"Struggle in the Wilderness"
Scripture - Matthew 4:1-11
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, February 22, 2015

Emily Kingsley says people often ask her to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability. She says it's like this: When you are going to have a baby, it is like planning a fabulous vacation to Italy. You buy a batch of guide books and make your plans. The Coliseum! Michelangelo's David! The gondolas in Venice! You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It is all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you fly. Several hours later, the plane lands and the flight attendant says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there has been a change in the flight plan. You have landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing to keep in mind is that you have not been taken to a disgusting place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. But it is a different place, so you must go out and buy new guide books. You must learn a whole new language. And, you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It is a different place than where you imagined you were going. But after you have been there a while and catch your breath, you look around and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills...Holland has tulips...Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going to Italy and they are all bragging about what a wonderful time they had. And for the rest of your life, you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never go away...because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you did not get to Italy, you may never be free to appreciate the lovely things about Holland.1

Some know what it is to have a child with a physical disability or a mental illness. Some know what it is to have sights set on one career only to settle for another. Some know the freedom of having the children move out of the house, only to have an aging parent tie them down. Some struggle with financial problems that keep them from realizing their dreams. Do you know what it is to set your sights on Italy, but to land in Holland?

Could this have been the experience of Jesus? He did not launch his ministry until he was in his late twenties, perhaps 30. What he did prior to that is unknown, but we can assume it included years of working with his hands and hours of study. Reading the gospels, we discover that Jesus quotes the Torah, the Psalms and the prophets. He also had a large repertoire of parables, aphorisms and beatitudes.

Before he began his ministry, Jesus met up with his cousin John the Baptist. John had made a name for himself as a fiery preacher calling on people to turn their lives around - to sync their lives with God. Jesus stepped into the Jordan and, after an initial hesitation, John baptized him. As Jesus came up from the water, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Today's passage describes the next day. Jesus walks into the wilderness to craft his mission statement and to engage in strategic planning. During these forty days alone in the harsh, dry and dangerous environment, I assume Jesus was pondering how to make his ministry a success - to teach people about the love of God, to heal the infirmed, to impart the wisdom that leads to meaningful lives. It is not a stretch to imagine him making plans to convert the religious establishment that had veered off course.

While he is conducting his personal wilderness retreat - collecting his dreams for a remarkable ministry - in the darkness another figure slips up behind him and puts him to the test. "You must be famished. Why not turn these stones into bread? You need to seize the attention of the crowds with an amazing stunt. Why not jump from the pinnacle of the temple and let God catch you? If you plan to make a difference, you need to occupy a seat of power. You can have all the kingdoms of the world."

The wilderness does not turn out to be a serene spiritual retreat where Jesus connects with God and all is bliss. The wilderness turns out to be a struggle - a place of testing and temptation.

Perhaps after Jesus rebuffed the temptations and demonstrated his devotion to God, he anticipated success after success. After all, he had passed the exam.

It was not to be. The challenges kept coming. Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and spoke in the synagogue. It is an understatement to say that his first sermon did not go well. Following his brief message, the people were outraged. They ran him out of town, intent on throwing him off a cliff. But he escaped.

Surely Jesus must have thought, "This is not the way it was supposed to unfold. I was planning to go to Italy. How did I end up here?"

Some periods of life may be more of a struggle than others, but the challenges never really cease, do they? Throughout our lives we experience times of testing, times of struggle. We do not ask for these challenges, life simply tosses them our way. Is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges of life so that they do not push us off the cliff?

If we study Jesus to see what gave him enough strength to overcome the temptations he faced, we see that it is the same thing that gave him the fortitude to run the gauntlet he faced right up until the end. He put God first in his life. He took to heart the word God spoke time and again through the prophets: the test people of faith must pass is how well we care for the most vulnerable among us.

The season of Lent calls for a healthy self-examination. It is not a time to call ourselves wretched, to think poorly of ourselves or to whip ourselves up into a state of guilt. The season of Lent urges us to undergo an honest and mature self-examination. We are to look at the thoughts and behaviors that create distance between who we are and the person God calls us to be, and then commit ourselves to chopping down the distance.

Pose these six questions to yourself. Where are the opportunities for me to be generous? Whom do I need to forgive? How can I become more patient? Whom can I help heal? How can I cultivate a grateful heart? Who needs a boost?

Langdon Gilkey went to China in 1941 to teach English. In February of 1943, the Japanese invaders rounded up all the foreign nationals: business people, missionaries, teachers, young women and put them in internment camps. Langdon ended up in a walled-in school with 1,400 people.

They were given meager amounts of food, so they devised ways to divide it between single people and families, between children and elderly, across lines of religion and nationality. They put great effort into making sure everyone was treated fairly.

In December 1944, a truck full of food parcels was delivered by the American Red Cross. The boxes were piled high in the center of the courtyard, 1550 boxes of much needed food. There were only 200 Americans in the compound. The Japanese did the math and declared that every person would get one parcel and the Americans would get one and a half. The whole camp cheered.

Except, that is, for the seven Americans who stormed into the commandant's office and demanded that since the boxes had come from the American Red Cross, only the Americans should get them. Up until that point, everyone in the camp had taken pains to share equally. In their poverty, they had found ways to care for each other regardless of nationality.

However, prosperity became the test. And these seven did not pass.

The Japanese commandant appealed to his superiors, and all the much desired parcels were locked up. After a week of terrible wrangling within the compound, the decree came down. Everyone would get one parcel, and the extras would be sent to another camp.

Scarcity can provide a thorough examination of our character, our heart, our soul. So can prosperity. Will we honor our Maker? Will we show compassion to our neighbor?2

Will we only put ourselves first? This is the temptation Jesus faced. It is the test that you and I face. Will we pass?


  1. Emily Perl Kingsley, "Welcome To Holland."
  2. Charles Summers, "The Bread of Life," February 1, 2004.