In the Desert with Jesus - Spiritual Practices for Lent Part One


Imagine you’re in a desert.

It’s hot, dry, and dusty.

Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth.

You have been wandering for a few days, finding occasional shelter. At night it is cold and frightening, there are the sounds of wild beasts.

You are all alone.

There’s no supermarket, there’s no wifi, there’s no one to tell you how much they like you or how much they don’t. There are no job titles, nothing important for you to do, there isn’t much to do at all in fact.

The desert is a lonely place, a place where you are confronted with the reality of yourself and your own thoughts and feelings. You are confronted with what is in your heart – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Today it’s the first Sunday of Lent.

Lent is a time where we are invited to embrace the desert metaphorically.

During the 40 days of Lent we remember Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation in the desert.

Lent invites us to enter into the desert with Jesus by fasting, praying, and by practices of self-denial.

Lent is a traditional season in the church, some of you may have never heard of it, others would have celebrated it so many times that perhaps it’s all become a bit dull.

But let us consider for a moment what the desert has to teach us. It is a key metaphor in Lent and I think that perhaps it is more important than ever for people who seek to be faithful to Jesus.

The desert is such a contrast to our everyday lives here in New Zealand in the 21st century.

We are busy.

Our world is noisy.

We are encouraged to buy more, do more, be more. MORE MORE MORE is the catch cry of consumer culture in the 21st century.

It isn’t surprising therefore that so many people feel lonely, disconnected, spiritually unfulfilled, vocationally unsure, bored, depressed, worried, stressed out and exasperated.

The invitation of the desert is an invitation to leave a whole lot of stuff behind. The desert doesn’t care how successful or busy we are, it doesn’t care what we look like or what we are worried about, the desert is an open space and it is a space that invites transformation.

So traditionally Lent involves “giving up” things. People fast from food or particular foods, they seek to give up bad habits and indulge less in themselves.

This leaving behind of all of the “stuff” that weighs us down and distracts us from God is truly liberating yet often so hard to do. The invitation of Lent is simply to make a start, and thank God that we get to do this every year right?

Lent isn’t only “giving up” though, it also involves “picking up.”

In the Bible the desert as well as being a place where Jesus is tempted is a place in the Old Testament where the people of God must travel through to get to the promised land. It is a place of growth, trial, suffering, and discovery. The desert is a place where the people of God learned what it meant to be God’s people. They learned to let go of their old gods and idols and be faithful to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So, this Lent here at St John’s let us be encouraged to give some stuff up. It is good for us to give up things and deny ourselves as a reminder of our reliance on and need for God.

But, this Lent, let us also pick something up.

Over the course of the next six Sundays we are going to look at six spiritual practices which can deepen and sustain our faith. Six practices that we can pick up over Lent.

We are going to look at what it means to…

1) Hear and Obey God

2) Rest in the Sabbath

3) Give generously

4) To offer hospitality

5) To Nurture our vocation, our calling and work

6) To Celebrate and worship together.

Today we begin by considering the practice of Hearing and Obeying God.

Just the other night my daughter Phoebe after reading one of her Bible stories excitedly said to me “I’d like to hear God, how do I do that?” This is a profoundly simple and beautiful desire for us all to seek during Lent. It is a question many people are asking – how do I hear God?

Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel once said: “We have so much to say about the Bible that we are not prepared to hear what the Bible has to say about us”

There’s a lot in that.

I believe that hearing and obeying is the primary practice for faithful discipleship. Our relationship with God begins with God addressing us in the good news of the Gospel and we are invited to listen and respond.

What is wonderful about Christianity is that we believe that God really does speak to us. God’s voice is available to us – primarily in the Bible, in God’s word in human words, but also in prayer as we listen to what the Holy Spirit might say.

And let me just say that I don’t think the latter ever contradicts the former.

The first place to start is to listen. I know it sounds obvious, but it can be harder than we think and Lent invites us into space where we take time to listen.

I have found for me personally that two of the big struggles I have had in genuinely seeking to follow Jesus circle around this issue of hearing and obeying

1) Firstly, I often have selective hearing. My wife Jo tells me this quite frequently, but I also have selective hearing when it comes to God speaking. I am sure that each of us do. There are parts of the Scriptures we would just rather ignore or an impression that we believe the Holy Spirit gave us in prayer as we listened that we wish we hadn’t heard. God can often lead us into uncomfortable territory and sometimes it is easier to tune out right?

2) Secondly, when it comes to the obeying part I often find that I lack follow through. We might get really excited about something we feel God has called us to do, like sharing our faith with our neighbours but when it comes down to it we find excuses like “we just don’t have the time” or “not this week but maybe next.”

The invitation of the Scripture readings we heard read today is to see the connection between hearing on one hand and obeying on the other. They are intimately linked.

Proverbs 3 exhorts us “let your heart keep my commandments” and “trust in the Lord with all your heart.”

The heart in biblical terms is the centre of our being and life. It is the place of our will and passion. Lent is a season where we are invited to focus on our hearts, to ponder what is in there, what it is we really care about and what it is or who it is that we truly worship.

How do we know what is in our heart?

In last weeks reading in Luke 6 Jesus says: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

Our outer life illustrates our inner life, the state of our hearts.

It is not enough simply to hear the word of God, we are called to obey it, we are called to respond to it. In fact, there is no sitting on the fence in regards to God’s speaking to us.

Karl Barth, said: “In the Bible man appears at once as either the pious man or the sinner, either the servant of God or an arbitrary rebel against Him, either the believer or the unbeliever, either the one who gives thanks or the one who is in despair. He is never neutral…”[1]

Here we are reminded that our lives are a response to God and his word to us.

Christianity is a way of life not only a series of beliefs, thoughts, or ideas. We are called to be practitioners not theorists. We are called to be participants, not passive. We are called to follow not observe.

In Luke chapter 9 which we read this morning we hear Jesus call his disciples to follow him, they are called to hear and to obey. Here is the word made flesh, calling the first disciples to follow him. He calls you and I too.

Jesus gives us a picture of discipleship in three movements:

1) Firstly, Jesus calls his disciples to deny themselves. This is a theme at the heart of lent. Proverbs says: “do not rely on your own insight.” What does this look like?

To deny oneself is to accept God’s word and will above our own, to be humble and to follow the lead of God not our own whims and desires.

2) Secondly, Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross

In the Roman world this is a terrifying thing to do. The literal picture is one of the condemned victim carrying the crossbeam of the cross from the court to the place of crucifixion.

For many Christians there has been a literal edge to this passage but Jesus here uses it as a metaphor. It is a picture of being willing to endure shame, ridicule, and suffering for following Jesus.

Jesus calls his disciples to lose their life for his sake. This isn’t Jesus being miserable or some kind of masochist. Jesus is making the point here that is similar to his point about not serving two masters. If we are busy seeking our own purposes and profit how can we keep our eyes fixed on God’s kingdom and his calling for our lives?

When we hear the call of God, it may involve sacrifice and suffering on our part. It may mean embarrassment or awkwardness too. The point is that there is a call to sacrifice here.

3) Thirdly, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him. Jesus’ life and ministry is a pattern and example for his disciples’ to imitate.

Jesus shows us what a life of hearing and obeying God the Father looks like as he did it perfectly.

For me though, what struck me as I read Luke 9 this week was one word in particular. It is a little word but it changes everything. I think this one little word gets to the heart of the practice of hearing and obeying God.

The little word is this – “daily.”

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

This is akin to Jesus asking us to pray for our daily bread. The life of discipleship is daily. Lent reminds us of this. 40 days…40 bite size chunks to practice the life of discipleship.

It is so easy to come up with big schemes and fail and then be discouraged.

Yet, the practice of hearing God and obeying God is daily. It is one step at a time.

All of the Christians I look up to and admire are people who get this.

Nick, an incredible Godly man in a church I went to as a teenager was a great encouragement to me. He exuded a warm and confident faith in Jesus, was willing to pray with me and in his gentle loving nature show what being a person of faith was all about. His daily practice involved sitting at the dining table with his Bible, cup of tea and toast. He took time daily to hear and obey and it showed.

I was also recently reading a biography or Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and great theologian. The book told the story of his ministry, his deep theological thought and influence on the life of the church. I admire him very much and so I kept reading on hoping for some kind of secret recipe or profound insight to his devotional life. What I found was so plain it disappointed me on one hand yet is deeply encouraging on the other. He too has a daily practice of reading the Bible and praying, and he emphasizes the practice of sitting in silence listening as part of that.

It’s all bread and butter stuff really.

This is what discipleship is about. It isn’t complicated. How might we this Lent take time to hear and obey Jesus?

When we are praying and when we are reading the Bible, how might we come simply and say: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening?”


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2 The Doctrine of the Word of God, section 16, pg 272.

Josh Taylor