The wilderness can be a harsh teacher. Last summer, when a bear entered our campsite on a canoe trip, I was reminded that I was an intruder in another creature’s territory and that my presence offered opportunities and dangers to us both.
When Jesus was about to begin his ministry, newly baptized and affirmed by God, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. For hearers familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the wilderness is a reminder of the Israelites’ 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. There, after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was confronted by very real temptations.
The devil said, “Make these stones into bread.” Feed yourself; like Esau, perhaps, giving away his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jesus in his great hunger remembered that physical food is only one of the things we need to stay truly alive.
The devil took him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and suggested he gain authority by stunt work. Throw yourself down; God’s angels will rescue you from death. The devil even quoted Scripture to strengthen the point. Jesus remembered that his job was not to put God to the test.
The devil offered Jesus world power in exchange for Jesus’ worship of him. Take control; after waiting 40 days for Moses on Mount Sinai, the Israelites built a golden calf to worship. Jesus remembered to love and serve only God. He learned what he already knew: trust in God is more important than power.
The wilderness neither protects nor destroys. One entering must know how to find its treasures and how to protect oneself against its hazards. The wilderness has no interest in a person’s past or future. It forces us to be present in every moment and to lose the illusion that we are in control of much of anything.
I’m curious about what Jesus did during those 40 days before he met the devil. We can’t know, of course, but if he let the wilderness teach him, we can be sure that he learned some very important lessons about endurance, the place of human beings in God’s order of creation, and the source of his strength.
Lessons from the wilderness can follow us into the city. It’s hard not to be aware these days of the way we have put the world in peril by our overuse of fossil fuels to feed our appetite for exotic foods and other commodities. We are invited to remember that only just food practices will ultimately feed us physically, and only our conscious feeding on God’s Word and way will make us grow up into the healthy and whole creatures we were made to become.
Control over our circumstances is tenuous at best, even though the forest of urban buildings and other amenities would tempt us to think otherwise. We are invited to let go of our need for control so that we can trust God more than human power.
We are so prone to trusting the intelligence of our minds, yet we fail to hear the deep desires of our hearts and the messages of our bodies in stress. We are reluctant to submit these three forms of intelligence to our Creator, who (amazingly) came to walk among us and who sacrificed his life for us. We are invited to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, submitting all forms of our intelligence to the Giver of these gifts, who can transform them into wisdom and joyful living.
March 9 begins the season of Lent, a six-week preparation for Good Friday and Easter. Since the fourth century, Christians have used this time to remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness by praying, fasting, and giving alms as a way of penitence and recommitment (or new commitment leading to baptism).
Lent is a time of slowing down, recalibrating priorities, and remembering the lessons the wilderness teaches. Feed on God’s word, rely on God’s power, trust in God’s wisdom. In a world where speed and instant gratification are rampant, such an opportunity to choose another way is a true gift.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting 40 days and 40 nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also 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. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.