Matthew 4:1–11

‘We can’t stand this prison any longer! We have to get out of this desert! The noise is driving us insane: dogs barking day and night, the traffic, the thump-thump of the neighbours’ music through the walls. You can’t escape by going out: what would be the point? There are no shops round here any more. The pub has shut. All you can see is asphalt and concrete. There isn’t a blade of grass growing for miles. In any case, we dare not step outside the front door, for fear of being attacked by muggers and terrorists! How we long to escape the aggravation, the anonymity, even the air.
‘But a nice, quiet little place in the countryside! They don’t have crime or noise in the country, do they? Everything is peaceful, pretty. The air is pure and clean. I dream of a thatched cottage somewhere, surrounded by drifts of wild flowers, a gurgling stream at the bottom of the garden, with kingfishers. And a little village church, and a village green, and a duck pond, a weekly pub quiz. Everybody knows you in a village. You are part of fabric of the place. You belong. We’ll sell up as soon as we can, and leave this concrete cell behind us for ever, and build a new life together’.
Sadly, as we who live in the country know, it’s not all roses round the door. Many of those who flee to places like the Isle of Wight, or the Scottish Highlands, or even Northumberland, find that they escape one set of problems, only to encounter another: the decline of rural services: shops and buses can be scarce in the country just as well as the city. The time it takes to build a whole new set of social relationships: you don’t just suddenly ‘know’ everyone in a village, however welcoming. It takes time to fit in. And very often the difficulties we face in life cannot be escaped by moving house. We pack our past with all the other baggage, with all its complexity and heartache. So that for some, the dream turns all too quickly into another nightmare. So leave our city couple and their search for sanctuary for a moment, and consider someone else in turmoil.
A retreat will help. A week or two in a monastery. A place where I can pray, a place where I can be spiritual. A place where they don’t know what I am really like. If I could get away, I wouldn’t have to wrestle with myself the whole time. I would be free of temptation, free of shame. I will throw myself into the future, and blot out the difficulties of the present.
The friary nestles in the folds of the Dorset hills. As you arrive down the winding country road, the first thing you see is a huge crucifix: this here is God’s territory. The guest house is warm; comfortable even, in a spartan sort of way. The brothers are friendly, caring, unobtrusive. The chapel, converted from an old cow-shed, is suffused with the aroma of incense and the perfume of prayer. There is calm here, there is peace. The daily rhythm of the services, the quiet simplicity of the religious life: balm for a troubled soul.
But his peace is illusory. In the silences, his mind is dragged back to all that he left behind. This haven is an interlude, but he soon realises that he will return to the same questions, the same deceptions, the same secrets, the same fears of discovery. The fantasy of escape proves to be just that.
And many have sought this kind of sanctuary over the years, only to be disappointed, for our present is as hard to leave behind as our past. Let go our aspiring hermit also, now; and picture finally another refugee.
They say there is no heavier burden than a great potential. A young man, made suddenly aware of the expectations others have placed upon his shoulders, leaves everything he knows in order to find himself a breathing space. He is not the first, nor will he be the last to struggle with the demons inside, as he graduates from a life of obscurity into the glare of being a public figure. Hitherto his comings and goings have come and gone unnoticed; henceforth his every move will be scrutinised and his every utterance dissected. ‘How will I know that they are right about me? Should I believe what they say? They all have their own fixed ideas about what I should do, anyway. Will I persuade them that mine is the right way? How do I know I am right?’
We listen in as Jesus struggles with his doubts about the future. ‘If you are the Son of God. But how do you know? How can you be so sure? You need to know for sure, otherwise you will make a complete fool of yourself: prove it now, just to yourself, just to be certain! Nothing ostentatious, nothing dramatic. Just turn a few stones into bread. See if it works, if you really are the Son of God.
‘But perhaps you were hallucinating, when you heard the voice from heaven. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Perhaps it was all a dream, perhaps you suffer from delusions of grandeur.
‘And perhaps no-one will listen. You are going to need some serious help, you know. It’s no good trying to rely on a bunch of fishermen: you’ll need a legion or two of angels. After all, if you are the Son of God, in whom he is well pleased, God can help you out can’t he? Grab their attention, then; do something dramatic, something unmistakeably divine! God can’t afford to let you fail.
‘But perhaps you are not strong enough by yourself. Perhaps you didn’t hear the voice correctly. Perhaps God is playing games. You need to check, you need to make sure. ‘And are these people worth all this self-sacrifice? Will anyone thank you for martyring yourself? Will anyone even remember? And if you suffer, so will others. Can you live and die with their pain on your conscience? Don’t risk failure, seize power. Compel them to listen!’
Jesus, like all of us, is unable to escape the doubts and temptations of his life simply by fleeing into the desert. But Jesus is not trying to run away, nor to create some new reality to replace the old. He seeks out desert space, in order to confront his fears, calm his anxieties, and understand his temptations. He struggles, he wrestles with all these; both in the desert, as we heard, and throughout the rest of his ministry. Truly, he shares our humanity. And this sharing of what we go through can help. It can help all those who feel that to escape their geography would solve the problems of their past, like my couple moving to their dream house in the country. All those who, like my shameful, guilt-ridden young man, would bury themselves in piety or in activity, to escape from who they are in the present. And all those who, like Jesus himself, are burdened by a great potential or by heavy responsibility or with the uncertainties and fears of the future.
And thus can Jesus say to each one of us, ‘I know what you are going through. I know how hard it is. I know how you are struggling’.
© Jon Russell 2020