For the first Sunday in Lent Jesus gets led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he’s tempted. I think we need to start with this “wilderness.” Most of us have had an experience of being in the wilderness. It’s a lonely and helpless place. A place where everything you thought you could trust fail. St. John of the Cross called it “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Others have referred to it as feeling abandoned by God. When in the wilderness, you can relate to feelings of being lost, alone, helpless. It’s easy to question everything in the wilderness, because you are powerless there.
Which is why many people, when in the wilderness, come to believe that somehow they are being punished for something they’ve done wrong. They can come to question the existence of God because begin to wonder why God would let this happen to them. But that is not the case at all.
Wilderness experiences aren’t punishments, and they aren’t abandonments. They are simply part of what it means to be alive, to be human, to exist in a world that is far from perfect.
Rather than doubting the existence of God, the wilderness offers a unique opportunity to watch for the reality of God to be revealed. It’s unique because, quite honestly, there’s no other hope there. If you can hope in something other than the grace and mercy of God, it’s not really the wilderness. Your own strength doesn’t work, your ability to pull yourself up doesn’t work, your talents and intelligence and even your faith don’t really work. In the wilderness all of that is stripped away—which leaves us open to see God in ways we never could otherwise.
That’s the situation for Jesus in this gospel text. Right after he’s baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Even Jesus has wilderness experiences, dark nights of the soul. Matthew says he’s there for 40 days—which is Bible-speak for a very long time.
Look at how he’s tempted. Whether you believe in an actual devil or not, these temptations are very real. Three are recorded here. Each one is a different way away from what God has called him to do. Each one is a different way to try something other than God, to trust something other than God. And each time, Jesus recognizes the grace and purpose of God in ways he couldn’t do if he wasn’t in the wilderness.
He’s tempted to trust in his own abilities, his own determination of how to take care of himself—turn stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, you don’t need to wait to see what God is doing. You can take care of this yourself. You have the ability. God has abandoned you anyway, so what difference does it make? Eat!
Jesus’ response is to trust God. Food isn’t everything, and certainly not right now. The most important thing is to listen for God’s voice, which he’s better able to hear in the wilderness.
No, in the wilderness, Jesus will hear more clearly God’s voice, God’s call, and God’s intentions. The wilderness is where you can listen more carefully to God.
Then he’s tempted to shortcut that voice of God with a quick, shallow, literal interpretation of scripture. Throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple, because scripture says that God’s angels will catch you, “they will bear you up,” Psalm 91:12 says, “so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” If you are the Son of God, don’t you believe the Bible is true? Don’t you have enough faith?
Jesus’ response again is to trust God. God is not to be trifled with. Especially not by some shallow test of trying to coerce God into some miraculous feat, sending angels swooping down to catch him. That isn’t about trusting God, it’s about putting on a show. Watch this. I can make God do tricks. Watch the angels fly down and catch me. And God has to do it, because it’s in the Bible.
No, in the wilderness Jesus will discover more deeply what God about and what God has called him to do on God’s terms, not his own. The wilderness is a time to know God, not to get God to hurry up and do what I want.
Finally, Jesus is tempted to attain power. If you are the Son of God, why not take control of things? You would certainly do a better job than those in power now. Why not take over and run things yourself. Imagine how good the world could be if you did.
Jesus’ response, again, is to trust God. He will serve God on God’s terms, not on the world’s terms. Power and might and political coercion are the ways this world runs—and they are not the ways of God.
No, in the wilderness Jesus will find out the actual ways of God. In the wilderness he will come to know what his role is in these purposes of God.
In these temptations in wilderness, Jesus comes to a place of deeper, more significant trust in God. And that trust is exhibited over and over again as he goes about his ministry. He trusts God even though doing so costs him his life. But that trust also leads him to resurrection.
When we find ourselves in the wilderness, it’s not fun or enjoyable. It’s awful. But it does provide that unique opportunity to hear God more clearly, to know God more intimately, and to know our role in God’s work with more trust. And that clarity is what allows us to follow God beyond the wilderness.
I don’t pray for anyone to enter the wilderness, but I do pray that when you find yourself there, you will eventually trust God more deeply in your life. The wilderness ends, but the hope and life God provides lasts forever.