The Wilderness Temptation and the Coronavirus Pandemic (Part 1)
Reading: Matthew 4:1-11
Christ’s wilderness testing in the Gospels (as well as Israel’s in Deuteronomy 6—8), can teach us much for a time such as this. This pandemic is generating temptations in seemingly new forms, but, in truth, they are no different than past temptations with a new haircut. The things that tempt us as humans have not changed much, nor the truths necessary to overcome those temptations.
There are many things we can learn from Jesus’ wilderness temptation, but in this series of posts, I will discuss a few that may be helpful in our present spiritual climate. This will be a multi-part post so that each one is of readable length.
First, it should be remembered that Jesus was brought up into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tested by the devil. This tells us two important things: 1) the Spirit of God is present with us in our testing, and 2) he is not only present, but is directing them. Don’t get me wrong, the devil is the one doing the testing, but the Spirit knows how to position us for those tests through which the Lord intends to perfect us (James 1:2-4).
The wilderness is not the place where God intends for us to live, but it is a place where he matures us for living.
The wilderness is not the place where God intends for us to live, but it is a place where he matures us for living. We find ourselves not being able to meet together for a season which we hope is short and some suspect is going to be quite long. This separation (despite the benefit of online meetings) is a type of wilderness for us. Indeed, this whole pandemic is a type of wilderness for us. It is a place where temptations will assail us. Concerning such a separation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. With great yearning the imprisoned apostle Paul calls his “beloved son in the faith,” Timothy, to come to him in prison in the last days of his life. He wants to see him again and have him near. Paul has not forgotten the tears Timothy shed during their final parting (2 Tim. 1:4). Thinking of the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul prays “night and day … most earnestly that we may see you face to face” (1 Thess. 3:10). The aged John knows his joy in his own people will only be complete when he can come to them and speak to them face to face instead of using paper and ink (2 John 12). (Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 29)
Online “church” is an experience in the wilderness, not in an oasis.
Paul yearned to see fellow believers when he was isolated. He yearned to be with the church and often could not. John knows that his joy is only partial when he is limited to writing letters. We know that our fellowship could never be complete as we experience online “church.” It is like the paper and ink that John used, not the face to face. It is good, but it is not great. It is an experience in the wilderness, not in an oasis. We should never become content with such an experience. But we should increase in our love for the community.
For many in America, church community, the gathering on Sundays has become a gift that is taken for granted and neglected. Such a time as this should certainly serve to reset our thinking on this matter. Again, as Bonhoeffer noted,
Of course, what is an inexpressible blessing from God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trampled under foot by those who receive the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the community of Christians is a gift of grace from the kingdom of God, a gift that can be taken from us any day—that the time [in fellowship] still separating us from the most profound loneliness may be brief indeed. (29-30)
Although we will not stay in this wilderness, it is important that we travel through it rightly.
We are at such a time when togetherness has been taken away from us. Although we will not stay in this wilderness, it is important that we travel through it rightly. And though our joy will not be complete during this time (2 John 12), the Spirit of God is with us and will give us joy for the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). And the Spirit, not the virus, is directing our steps. Let us resist the temptation to think we are forsaken and the temptation to get comfortable with online church rather than the real thing… without neglecting the “pen and ink” of the internet as a means of experiencing partial joy. Let’s make that a priority during this time.
Still building a faithful gospel witness for this generation and the next, together!