“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Mystics, explorers, and scripture writers are drawn to the wilderness. Highly civilized, busy, distracted people seek the wilderness for solace and for insight.
For many, many years my family has gone on pilgrimage to Big Bend National Park –
NO PLASTIC. The few restaurants are miles and miles and hours distant from one another.
It is nearly impossible to eat out at Spring break or Christmas vacation. When the kids were little we tackled really long and hard hikes. We would keep the kids marching up the hill, bribed by “trail mix” (peanuts, M+M’s, and raisins) to stave off their hunger and their fussing, until we summited the South Rim and could head down.
Frank and I go after Christmas and on New year’s Eve, we hike up the mountain. There we see the year past and the year to come from the vantage point of the emptiness and clarity of the desert in winter.
On my sabbatical this December I drove to Big Bend with my friend, Lisa, for an improvised Advent retreat, in the cold air, under the Milky Way. The Rio Grande full on its banks; water flowed in the canyons. We had the summit to ourselves and shared our peanut butter sandwich and thermos of hot coffee as we looked over into Mexico in the mist.
The wilderness also holds dangers. Its uncultivated ground yields no grain to grind. There are bright green bitter wild plants to forage and steep for tea. Wild animals prowl seeking someone to devour. You can run out of water. You can be soaked by a storm. Without official roles, without celebrity, in the wilderness you can forget who you are.
The gospel writer Luke tells the well-loved story of Jesus led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It was the same wilderness where his kinsman John cried out to the people to repent do justice. Here holy men receive visions, terrifying and assuring, stark and true.
In that barren forbidding space, one scorching hot day and one bitter cold night, one after another for forty days, with only the scorpions and snakes for company, Jesus faced a single mighty adversary, the devil. At the end of all of those harsh days Jesus, the scripture, tells us, “was famished.”
The first test. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
If you really are who you are, Conjure Bread. Use your power to feed and to save yourself.
Jesus, quotes from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Number two. Here it is. The vision. “in an instant” “in a flash” “All the kingdoms of the world that the devil now owns. Rome. Persia. Athens. Saudi Arabia.. Dubai. Lower Manhattan. The Power and the Glory. This can all be yours, if you worship me.
And Jesus back again to Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”
Finally number three, to the city of Jerusalem, to the temple, the holiest of holies, the place of refuge, the very tip top of it: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,
The devil twists the beautiful psalm of trust in God to cruel purpose and mocks Jesus.
“For it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’ and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
To the cynical reading of this promise, Jesus answers:
“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Even exhausted, even famished, against the most practiced of all deceivers, Jesus aced these forty days of testing, and showed himself to be the Son of God, faithful to the commandments, trusting God for nourishment, for protection, and loyal only to God.
Jesus’ conquest of the test, his total victory over temptation, invites us to compare how Jesus faced the challenges in the wilderness with how we human beings endure testing.
I’m afraid ours is not a story of quite so heroic or quite so triumphant. First of all, we do not always go to the wilderness by choice.But many times we can find ourselves there or be taken there against our will, not by the Spirit but by circumstance or strife.
It is in the wilderness that we are vulnerable – to being overwhelmed by our needs for food and water to survive. We can be afflicted and terminally lonely, cut off from our roles in society, roaming in a trackless waster without the structures that give us meaning and purpose.
There is the open spaces, under the vast sky, we can grow bored, restless without satellite radio, the internet, streaming movies and television series, records, books, cable news.
We are not at home with its familiar comforts, but in an alien and unfriendly landscape.
Scripture tells of the time when the people of Israel found themselves in the wilderness against their will, wandering with Moses, the promised land, a mirage. They were not in their own land and no longer in the luxury of the land of their enemy.
And they did not distinguish themselves. They were hungry and thirsty. They grumbled and complained and fussed and murmured against Moses and against God. They doubted their leaders. And did not trust God.
They melted their jewelry and made a shiny calf and knelt down before it. They tested the Lord their God.
Our response to testing might be more like these our ancestors.
When we face testing in the wilderness – through illness or betrayal or war or displacement or … when we are worn down from hunger and weather… our temptations are not the same as those of Jesus.
For Jesus was tempted to use his divine power – which he had as Son of God- for the wrong ends. When the evil one tempts us, it is to assume a godlike power that we do not have.
What is my temptation when vulnerable, lonely, sad, overwhelmed, disappointed?
It’s not to turn stones into bread, but to over function – to do what other people are doing better than they can do it themselves – to rescue – to be perfect – to control – to be like god -to know good and evil.
Or to be depressed, to despair. Not to trust
To blame, to criticize, be mean, be cruel.
To test God’s love for me and then to curse god.
As a people, community, society, as a church we do this also– We seek power, power of all kinds, political, financial, psychological to escape the vulnerability of being human.
We forget who we are. We ignore God’s good law. We exploit and abuse. Kids, spouses. People of other languages and races.
We commit and participate in all those sins in the Great Litany which we chanted in procession today.
Jesus outmaneuvered the devil in the wilderness and came to save all flesh. His redeeming work opened up the potential for us to respond … in another way.
When the people of God are hungry, lonely, enslaved, weak, do they abandon God and the law and their neighbors? Do they worship money, status, and violent force – taking godlike power into their own hands? Or do they trust God and answer suffering with love, compassion and generosity?
Our ancestors remembered the wilderness as their rebellion there as one of their most infamous, embarrassing and shameful moments.
And as time passed they remembered it also as a place where God was present in mysterious ways, as sweet manna sprinkled on the ground every morning, as days when they were in communion with one another and with God in remarkable ways. For poorer not richer. In the wild, not highly cultivated.
Their time there was a creative time. When God was able to set a table in the wilderness. When he gave his angels had charge over them – to bear them up – so that they did not dash their foot against a stone.
In the season of Lent we make an intentional visit to the wilderness, a sojourn in the desert.
For perspective. Perhaps for vision.
Giving thanks for Jesus’ success and humbly admitting our weakness, we pray for repentance. We pray for recreation.
“Create in us clean hearts, oh God, and renew a right spirit within us.”