A Prophetic Journey
We have explored in our series the wilderness worship that God can lead us into - things like silence, fasting and solitude. We have also thought about sorrow in the desert, the sacrifice Jesus has made to bear our suffering and the sacrifices we’re called to make as a response.
Lots of these ideas picture wilderness as a spiritual state in our hearts. In addition to these, you may also feel that the world around you is something of a wilderness. We do live in an increasingly secular society. Christian voices can seem to be more marginalised than ever. Christian values may not be shared by your family, or your work colleagues, or by the people who run the newspapers, TV stations and websites you look at. It can feel like we’re bombarded with temptations to live in ways that are the opposite of God’s best for us, and we may struggle to resist.
Do you ever feel like a lone voice in the wilderness? How can we be inspired by Isaiah, and by John the Baptist all those years later, to be:
A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
Wilderness and exile
Wilderness and exile
The Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness was a defining period for God’s people, and a lasting demonstration of God’s character towards them. His faithfulness to them during that time was a theme they would return to again and again. In times of crisis they would bring to mind their experience in the desert and use it as a lens for seeing how God might act in their present trouble.
This was certainly the case when Israel was taken into exile by Babylon in 597 BC. There could have been no greater crisis than to be ripped out of the “promised land” and ten years later to have the city and its temple destroyed. God’s people were distraught. And yet prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel tried to remind the people that, even in the desert of exile, they could still rely on the God who had brought them through the wilderness.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the people are not simply hungry and thirsty in the desert of exile. They are dead, their bodies have rotted away, and only their bones are left on the dry, dusty desert floor. Yes, a desolate image—what Shakespeare’s Macbeth called “a dry and dusty death.” But this is the extent of Israel’s despair. Look at verse 11:
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’
Does that image of exile relate to the despair you sometimes feel about the world around you? About our society, and a church that seems increasingly marginalised and ignored? If it resonates with you at all, then you can take heart from what happens through Ezekiel.
The power of the prophetic Word
The power of the prophetic Word
God calls Ezekiel to speak to the dead bones. He speaks God’s creative, restorative word, and the dead bones come together, muscles and flesh grow back over them. He speaks again and God’s life giving Spirit comes and brings life to the dead.
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
The dejected, dead people of Israel are resurrected. They become an army, a people who will re-occupy their promised land. God’s Word and his Spirit do what no other power, politician, product or programme could do - bring new and true life.
If we are looking to bring transformation to the world around us - to our churches, to our homes, to our workplaces, our pubs, our schools - we need to know God’s word and we need to speak it in the power of his Holy Spirit. This means we need to regularly read the Bible - soaking ourselves in it and trying to understand it better. It means speaking God’s truth in love. It means praying with prophetic faith - speaking out God’s word with the trust that it will be effective. It means reminding ourselves of God’s promises whenever we get dejected. And, as Jesus show us, it means using God’s word to respond to temptation.
Speaking truth to temptation
Speaking truth to temptation
Before Jesus could begin His work, He goes through a series of challenges in the wilderness. When Jesus is led there, it seems that he understands his 40 days in the light of Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering. When we looked at Deuteronomy 8 we saw that the reason God gives for Israel’s wilderness wanderings was:
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
First: He went out into the wilderness where He had to survive all on His own, with no one else around.
Second: He had no food and He was out there for forty days, so He felt very weak and hungry by the end of that time.
Third: There were wild animals out there, and He had to trust God to keep Him safe.
Fourth: He had to face three difficult tests or temptations. Temptations are one of the enemy’s ways of trying to get a person to go contrary to God’s specific will.
The first temptation undertakes to get at the core of Jesus’ personal trust in the Father’s leading. He was tempted by the devil to turn the rocks around Him into fresh bread. As He was very hungry this was a challenging test. He could easily have done it with all the power that He had; He could have turned the rocks into all kinds of delicious food, but He didn’t. Instead He remembered and spoke these words: “It takes more than bread to stay alive – we need to have God’s life-giving words.”
The second temptation is an attack on the Son’s personal responsibility. He found himself on top of the temple in the city and was tempted by the devil to make a spectacular jump. God would have to send some angels to catch Him, so that He wouldn’t even stub His toe on the rocks below. People in the city would see it and it would prove that He was the Son of God.
The devil’s quotation is a blatant misuse of Scripture to try to manipulate Jesus. The original Old Testament context does not imply that God will send protecting care for every harmful situation. But Jesus remembered and spoke these words: “Whatever you do: don’t test God, trust Him.”
In the third test Satan tries to sidetrack Jesus from God’s mission by getting him to take a shortcut to gain the kingdom that will someday be his the hard way. He walked up onto the rocks overlooking miles and miles of beautiful cities. The devil said to Him, “You can have all this. All of it, you can be in charge of it all. All you have to do is worship me rather than God.”
The idea of all the cities being under His control was very tempting, but instead Jesus remembered and spoke these words: “Worship God, He is the Lord of heaven and earth and He is the only one we must ever worship.” The Father alone is worthy of worship. Satan’s demand for Jesus to worship him indicates his overall objective and is, in fact, the essence of sin. Sin drives us to ignore God’s will and have our own way, to make self out to be the god of our own life.
Jesus knew that He already had all the power in the world: He didn’t have to prove it. As powerful as Satan may be, and as frail as Jesus must be because of the extended fasting and the intensity of the temptations, Jesus vanquishes him with a word. That is entirely the point of Peter’s statement in:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
We can summarise Jesus’ example like this: Resist the devil in the power of the Spirit through the guidance of the Word to accomplish the will of God.
As we look at these tests, we see a pattern. Temptations involve the twisting of reality, so the antidote comes from the truth of Scripture. Each time Jesus is tempted by the devil he responds by quoting the word of God - in fact he even uses scriptures from Deuteronomy which refer to Israel’s wilderness testing (8:3, 6:13, 16). So Jesus stands where Israel fell. And in doing so he shows us Christians - the New Israel - how we can also stand in the face of temptation.
We do not have a specific forty years or forty days of temptation. All of us have a variety of temptations that can sidetrack us. For us, each day is an opportunity to obey or disobey God’s best for our lives.
People's temptations are not usually bad things. The very nature of a temptation is that it can be subtly construed to be a good thing, not a bad thing, by perverting a good thing to a bad use.
When we face any kind of temptation, if we use 1 Corinthians 10:13 as a guideline, we can learn how to draw on all of God’s resources to be victorious.
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
Being tempted is not a sin. Succumbing to the temptation is when it becomes sin
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Temptations in the hands of Satan become a test in the hands of God. God will use them as a test and strengthening of our character. As we begin do this, we are obeying that call of Isaiah to be voices calling in the wilderness. We can be those who proclaim to the world:
A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.