Matthew 4.1-11, 16.21-23
Have you ever had a day like this?
This is Jesus, but not as we normally know him. This isn’t gentle Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus looking hot and bothered, or tired and frazzled, or a bit down in the dumps, or just having a bad day - or is it a bad couple of days, or a bad month, a bad 40 days even?
The sun is beating down. He’s sat on some uncomfortable looking boulders, probably baking in the heat. Either he needs a couple of paracetamol, perhaps even my favourite tipple, paracetamol and codeine, or he’s having a bad hair day, or both!
I like this picture because I think it reminds us what temptation really looks like. It’s not like a pantomime villain creeping up behind us to whisper wicked enticements in our ear. It looks like this.
Someone wrote to me to thank me for helping her get a job. She said she would be calling round to the office with a bottle of champagne for me. I said, ‘Drink the champagne yourself with your boyfriend and your mother, because you deserve it. Just bring us your letter of appointment so that we can use it as evidence that we helped you!’
She wrote back and said, ‘My new boss seems swamped with tasks and responsibilities, and I wouldn't dare hope for a letter of confirmation. He’s been the only staff the organisation has had lately, and he just has a terribly busy and worried look about him.’
Isn’t that the problem with Christians? We often have a terribly busy and worried look about us. Worrying about the church roof, and the finances, and the stewards’ rota, and goodness knows what. And in that situation the temptation - the same temptation I am sure which Jesus faced many times - is to let our problems overwhelm us.
Being in the desert or the wilderness is still a way in which Christians often choose to describe difficult situations and experiences. We can either let the wilderness overwhelm us and beat us down, or we can resist.
Whistling ‘‘Always look on the bright side of life’’, as the staff of a car factory did when they trudged home after being made redundant, is one way of coping with trouble. But did those workers still feel like whistling the same tune when they were alone at home the next day? I suspect that an alternative coping mechanism is called for, and the one that’s in vogue at the moment is called ‘developing resilience’.
What does ‘ resilience’ mean? Does it mean growing a thick skin, so that nothing can touch us? If so that doesn’t seem very much like the way Jesus handles the wilderness.
Christ-like resilience has to be mixed with compassion, so that we never see other people merely as problems that we have to deal with, or escape from, if we’re trying to cope with a bad patch. But this is the dilemma, Christian compassion is like an antibiotic. There are times of complete catastrophe, like terrorist attacks, or famine, plague and war, when the only proper response is open-handed compassion. In those situations we simply have to reach out to people in need and give them our help. But if we prescribe compassion as a sticking plaster for every trouble that people face, the way we used to prescribe antibiotics for colds and coughs, it starts to lose its effectiveness. Just being nice to other people, whether or not they deserve it, isn’t compassionate. We have to help one another to bear and share life’s stresses and strains. Together we have to develop the sort of resilience that will help us cope with the inevitable wilderness times.
Resilience is a trendy idea just now because lots of people are wondering about the best way to absorb and deal with austerity and all kinds of other social problems. We hear about making the The NHS more resilient. It’s a term that’s been borrowed from science and engineering. Resilient materials have the capacity to recover from pressure, to bounce back. They may even be strengthened by it. That’s why resilience has become a metaphor for coping with trouble and stress. It helps us to become survivors rather than victims.
But unfortunately, resilience isn’t something we can learn from a book or in school. We can only become resilient when we ourselves have been tested by adversity. Like Jesus, we have to go into the wilderness to find out how to cope with it. That’s why people like watching, ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here!’ It’s only we see famous people eating maggots by the fistful that we know what they’re really made of.
One thing that seems to help people develop resilience is companionship, people who can come alongside us and provide an anchor for us to cling to when everything else is crumbling and being washed away. In a moment of crisis it might just be someone who smiles and says ‘Hello’, but in the longer term it’s the people who help us discover the inner resources that we need to survive. In the film, ‘The Way’, the American actor Martin Sheen plays Tom, a pilgrim on the way to Santiago de Compostela, who’s going through a wilderness time following the death of his son. At first he thinks he would like to walk alone but gradually he learns the value of companionship.
For Christians, of course that someone can be Jesus himself, the person who’s been through the wilderness too, and all the way beyond it to the cross. ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ the old hymn says, and that’s because he’s been there before us.
Even Jesus himself needed companionship when he was in the wilderness. The Gospel account says, ‘Angels came to help him.’ The Greek word ‘angels’ simply means ‘messengers’ - in this case messengers from God. Might that be a team of shepherds who welcomed Jesus to their campfire, or travellers he encountered on the road? Did they just offer him an encouraging smile, or a friendly ‘Hello’ as they passed?
Becoming resilient doesn’t mean that we feel pain and tragedy, trouble and stress, any less than other people do. It’s about enduring these things and continuing somehow to believe that there’s a meaning and purpose. It’s about finding a way of holding our ground instead of being swept away. That’s why people who can help to anchor us are so valuable.
Resilience isn’t about denial - pretending that we’re all right or that things aren’t really so bad, after all. Denial doesn’t make us resilient, it only puts off the day of reckoning. That’s why whistling, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ isn’t the answer when adversity comes knocking.
The theologian Thomas Aquinas had a different name for ‘resilience’. He called it, ‘fortitude’, but fortitude implies a stubborn resistance to the things that are battering us down, whereas resilience can be flexible. It enables us to bend and even retreat. Above all, it allows us to respond, to bounce back.
Christians often connect wilderness times with the idea of feeling abandoned or alone, but - as we've seen - Jesus wasn’t alone in the wilderness. When God’s messengers weren’t helping him he was encountering the Devil. Perhaps this was just another way of naming his own inner demons, the subtle chinks in our character which we have to deal with when all the things that usually keep them in check - good fortune or busyness - are suddenly stripped away. Suddenly God may seem absent but our demons feel all too present.’ They cause us to doubt or despair, or to dream of some easy but illusory way of escape.
Jesus isn’t the only person who faced down his demons and discovered resilience in the wilderness. So did a host of other Biblical characters, Hagar, Jacob, Moses and Elijah, to name but four. They prove that we can sometimes come out the other side feeling better and stronger.
Even when we think we’ve left it behind, the wilderness is never far away. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus seemed to have put temptation firmly behind him. Peter had turned out to be a rock, someone he could rely on. All was right with the world, until suddenly Peter flipped and revealed the other side of his mercurial character, impetuous, quick to say whatever came into his head. Suddenly he was the Devil, back to tempt Jesus all over again.
The wilderness may be an unfriendly place, it may never be far away, but it’s not unremitting. There can be shelter from the storm. It’s where, like Jesus meeting God’s messengers, we can meet him and shelter in the shadow of his cross. But it’s not a place where we have to submit to God come what may. Like Jesus in his temptation phase, we’re allowed to share how we feel, to argue, to complain and to protest. To find resilience we deal with temptation. We have to first embrace our misfortunes and then face up to them in order to surmount them.
Someone  has said that Christians who’ve come with Jesus through the wilderness may find that they’ve grown in wisdom and understanding because of their adversity but, if they do, they’re more likely now to offer words of healing to others rather than trying to explain things to them. They’re able to feel greater compassion for others who are suffering because ‘they too have been there’. But they’ll never insist on talking about their own experience.
Henri Nouwen said that we can’t lead someone else out of a wilderness place unless we’ve come from there ourselves. The beauty of the Christian faith lies in the fact that, as the picture shows, Jesus has come from there and he’s waiting to lead us out and to help us guide others, too.