On the Other Side of the Wilderness

“Christ in the Desert”
Ivan Kramskoi, 1872
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This Week’s Lectionary Passage:  Luke 4: 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Every year in this first week of Lent we read of Jesus, led or driven by the Spirit, intentionally going out into the wilderness.  On purpose?  Who does that?  Who chooses to relinquish control and put oneself at the mercy of the elements or whatever else might come along? Well, obviously Jesus.  So what is our take-away of that?  Are we really supposed to follow?  After all, our lives have been a veritable exercise in learning to maintain control–of our homes, our families, our finances, our health, our time, and even our spiritual life.  And then, this.  Jesus leaves all the comforts and control of home and goes out into the wilderness by himself.  I mean, really, anything could happen out there, right?  He is hungry.  He is vulnerable.  And he surely knows that he is in danger.  And sure enough, temptation looms.  Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, the gift of the God’s unfailing grace, the ground of our hope, and the promise of our deliverance from sin and death, is driven not just into the wilderness but into the depths of his humanity.  And it is there that he is tempted to raise himself up, to fill his emptiness, to place himself above others, to guarantee his own being and his own protection. 

The truth is, though, no one, not even Jesus, can save oneself.  That’s just not the way it works.  Maybe that’s what the wilderness teaches us–that we cannot save ourselves, that we cannot guarantee what will or won’t happen to us, that we are not, much as we hate to admit it, in control.  Now there are those that will say that this whole account was some sort of divine plan by God.  I have a hard time with that.  I mean, really, what point wout that prove?  All that says is that God is some sort of divine game player and we are nothing but pawns on an earthly gameboard.  And after all, is Jesus human or isn’t he?  I’ve been told that he was.  You know–fully human.  He was not above it all.  He was not a super hero.  And he was certainly not a game piece.  He encountered the same human weaknesses that we do every day.  Real weaknesses, real happenings in one’s life, are part of being real, part of being human. 

The truth is that there are some things for which we just cannot prepare.  I mean, think about it, we go along living our lives the best we can and then, without warning, a meteor comes screaming across the sky.  Do you know why astronomers and cosmologists weren’t expecting it?  They didn’t know that it was coming because it was too small to see.  That, too, is what the wilderness teaches us.  Sometimes the small things that we dismiss in our lives are the things that can hurt us, can slowly, bit by bit, pull us away from who we are, from who God calls us to be.

God does not inflict the wilderness on us.  Jesus was not led into this dark and foreboding place to pass some sort of Divine test.  Because, remember, a test does not always possess a right or wrong answer.  Think about a chemical test.  You put two or more elements together not to see if they will pass but to compel them to change.  Jesus went into the wilderness to change, to be fully human, and to find deep within himself the piece of the Godself that calls him home.

So, in this Lenten season, let us intentionally enter the wilderness, not to prove something or because God is waiting to see whether or not we fail, but because the wilderness is the way home.

The Promised Land lies on the other side of a wilderness.  (Havelock Ellis)

Grace and Peace,


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