Journey into Discernment: Into the Desert

Published: Monday, 10 October 2016

This sermon was given by Geoff Pound at ABC on Sunday 9 October 2016 and is the first in a series entitled, Journey in Discernment. The ‘journey’ being encouraged at ABC involves Sunday sermons, Group Studies and personal daily reflections. The format is based on the book, Making Life Decisions, which includes forty chapters for personal reflection and weekly studies for personal and group study.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 4: 1-11 desert GP 1016

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

When Johann Goethe, the German writer and diplomat, was a young man, he had a hankering to become a fulltime professional artist.[1] One day while he was walking along the Lahn River, this question of whether to become a painter or not loomed large.

He decided to settle this matter once and for all. He took a knife from his pocket and got ready to throw it into the river. He resolved that if he could see the knife fall as it sank to the bottom he was to become an artist, but if the sinking knife was concealed by the willow trees, he was to abandon the idea.

He flung the knife into the river. For a time the willows hid the sinking knife. But then the water bubbled up like a fountain and the knife flashed once again.

His test was so ambiguous. The answer was so indefinite that he was still left in the dark.

I wonder what shonky guidance tests you have submitted yourself to? If this thing happens then I will go and do that. If that thing happens then I will go somewhere else. There must be a more excellent way.

In these next few weeks in Sunday sermons, in small groups and in daily personal study we’re encouraging each other on a journey of discernment.

Some of you are young like Goethe and you’ll be eager to discern vocational possibilities or questions about courses for next year.

Others are older and the discernment challenge may relate to beginning a new relationship, relocation, retirement or downsizing.

In many ways the discernment questions never die, so hopefully we are eager to explore and apply the light of the Scriptures, the prompting of the living Christ and the rich resources that our faith offers.

Today’s Scripture passage begins with Matthew saying:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.

Jesus sensed an urging to head for the desert. Did he know then that this desert experience would catapult him into his public ministry (Matthew 4:12) or was this God’s providential timing and preparation?

It’s a wise thing to be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit but we also see throughout Christ’s life a commitment to this practice of disengagement especially before new chapters of his life or significant decisions that he was called to make.

1. The Journey of Discernment begins with a commitment to Disengage.

Andrew Sullivan is a British writer who lives in the United States.[2] Since the early days of blogging he had built up an audience of 100,000 readers a day, he had a news-media business that was profitable and a niche in the nerve centre of the exploding global conversation.

Every morning began with a full immersion in the Internet, as he broke stories, shared insights and responded to people all over the world.

About a year ago he sensed a personal crash coming upon him. He’d always joked that if the Internet kills you then He’d be the first to find out. Now the joke was wearing thin. His health was giving out with one infection after another and holidays became opportunities to catch up on sleep.

After 15 years of this treadmill, Andrew Sullivan decided to quit the World Wide Web. He threw his life and career up in the air.[3]

He went to a retreat centre for the ultimate detox. When he arrived he sat in a large hall with others and reached into his pocket for his iPhone. A woman came by with a basket to collect all the phones and he duly surrendered his device only to feel a sudden pang of panic on his way back to his seat.

In those next few days the only words he heard were in three counseling sessions and a couple of guided meditations. The silence grew. His breathing slowed. His brain settled. His body became more available to him. He could feel it digesting and pulsating.

Things that usually had escaped him now began to intrigue him. On a walk through the forest he began to notice the quality of the autumnal light, the splotchy multicolours of the fallen leaves, the texture of lichen on the bark. He heard birdsong for the first time in years. Of course he’d heard it but it’d been so long since he’d listened.

Soon enough the world of ‘the news’ disappeared from his consciousness. He felt the slowing of the ticking clock, the unwinding of the pace and he sensed a trace of freedom.

The novelty of the retreat slowly receded and Sullivan reported some periods of being overwhelmed, a confrontation with painful memories and the trauma that had marked his childhood. Counseling helped him express his anguish. Time soon eased or resolved it.

Sullivan prayed for relief but he said this was “like a natural process of revisiting, healing and recovering. It felt like an ancient, long-buried gift.”

It takes courage to disconnect. ‘A waste of time’, some might say. But a ten day retreat was life saving for Andrew Sullivan.

4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness … He fasted forty days and forty nights.

There’s nothing magical about forty days but in the Bible the number ‘forty’ suggests a significant period.[4] It may not be possible or advisable for you to take forty days to be full time on the work of discernment but it’d be good to think of how and when we might carve out some special time so we can invest in this important work of discernment.

Perhaps as Christians, we’ve lost much of the benefit that can come through the weekly practice of Sabbath. As a committed Jew, Raphael Freeman describes the gift of the Sabbath.[5]

He says:

“We have a 25-hour reprieve starting Friday evening where all devices are turned off, iPhones, iPads, TVs, radios. No digital content whatsoever… Those of us who go to the synagogue, we have our time of meditation.”

“We go to the park with the kids, see our friends and catch up in a meaningful way. No cellphone beeping, no digital distraction…”

“And our kids notice it. They love Shabbat even though they can’t wait to play with their devices on Saturday evening as the 25 hours end. But they love it because they have their parent’s attention 100%. No work. No calls. No texts.”

Raphael concludes: “Whether you believe in God or not, the invention of Shabbat is brilliant.”

That’s one day a week but how do we carve out a mini-Sabbath to disengage every day?

Having reaped the benefits of a ten day retreat, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation.”

But then he starts to imagine other innovative responses:

“Restaurants where Smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? More meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill?”[6]

The Journey of Discernment begins with a commitment to Disengage.

2. The Journey of Discernment continues with a commitment to Connect.

This report about Jesus fasting for forty days and forty nights meant connecting with his own humanity. Feeling not only his physical hunger but all the things that his body craved.

In the testing conversation that ensued, this period was a time of intense connection with God particularly through mulling over the Scriptures. To the tempting proposal to turn the stones into bread (4), Jesus says:


“It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (4)

In the desert Jesus was on a nutritious spiritual diet of the Scriptures and finding their capacity to satisfy and quell the appetite for feasting on junk.

In the desert there are no markers but whether in his imagination or in some other way he is taken “to the holy city and placed… on the pinnacle of the temple,” (5) and later he is taken “to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour,” (9). This is a time of great testing.

Similarly we should expect our journey of discernment to be challenging, even gruelling. A time when without our work, our usual schedule and comforts we’re being stripped down to see ourselves as we really are.

And in the silence we hear new voices, voices that urge us, voices that lure us. Maybe our constant addiction to noise is our way of deadening the voices within. Perhaps they’re the anaesthetic we use to numb the pain.

When we imagine a journey in the desert as a time of intense connection with God do you wonder whether you could really hack it? How would we concentrate? How do we tame our wandering minds that flit and skitter all over the place?

When different voices are urging, Jesus shuts them down and says three times, “It is written.” (4, 7, 10). He refuses to get drawn into this tempting chatter by the praying and quoting of Scripture. This brings focus, truth and strength.

The masters of prayer encourage the repeating of Biblical prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer), repeating the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.’[7] All helpful things in our journey to maintain this connection with God.

Matthew’s account finishes with these last verses (10-11):

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Jesus renews his commitment to worshipping and serving God and the testing subsides and he is ministered to.

The Journey of Discernment begins with a commitment to Disengage.

The Journey of Discernment continues with a commitment to Connect.

The Journey of Discernment concludes with a commitment to Partnership.

At Stanford University, the most popular class isn’t chemistry or computer science.

Stanford’s most popular course is called, ‘Designing Your Life’.[8] It’s offered to give students the perspectives and the tools that they need to navigate decisions about their life and work after graduation.

The teachers launched ‘Designing Your Life’ back in 2010 and it took off in a heartbeat. It’s so popular that students vie for the limited places.[9]

The students learn about vocation, finding purpose, developing passion, creativity, developing the whole person, self-care and being intentional.

The university course isn’t directly to do with spirituality or religion but these things can have a place within its framework.

Their only bias is, “We can make the future better.” We can design our lives.

The popularity of this Stanford experiment highlights how intriguing the questions of vocation and discernment really are.

It’s a timely rider to any notion that we are simply sponges or that discernment is merely passive in which we wait for God to write signposts in the sky telling us what to do.

The image of Christ returning from the desert is one of freedom, intentionality and renewed partnership.

So let’s be on our journey, open to all the resources for discerning our way, discovering that in partnership with God, we can design our lives and build a better future.


Lord Jesus Christ, save us from distraction.

Help us to find and make spaces away from the familiar and the noise, so to connect more with who we are and commune with you our living God, in the silence, through the Scriptures and amid the urges and craving that's rage about us.

May these times refresh and energize us for service in your world.

Bless our journey with you.

Enable us to support one another through Jesus Christ, our strength and Guide.



In your journey,

Go as far as your courage takes you,

For you can never go beyond the reach of God.

Give as extravagantly as you can,

For you can never outspend the riches of God.

Care as lavishly as you can,

For you can never exhaust the love of God.

Journey with joy and rest with confidence,

For you will never run out of the peace of God.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with us all, Amen.


[1] This story about Goethe is told by F W Boreham in his book, ‘Mountains in the Mist’. It appears in his essay ‘Lead Kindly Light’, 52.

[2] Andrew Sullivan, ‘I Used to be a Human Being’, New York Magazine, 18 September 2016.

[3] Jennifer Schuessler reports Andrew Sullivan’s closure of his blog, ‘The Dish’ in her article, ‘Andrew Sullivan on His Brief Return to the Online Political Fray’, New York Times, 29 July 2016.

[4] Rain fell for forty days and forty nights during the Genesis flood (7:4). Spies explored the Promised Land for forty days (Numbers 13: 25). Forty days was the period from the resurrection of Jesus to his Ascension (Acts 1:3). In modern Christian practice, Lent consists of the forty days preceding Easter.[4] Advent is a similar period preceding and preparing us for the birth of Jesus.

[5] Raphael Freeman expresses this as a comment to the New York Magazine article by Andrew Sullivan listed earlier.

[6] Sullivan, ‘I Used to be a Human Being’, New York Magazine.

[7] More helpful material on this topic from Martin Laird, ‘Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation’, DLT, 2006, especially 48-74.

[8] Ainsley O’Connell, Stanford’s Most Popular Class, Fast Company, 26 March 2015.

[9] Some students teach the class to their friends who weren’t able to enroll.

[10] Adapted from WellSpring Midday prayers this week.