A number of years ago the young Englishman Justin Rose nearly won the open golf championship just a day or two before his nineteenth birthday. Not only was he the youngest player ever to have reached such a position, but he was still an amateur. Despite his amateur status he became a multi-millionaire overnight, for firms were falling over themselves to sign him up for their advertising campaigns and to sponsor him on the golf circuits. And Justin Rose turned professional just a week or two later. It was clearly an amazing and overwhelming time for him. Justin set out on his chosen career as a golf professional full of excitement and potential, and carrying the hopes of the whole of the British Isles.
But after that, things went badly pear-shaped. Having done so well in the Open, Justin then failed to reach the cut (the final two rounds), of any other competition for the whole year. At the end of the year he had to go back to golf school to learn his profession all over again, and to compete against all the other young hopefuls in order to get another crack at the professional circuit.
Such an experience would perhaps have destroyed some youngsters, but not Justin Rose. He did so well at golf school that by the beginning of the next year he was back on the professional circuits, and this time beginning to make the cut so that he achieved the final rounds of most competitions. And now we know that he did rather well, and did fulfil that early promising potential.
It’s quite a pattern. First the excitement and the thrill of a very special time, then instantly followed by the depths of pain and difficulty. But all of that, especially the pain and difficulty, is a learning process. And those who are able to learn from it generally are able to go on and make something of their life, for after the pain the work begins.
Jesus had a very special and exciting time when he was baptised by John in the river Jordan. The heavens opened and a dove descended on him and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son. I’m well pleased with you.” But immediately that same Spirit of God which had descended upon him at his baptism, drove him out into the wilderness. He was alone, with no support, no back up. And worse, he found himself surrounded by not only the danger and the risk and the privation of the wilderness, but also by both good and evil forces.
When Matthew and Luke give their accounts of the time in the wilderness, they mention three particular temptations. Perhaps that tempts us to believe that there were only three temptations. Reading about them in our own time and from our own perspective, those temptations can sound quite alien to 21st century people.
We perhaps have our equivalent of the wilderness, both in difficult times when it’s thrust upon us, but also in times when we might choose to retreat and take some time out for God by going to a quiet place, alone. But we have no actual experience of what it was like to live alone two thousand years ago without any means of communication, in such a barren and threatening place.
Few people survived the wilderness, for if they managed to find water, they were likely to be devoured by the wild animals which roamed the wilderness and inhabited it. It’s difficult to imagine the terror that must have engendered, and it’s difficult to identify with those three specific temptations mentioned by Matthew and Luke – the turning of stones into bread, the throwing oneself from the pinnacle of the temple in order to be supported by angels, and the gift of all the kingdoms in the world in response to worshipping Satan. Although I can imagine plenty of things that would tempt me today, I really can’t imagine ever being tempted by any of those three. So I’m grateful to Mark, for in his account, Mark gives us much more room to paint our own pictures. He merely says, “Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” So Mark leaves us free to use our own imagination and put ourselves there in the wilderness with Jesus.
One thing we do know is that it must have been a terrible time. Perhaps with no proper food for six weeks, Jesus may have been drifting in and out of consciousness some of the time, Mark hints that he saw both angels and demons. In any event it was a drastic learning experience where Jesus was thrust back on his own inner and outer resources, and despite his lack of food, Jesus emerged from the wilderness strengthened in mind and spirit. And immediately after this experience he began his own ministry, his own life’s work.
The wilderness can bring a real clarity of thought. Things which were confused and muddled before tend to suddenly drop into place, for in the wilderness priorities change. Things are seen for what they really are, and their degree of importance shifts accordingly. And this tends to happen whether we’re thrust into the wilderness by horrifying events in life, or whether we deliberately seek out the wilderness for ourselves. When he emerged from the wilderness, Jesus knew what his life’s work was to be. He knew that he would spend his life in ministry, working in a very specific way for his Father.
Clouds so very often follow sunshine, and when this happens in real life it seems such a harsh experience. Something wonderful happens and we might feel excited and thrilled and happy, but this is so very often followed by a plunge into the depths of despair for some reason or another. And suddenly life is difficult and painful and confusing, like being attacked by demons and wild beasts.
This sudden change is hard to handle for many, and some people go through life unable to properly enjoy life’s thrills and delights because of the huge dread of the depths which they’re sure will soon follow. Their happiness is always qualified by the fear of it being broken. It’s as though sometimes we cannot allow ourselves to fully accept happiness because they’re so sure the happiness will be wrenched away from them by something awful in due course.
But perhaps the experience of Jesus shows that walking in his way, everything, all of life both good and bad, is in God’s hands. Perhaps the pattern should be that the thrills, followed by the depths, are a prelude to the real work we’re invited to undertake for God.
And of course, that pattern doesn’t just happen once, but is repeated again and again throughout life. We need to take hold of the good parts of life and enjoy them to the full. Then we need to survive the wilderness experience knowing God is in there with us, and using them to learn and to grow strong. And then, with our priorities in the right order, we’ll be more ready for whatever God wants of us.