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When Forty Doesn’t Equal Four Times Ten


Deuteronomy 2:1-7                        Acts 1:1-5                      Acts 4:13 -22                 Mark 1:9-13


From late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning is only a day-and-a-half. Then why are we told that following his crucifixion Jesus was in the tomb three days? It’s not because first-century Christians couldn’t count. Rather it’s because “three” is the Hebrew expression for “a little while.”

In the same way “forty” is the Hebrew expression for “a long time.” You must have noticed how often the number forty occurs in the bible. What’s more, “forty” means not merely “a long time” but “a sufficiently long time;” sufficient time to learn something important or do something important or be marked by something significant. Don Cherry told me that when Bobby Orr arrived in the NHL, despite Orr’s immense talent it took Orr six months to learn how to skate an onrushing forward off towards the boards as the forward came down the ice. A Hebrew writer would say it took Orr forty days to learn this, forty days being time sufficiently long for a person to learn or do or be marked by something significant.


I: — Moses and the Israelites were said to be forty years in the wilderness. There they were schooled in much, trained for much, tested by much. You and I live in a wilderness of sorts too. The wilderness can be outer (we are visited with affliction of some sort) or inner (we are burdened intra-psychically.) What we learn in life’s wilderness is important. For there we are schooled, trained, tested again and again. In fact, all God’s people, ancient or modern, develop in the wilderness as we can develop nowhere else.

The wilderness is never without the element of the unpredictable. There’s always something untamed about it, something uncontrollable. In addition wilderness existence is always lean, sparse, spare. There aren’t a great many comforts in the wilderness.

Once they were in the wilderness the people of Israel forgot how terrible slavery had been. They forgot how demeaning it was to be a slave at all. They whined at their wilderness hardship and wanted to go back to Egypt . Moses wouldn’t let them. Moses knew, as every spiritual leader knows, that the wilderness (whether outer or inner) is where we have to live once God has called us out of slavery and has made us his people and has set our feet on the road to the promised land. Either we keep stepping ahead toward the promised land or we retreat into bondage. Moses kept the people stepping ahead.

Now don’t cringe when you hear the word “wilderness.” The wilderness isn’t all bad. Life in the wilderness is rigorous, to be sure, but it isn’t unrelieved misery. In fact some people prefer to live in the wilderness; they are profoundly contented there: Elijah, for instance, Israel ’s greatest prophet; and of course Elijah’s near-clone, John the Baptist; Jesus too. Sometimes our English bibles tell us Jesus went to pray “in a solitary place” or “a lonely place” or wherever. All these English expressions translate one Greek word that simply means “wilderness.”

If Jesus can live contentedly in the wilderness, then all God’s people can too. Once we are in the wilderness we find that life is less cluttered. There are fewer distractions. Life here is starker, to be sure, yet just for that reason more transparent, more authentic, less disguised, with fewer false faces. Life in the wilderness is certainly elemental, but not for that reason miserable.

John the Baptist wasn’t miserable in the wilderness. On the contrary he was at home there. He was a man of truth who exposed falsehood and phoniness at all times. He didn’t have a closetful of clothes, but he knew he could wear only one outfit at a time. His diet wasn’t rich or fancy, but no one ever thought John to be frail. He wasn’t surrounded by social-climbing flatterers, but there were simple people, devout, discerning people, who knew he was a prophet and loved him. Above all, John’s wilderness vocation was publicly endorsed by Jesus. What more could anyone want?

The words “wilderness” and “temptation” seem to go hand-in-hand. But the Greek word for “temptation,” peirasmos, means testing as well as temptation. It so happens that every temptation is also an occasion of testing, refining. In other words, the outcome of every episode of temptation is (or should be) refined character. Scripture states clearly that God tempts no one in the sense that God seduces no one into that sin which God abhors. (How could he?) But everywhere scripture maintains that God tests us, and tests us always with a view to refining us. As our character is refined under God, as we are ridded of useless accretions and disfiguring impediments, as we learn to let go all that merely distracts us from our discipleship, we are a step closer to the promised land. Simply put, where life is leaner, elemental, uncluttered, we can grow in godliness and wisdom as we can grow nowhere else.

Actually, living in the wilderness is simple. I didn’t say easy; I said simple. You see, once we know what our obedience to Jesus Christ requires of us, the only matter we have to settle is courage. Once we know what uncluttered discipleship asks of us, the only thing we need to ensure our refining is courage.

When The United Church of Canada convulsed in May 1988 I wrote a 4500 word article for a newspaper that was reprinted over and over from coast to coast, hundreds of thousands of copies. I have no regrets over what I did, even after I learned the price tag attached to it. When my article appeared several United Church ministers sidled up to me and said, “Victor, I agree with everything you’ve written. But I’m not going to say anything publicly lest I derail my career in the church.” I told them they were self-serving cowards. Is anyone surprised that psychological profiles of the clergy show them to be wimps?

Then I look away from clergy to the people I see all around me and I am speechless at their courage. Think of the courage of the person hobbled with arthritis who takes three times as long as anyone else to get to work but who goes nonetheless.

Think of the adolescent who excuses himself when the party starts to get out of hand and comes home by himself, knowing what he will have to face at school on Monday morning.

Think of the mother with little formal education who knows that her child is being treated unfairly by school authorities or hospital authorities and who intercedes for her child even though she’s no verbal match for these better-educated folk and has been put down by them before.

Think of the moderately schizophrenic person who is ill enough to be distressed and awkward yet sane enough to know she’s distressed and awkward and who knows as well that she’s stigmatized by it all. What kind of courage does she exhibit every day?

C.S. Lewis points out that some people boast of their vices. The cheater may boast of her dishonesty and the seducer of his lechery. But there’s one vice, says Lewis, that no one ever boasts of: cowardice. We view cowardice with disgust when we see it in others and view it with shame when we find it in ourselves.

Courage is what we need for leaving our thousand-and-one enslavements behind and stepping ahead in our pared-down, uncluttered life toward the promised land. For it’s courage that sees us through to the other side of our wilderness-testings, and sees us emerge with our character refined.


II: — We are told something more about “forty.” We are told that the risen Jesus appeared to his followers during the forty days after Easter and interpreted his earthly ministry to them. The risen one had to interpret his earlier ministry to them, since they had understood so little of it – in fact they had misunderstood virtually all of it – when he was with them before his crucifixion. If you read the gospel of Mark carefully you will notice that the disciples look bad everywhere. Parents bring their children to Jesus, and the disciples thrust them away. Samaritan villagers treat Jesus rudely, and the disciples want heaven-sent fire to consume the dull-witted wretches. The direction of Christ’s entire earthly ministry is towards self-forgetfulness, and the disciples squabble over which of them will be greatest in the kingdom of God . “Keen but clueless” is the only way we can speak of the disciples.

Therefore the risen one must school them in the force and thrust of his earthly ministry. But for how long? For forty days; i.e., for as long as it takes clueless disciples to learn what they need to know. Clearly they need time sufficient to move from pre-Easter error to post-Easter understanding.

For how long will our Lord have to school you and me? For as long as it takes to get us clued-in and have our understanding of him match our ardour for him.

Think of the story of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John ascend the Mountain with Jesus. The three disciples find themselves face-to-face with Elijah and Moses. Moses is the giver of the Torah, the Way which God appoints his people to walk day-by-day. Elijah is Israel ’s greatest prophet, the forthright truth-teller who points out where God’s people have departed from the Way, and who calls them to return to it. The three disciples hear the voice from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him; obey him.” Then Moses and Elijah are seen no more, since their work is now gathered up in the Son who is the Way to be walked, the Truth to be cherished, and the Life or inspiration of it all. The three disciples are left alone with Jesus.

Peter says “Awesome! What a scene! Let’s see it again.” Peter wants to spend the rest of his life bathed in psycho-religious ecstasy. Moments of such ecstasy may come upon you and me. But life can’t be lived here. Instead the voice is heard, “This is the Son who reveals my nature and purpose: heed him.” Then Jesus and the three disciples go down the hill into the village where they find an epileptic boy who foams and thrashes and has fallen into cooking fires and horse troughs and nearly killed himself a dozen times over. The boy’s father is both heartbroken and terrified. Christian discipleship always binds us to the world’s anguish, to sickness, encripplement, danger, fear, frenzy. This is where we have to be if we want to mirror our Lord’s ministry.

John’s gospel concludes with the risen Jesus reminding Peter that no two followers are called to the same expression of discipleship. Peter has to be reminded of this for two reasons. He assumes, mistakenly again, that all disciples are to be carbon copies of each other. In the second place he resents the easier time he thinks another disciple has. Jesus tells Peter to mind his own business and simply see to it that he pursues his own calling gratefully and gladly.

You and I are called to differing expressions of discipleship. Therefore we mustn’t complain about that expression which our Lord has appointed for us. Neither are we to envy anyone else’s vocation. We are to be cheerful, eager followers of him whose company and encouragement are bread for us.

Peter has the comfort of a wife. Paul has no wife. Lydia , a believer in Thyatira, is a well-to-do businesswoman. The believers in Jerusalem are poor. Most of the Christians in Corinth have no social distinction at all. Erastus, however, a member of the congregation in Corinth , is the city treasurer, the most prominent and influential civil servant in Corinth .

Today some Christians are undoubtedly called to greater financial renunciation, others to less. Most are to marry; some, however, are summoned to celibacy. Some are called to greater visibility, others to less. I knew two men in the same denomination, one of whom renounced a career as a concert pianist in order to enter the ordained ministry, while the other became a lay preacher at the same time as he remained a symphony violinist.

How long does it take us to learn all this, even to learn what our vocation is? How long does it take us to move from pre-Easter misunderstanding to post-Easter discernment and contentment? It takes “forty days.” In other words, it takes as long as the Master deems sufficient. “Forty,” remember, doesn’t mean four times ten. In some contexts “forty” means lifelong, for surely you and I shall have to keep learning what discipleship means for us as long as life lasts.


III: — Lastly we are told that the lame man whom Peter and John restored was forty years old. In ancient Israel someone “forty years old” was someone sufficiently old to be a credible witness. We are told that Isaac and Esau were each forty years old when they married. Chronologically they would have been closer to twenty. “Forty years old” means sufficiently old to be a believable witness.

The lame man whom Peter and John come upon; they find him begging. He asks them for money. They have none. “Silver and gold we don’t have,” they say; “but what we do have we give you: in the name of Jesus Christ get up on your feet and start walking.” And for the first time in his life the man stands and walks, however shakily. The religious authorities resent it all, since they assume that they and their bureaucracy and their schemes control God. The authorities slander the apostles and try to discredit them, yet have to fall silent when the healed man stands beside Peter and John. What can detractors say when there is standing in front of them someone whose restoration is an undeniable sign of God’s work and God’s kingdom? They can’t say anything. After all, the healed man is “forty;” he’s old enough to testify credibly.

Testimony always does two things. (i) It reconfirms the faith of the believer himself. Wherever and however testimony is rendered, whether in word or deed, whether quietly or publicly, the faith of the believer roots itself more deeply and manifests itself more noticeably and bears fruit more tellingly. Testimony always reconfirms the faith of the believer, the testifier, himself. (ii) In the second place testimony or witness – of any kind – is a megaphone that magnifies the voice of our Lord as he summons yet another person to begin following him.

In a court of law, testimony is acceptable only if it comes from someone who has first-hand experience to relate and who is truthful in relating it. First-hand experience (not second-hand hearsay) and truthfulness (not fabrication or wishful thinking) are what matter.

What does a congregation expect in its pastor? Surely that the pastor is going to be forty years old. He or she has to be a credible witness, possessed of first-hand experience to be related truthfully. When someone dear to you is dying or sin has overwhelmed you or betrayal has devastated you, only the forty year old can help. While a congregation expects this in its pastor, the pastor in turn aims at this for every member of the congregation.


The truth is, so relentlessly complex is our daily life, and so wonderfully rich is our Lord’s grace, that we are stepping ahead in the wilderness where we are tested and refined. We are advancing in our understanding of our Lord’s ministry and our discipleship. And in all of this we are a credible witness to others, like the healed man who walked usefully, leapt delightfully, and praised God exuberantly. We are doing all these; we are all these, at one and the same time.

Then it really is true: life begins at forty.


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                              

 November 2004