially in our spiritual lives. How tragic it would be if we never fulfilled God’s will for our lives because we traded what we need most for what we want now.
It’s almost funny how ineffective Satan’s plan is in this story. He offers to Jesus everything that Jesus already gave up willingly in order to be fully human and walk in our shoes. The first temptation story in the Bible involved Satan tempting Adam and Eve with the question, “Can you be like God?” In Jesus’ encounter in the wilderness, Satan tempts Him with a different question: “Can You be truly human?”
Satan is trying to undo Jesus’ humanity, to undo Jesus’ choice to become Immanuel, God with us. He’s challenging Jesus to take back the power and majesty and authority He left at the throne of God, to question His decision to sacrifice Himself for humanity. Jesus knew that we would reject Him. He knew that we would abandon Him. And He knew that we would kill Him. He endured it all to fulfill God’s eternal plan. And God used His obedience to offer eternal life to all of humanity. As I said at the beginning of this message, God reserves His greatest work for those who have been through the wilderness.
We all have moments in our lives that, when we look back, that define the moment when we realized it as our wilderness experience. Maybe at the time we thought it was the toughest, most painful experience ever and would never wish it on anyone. But we all grow, not because we of our own strength or our victory over the elements, because of what we have with us, but because of what we have inside us. What’s inside you, is what defines you, and what’s inside you is God’s spirit and the fact that you are His child. Baptized through the waters of Holy Baptism and seal with the blood of the Lamb.
Your wilderness experience may be in the past or in the present, or in the not-so-distant future. We all have them because God has a plan for us. Jeremiah 29:11 says …“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. And He will it because His promises are always true.
I pray that someday you’ll look back on your wilderness experience as the greatest moment of strength in your life, the moment when God cleared away other distractions and foolishness and clutter and set you on a new path and formed you into the person you are today. No one reaches their full potential without first being tested. So, prepare yourself for the wilderness. Trust your pain to God. Focus on your eternal purpose more than your immediate circumstances. And see how God can use your wilderness time to prepare you for a greater calling and purpose than you could ever imagine.