Episode 1. The Essential Wilderness
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It’s easy to think that God is all about blessing us … and sure, He is. But sometimes that path to blessing takes us on a journey through the wilderness … a bit like Jesus. On the …
It’s easy to think that God is all about blessing us … and sure, He is. But sometimes that path to blessing takes us on a journey through the wilderness … a bit like Jesus.
On the Surface
I wonder if I asked you to define success, exactly how would you go about doing that and what does success mean to you? I know that for a long time that success, for me, meant recognition – wealth, what ever I choose to do; being the best and reaping the rewards and then, when I had the rewards spending them in ways that demonstrated that, indeed, I was successful.
Success meant achieving and being seen to achieve and in every way, reaping the rewards.
And that’s pretty much the way of the world. Everything the advertising industry does reinforces that image of success. It’s kind of like a surface thing and by implication, the things that constitute success according to the world’s rules, those outward signs of success – they’re supposed to make us happy on the inside – at least that’s the theory.
I read a book recently by a man called Doug Webster and it’s called, “Under the Radar – Conversations on Leadership”. It’s one of those short books that just blew me away. And over the next few weeks on the programme, we are going to unpack that a little bit to see what the man has to say. He makes the point that some of the most successful leaders he knows; people who have achieved so much are people that you and I will never know.
In a sense they are men and women who followed God’s call on their lives and kind of flew underneath the radar of public recognition, into the hearts and the lives of the men and the women and the children around them. And that sort of leadership challenges our images of success. Inevitably these great leaders are people who’ve been in the wilderness; who have struggled and been vulnerable and allowed God into their lives in the midst of that wilderness.
He challenged me with this statement in his book:
We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible calls for leadership that the world does not recognise as leadership. We have trouble identifying the “David” type leader whose character and leadership have been forged in the wilderness while caring for the sheep.
Um, it makes you think! I’m going to take you into a story in the life of Jesus, which is a case in point. This week we have started a series that’s called: “Discovering the Hidden Things of God.” You see, I want to go below this surface – I want to go to the deep things of God and inevitably, the deep things of God are hidden until we spend some time in the wilderness. So we are going to spend some time in the story of Jesus time in the wilderness, when He was tempted by the devil.
But before that we are going to go to Matthew, chapter 3, verses 15 to 17 and if you have a Bible, open it up – Matthew chapter 3, beginning a verse 15, because this is a story of Jesus baptism. It’s a pretty spectacular story and it comes immediately before He goes out into the wilderness. Let’s have a read, Matthew chapter 3, verse13:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John, but John tried to deter Him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you and you come to me?” And Jesus replied, “Let it be so now. It is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” And then John consented. And as soon as Jesus was baptised, He went up out of the water and at the same moment, heaven was opened and He saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and lighting on Him and a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Now let’s just stop and think about that for a moment. Is that success or what? I mean, you go to be baptised and you’re coming up out of the water and the heavens open up and God speaks, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Now, God’s saying something here – this Jesus – this Son of God is someone really special. And I tell you what, if Berni was going to his baptism and that happen to me, I’d be thinking, “WOW, I have arrived! I have made it! I am on a fast track to success in the Kingdom of God!” Wouldn’t you think the same?
And if we were standing there, watching this – watching Jesus come out and seeing the heavens open up and hearing the voice of God speaking about Jesus, we would be thinking, “Now there is a Man worth following.” This is exactly the sort of man that you would want to appoint as the head of a dynamic, fast growing, and successful church. He’s got all the outward trappings of success.
Again Webster writes this in his book:
Pastors and lay leaders alike judge success by worldly standards. The allure of great numbers, grand visions, expensive budgets, creative programming but it’s only a matter of time before they become disillusioned with the experts and the consultants and the executives whom they have chosen to run their churches according to a competitive business model.
It has a ring to truth to it doesn’t it? We like things that look and taste and feel and smell successful. And when Jesus came up out of that water and the heavens opened up and God spoke and said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” He looked and felt and tasted and smelled successful. But in God’s plan there is something more. This baptism of Jesus signalled the beginning of His public ministry.
The first three decades of His life, He spent in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth – God wasn’t in a hurry. And now He’s about to be launched into public life and we know the story now. We know He had the most amazing, spectacular, powerful ministry. And what a fitting ceremony – what a fitting right of passage? Surely from here; from this spectacular baptism, He goes straight to preaching in the temple or in one of the largest synagogues? Surely from here Jesus is on a fast track to success? But what happens immediately after this stunning baptism?
Let’s pick it up in Luke’s account; in his Gospel. Luke chapter 4, beginning at verse 1:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and at the end of them, He was very hungry.
I’d say He was starving! Some fast track! Jesus has this spectacular baptism and now He goes straight into a wilderness experience, to be tempted by the devil; to be starving and bedraggled and alone and vulnerable. This baptism in the Jordan – I mean you couldn’t be further from the wilderness; fresh flowing water, a crowd as public, God shows up. And immediately following that, God leads Him into the wilderness to be desolate and alone, except for the devil who would tempt Him. Some fast track! Some plan, God! What were You thinking?
The Essential Wilderness
You see, in this day and age, success is something that we can see on the outside and by and large, people mostly want to be successful – a bit like that time when Jesus was baptised, that we were talking about before. And the heavens open up and God speaks: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Now that didn’t happen when I was baptised, but if it had I would have known I was on a fast track to success in the Kingdom of God. But what God did next with Jesus was to lead Him out into the wilderness. God does some odd things sometimes; at least that’s how it feels when we look at them through our human eyes. He doesn’t think the way we do. He doesn’t behave the way we do.
And when we find ourselves in that wilderness; that mismatch of expectations, between thinking, “well, God is about blessing me” and then the real experience of being there in that wilderness – well, that’s hard to deal with; it’s hard to understand – what’s God up to? That’s because in our eyes, success is an outward thing – you see it in the secular marketplace – I tell you, you see it in churches too.
Doug Webster in his book, “Under the Radar” put it this way:
For all practical purposes, the fullness of the Spirit seems to mean realising ones full potential; becoming the kind of person that everyone else wants to follow; being someone who makes things happen; competing to win and being able to prove your success with the numbers. Many popular Christian writers on “leadership” don’t even bother to distinguish between worldly success and spiritual success, because in their mind the two are virtually one and the same.
Well, today – today we are going to draw a sharp distinction between those two and it’s a sharp distinction indeed. Remember earlier we had this picture of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, flowing, life giving water, the crowds are there, Jesus is baptised – we read it in Matthew chapter 3, beginning at verse 13:
And as soon as He was baptised He comes up out of the water and the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descends down on Him like a dove, alighting upon Him and a voice from heaven says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
This awesome thing; incredible thing! It’s unique, but look at what happens immediately following that, in Luke’s account. Luke chapter 4, beginning at verse 1:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert; into the wilderness – where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and at the end of them, He was hungry.
The contrast between those two situations which one follows immediately after the other – it couldn’t be more stark. The Jordan River, crowds, God’s amazing deeds on the one hand and then the desert and the wilderness on the other. It’s so counter intuitive; so “not what we’d expect God to do” but this wilderness was an essential wilderness. See, we expect success to follow success, but God’s plan goes deeper. If we were to discover the hidden things of God then the wilderness – the wilderness is essential.
Let’s have a look at what happens to Jesus. It says: “Jesus full of the Holy Spirit” – something we kind of equate with being charismatic and successful on the outside, but He was filled with the Holy Spirit when He was baptised to equip Him for this time in the wilderness. And out there in this wilderness, the crowds are gone, the audible voice of God is gone, the dove is gone and is replaced by a wilderness and the devil and a hunger and temptation and trial after trial – forty days without food!
And it says, “He was hungry.” Boy is that an understatement! Can you imagine how hungry He was? Hebrews chapter 5, says Jesus learnt obedience through what He had to suffer. And look at who took Him into the desert – you see, sometimes it’s really easy to misread this. It’s like the devil took Him into the desert but that’s not what it says. Read Luke again, chapter 4, verse 1:
Jesus full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert.
See this … this was God’s idea; this was God’s doing. In fact Mark’s Gospel puts it this way:
At once the Spirit threw Him out into the desert.
Literally, threw Him out there. In other words, this wilderness was an essential wilderness. It was the choice; the sovereign choice of God at the beginning of Jesus public ministry – a deserted, lonely place. There was Jesus deprived of the help and the protection of others, like a sheep deserted by his shepherd – thrown out there by God Himself, just Him and the devil, to be tempted for forty day while He was starving and weak.
See, God wants to go so much deeper with us that some worldly veneer of success. He’s not interested in our popularity; He’s not interested in how successful we are at work or in our ministry; He’s not interested in other people patting us on the back. No, God has a hidden plan; a deeper plan to forge our character – a character that will stand completely alone in the midst of this earth for His sake; a character that will rely wholly on Him, no matter what the world or the devil throws at us; a character that’s forged in the furnace of the wilderness, ready to be about God’s business.
When we look for a leader; when we look for a disciple; when we look for someone who is following God, are we looking for people who are successful, with a demonstrated track record with a great CV? How often do we ask about humility and endurance and prayer life and trials and character? See, those are the things that God uses to develop a man and a woman on the inside. All the popular self-help books out there describe a trajectory of success but the Bible doesn’t – it marks our lives with the cross of Christ.
God’s choice, as Doug Webster writes in his book “Under the Radar”, is to forge us in the wilderness of solitude not in ivory towers or on dream teams, but on the anvil of loneliness and abandonment and weakness. See, Israel in the first century is looking for a Messiah. They are oppressed by Roman occupation. God through the prophets promised them a Messiah, but Jesus wasn’t who they were looking for.
They weren’t looking for some bedraggled guy who wasn’t much to look at; who wandered out of the desert after forty days of being in the wilderness. They weren’t looking for some man who had been hungry and vulnerable, having been tempted with none of the trappings of success – with nothing to commend Him except this: that in that hidden place He withstood the devil.
In that wilderness, He was alone and hungry and weak and vulnerable and He relied on one thing and one thing alone; the fullness of the Spirit of God within Him to get Him through. And then and only then, was He ready to begin His journey to the cross; then and only then did God release Him to bring the good news to the poor and give sight to the blind and to bind up the broken hearted. And it’s exactly; exactly the same with us.
So often the Lord leads us into a wilderness; an essential wilderness and then, then He seems to deserts us; He seems to leave us all alone, except for this: for each one of us who has placed our faith in Jesus Christ, He has left us His Holy Spirit, in us, the Spirit who will sustain us. The Spirit who in our weakness and vulnerability will defeat Satan and in that place, we discover the hidden things of God.
Don’t Be Surprised
Do you know what I think the hardest thing is about this wilderness? It’s that when we walk into it. All of a sudden we realise we are in the wilderness, it surprises and confuses us because we have this expectation that life will always go along swimmingly, wonderful well. You can hear someone talking about it but when it happens to us the pain and the shock, well, we react to that its confusion and hurt and despair. And right then, that very moment, the devil is waiting in the wings to tempt us and it’s those three temptations that Jesus went through that we are going to look at over the next three weeks on the programme. What was the devil doing? why did God let the devil tempt Jesus that way?
You see there’s something special about just resting and listening and realising that it happened to the Son of God as well. I’m going to read you the passages again – the baptism in the Jordan and then when Jesus was led into the wilderness. Just take it in; soak it up. This is what God took His Son through to prepare Him for His public ministry. This is God’s chosen way.
Have a listen, first in Matthew chapter 3:
When Jesus came up from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John and as soon as He was baptised and He went up out of the water, at that moment heaven was opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him and a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” And now in Luke chapter 4, straight after this baptism: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit returned for the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and at the end of them, He was hungry.
Those places of complete vulnerability are the places where we discover and learn the things of God in ways that we will never forget. I started my Christian walk that way, twelve years ago, right in the middle of the wilderness is where I came to faith in Christ. And it was such a brutally hard time in my life and I discovered the devil was there to tempt me. But it’s the place where God laid down the foundations of my resolve to follow Him and serve Him and honour Him. It’s the place where I fell in love with Jesus in this terrible, bleak wilderness; a place I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
See, the problem in our society is we want people to perform and deliver and to look strong and solid and to have it all together and sure, we want to grow up to be people who are strong in the Lord. But over and over again God prunes us and one of the pruning tools in His hand is the devil and He allows the devil to tempt us. Jesus explains it this way, he said:
I am the true vine and My Father in the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
As we will see next week, the first temptation that the devil put in front of Jesus was to go it alone. Jesus was hungry and the devil said, “Why don’t you turn these stones into bread?” See, it’s so anti where God wants us to be. He wants us to be a branch in the vine, so close to Him; so close to Jesus and the very first temptation of the devil of Jesus in the desert; in the wilderness, was to say, “Jesus, why don’t you go it alone? Why don’t you end this suffering alone? Why don’t you feed yourself?”
Pruning is never fun! Being in the wilderness is never fun! But the wilderness is a part of God’s plan and even though it never feels like it at the time, and it never feels like we want to be there at the time, He is there every step of the way. This teaching series, “Discovering the Hidden Things of God” as we travel through the wilderness with Jesus, is one of the most important teaching series I believe that we are going to hear this year.
We look at the three temptations of Jesus, what they’re all about and how they show us what the devil’s up to today. And above all what we are going to discover are the hidden things of God; the things that God wants to do in our lives as He goes deeper and deeper and deeper. So I really encourage you to stick with me over these coming weeks as we together, discover the hidden things of God with Jesus, out there in the wilderness.