Jesus, the Desert, and You

Jesus, the Desert, and You

Luke 4:1-13

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. All: He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

And 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then 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, 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.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


This being Valentine’s Day, I promise you, there is a love story in this message for you here, deeper than it may at first appear…

The story of Jesus’ temptation is an invitation for us to get back to basics, to recall a well-known message and gain new insights of God’s love and continuing journey with us.

The wilderness Jesus was driven into was probably the desert south of Jericho, where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. I am told that you can see for miles in every direction there. The view is monochrome, all sand-colored, sepia; the hills, the rocks, the brush, the scorpions. It is also very quiet, both because the sand absorbs sound and because there are very few living things there to make noise.

The only real desert I’ve been in has been in New Mexico, around Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Camp & Conference Center, and there is a camp policy never to let anyone go wandering off on their own.

That is because once you get over the back rise of ridges that surround the campsite, you are in the middle of nowhere. There is no Jordan River, no Dead Sea; just endless sagebrush, an immense blue sky, and you.

The bare essentials of a wilderness are that you are totally vulnerable, unguarded, out of your natural elements, disoriented. Some other examples:

– you could be a Terps fan sitting on the visitors side of the stadium, maybe even with the Hokies, or, more seriously….

– you could be the only English speaker in a gathering, wondering what in the world everyone else is talking about.

– you could have lost a loved one, a spouse, a relationship, your health, or, maybe a job recently…

Whatever your wilderness is about, I am guessing that there are three things in common with all other wildernesses:

       You did not choose it.  It is not a place you would ever have gone on your own.

       You are not in control.  You can’t change the score of the game, the language around you; you can’t bring back what has been lost.

And, whether it noisy or quiet there, there is one sound missing, and that is the voice of God. You feel yourself somehow untethered, unsure; you’re missing that confident feeling that everything will turn out all right; that you are not alone, that all is happening for a reason. But you still cannot hear that voice, even a holy whisper, and that internal silence defines the essence of the wilderness.

For many people, the hardest thing to believe in the wilderness is that God has anything to do with it at all. It can feel like the exact opposite, as if God has abandoned you and left you on your own- to live by your wits and any wherewithal you can muster…

According to Luke’s gospel, this is what Jesus experienced in the wilderness. And it was the Spirit who led Jesus him there. It was not the devil who drove him out there, but the Spirit of God. Odd, isn’t it?

According to the gospel, this time in the wilderness was essential to everything that came after it for Jesus. It was a great source of his humanness as well as his holiness. Even after he left the wilderness, he carried it around inside of him, and far from fleeing it later in his life, he drew on it for strength.

Without the wilderness he might not have been the same person. Because of the wilderness he was not afraid of anything.

Now, the church — by which I mean the living body of Christ in the world— believes this so much that it has set aside a similar season in the wilderness that we call Lent. It is not so much a place as it is a time.  None of us has to go if we do not want to. No force will drive us there unwillingly. We have the freedom to stay or to go, as we choose. But if we do choose to go, then it is due time we stop thinking that there is something wrong with these wildernesses of ours, and time to begin to recognize the importance of the path of growth that the wilderness can bring. It is time to stop wishing we could sleep through them, or that they would just go away.

If Jesus’ own life has anything to do with ours, then the desert is one of God’s gifts to us.

It is the Spirit’s doing, offered for our humanness as well as for our holiness, as we take stock of where we are on our life’s journey.

So we take three clues from Jesus today, part of the heart of the Gospel, the basic lessons of life with God. Jesus goes into the wilderness just as Israel went into the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea, and he went, not so much to wrestle with Satan, but to find out what the gifts God gave him were to be used for. The gifts Jesus was given are the same we have been given to exercise. Jesus goes into the wilderness to find out what it means to have been given inner strength.

The power struggle, as it were, was done before it began. God wins. We wouldn’t have this story had Jesus given in, would we?

So it’s important to pay attention to some key details in these stories as they each unfold. The temptations/tests are about who Jesus relies on for inner strength, confirming who he is as a child of God, and not a pawn of evil.

First, he is surrounded by stones in the desert, which after 40 days of fasting, look temptingly like bread rolls, don’t they? When he’s given the notion just to turn a stone to bread, easy as that might be for him (what harm would that be?)- Jesus learns that exercising his own will power over his own body is more important than giving in to the whim of Satan. He is teaching his body who is master, and it is not his stomach. In his defense, he cites scripture, his weapon over the devil. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Learning how to lean on the strength of God in the tough times is what Jesus needs to teach himself. That’s where his internal strength comes from, not carbohydrates, but from the Spirit of God, sight unseen.

The second temptation is political; a view of all the kingdoms of this world; all his, to legislate the kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t take on the offer, because he knows where true power lies, he knows that there’s something more important than government, that transcends a popular vote, a benevolent monarchy or a dictatorship, and that is worship of God. Those seem to be two different categories of thought for us, with a notion of the separation of church and state; but Jesus is setting priorities here. Worship of God is where hearts and minds are refreshed, given new life, creativity, a home for gratitude to rightly reside. God is the well of life from whom all things come. Forgetting this leaves one empty.

Jesus transforms the desire to control into the desire to worship. He says, again quoting Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone.” Jesus reorients our gaze to the one who really is in charge, now and always.

The third and final temptation (Biblical challenge stories always have three tests), takes us to the supernatural, with the promise of a miracle. Angels will appear to guide Jesus safe landing from the top of the Temple parapet.

We all love a spectacle, whether it is the Super Bowl half-time show, a World Series nail biter, a spine-tingling mystery movie. Jesus’ offer to ride a magic carpet into celebrity status could be pretty attractive; that is, if he didn’t know who he was.

Yet Jesus knows he’s in the wilderness to learn more of who he is and from where he receives everlasting strength. He’s not about playing games with God.

Jesus is not going to be distracted by the daring, the intriguing or the spectacular. He can’t be bought off with food, he can’t be bribed with high office; he can’t be distracted by entertainment. He can’t be put off from his purpose. That’s strength you can count on, even in your wilderness.

This is in part what Lent is for, discovering where your power truly lies and what it means for your life. True strength doesn’t ultimately lie in our bodies, our will power or our mental strength (we’re all pretty weak, when it comes right down to it.)

True strength lies in the source Jesus drew upon, in God’s grace through the power of the Spirit, who joins us in our walk, sight unseen, who always forgives us and encourages us to do as he did, best we can.

Lent is the time for us to be strengthened in our walk together, now even more aware of where true power lies. In Jesus’ name. Amen.