Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is the very first thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism. He’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit leads him, deliberately, into the wilderness. If the Spirit is doing it, it must be important, somehow.
In the Bible, the wilderness is always a difficult place. It’s a place of preparation, of waiting for God, of learning to trust God. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. Where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left.
And you can’t hurry through it, either. Which is why it’s often described biblically with a metaphor of “40.”
- It rained 40 days and nights with Noah and his family trapped in the wilderness of an ark.
- Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the wilderness of Mt. Sinai waiting for God to inscribe a covenant.
- The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
- Which is why, by the way, that this Lenten season of preparation, repentance, and fasting lasts for 40 days.
- Now, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.
Have you been there? I have. I’ve spoken of it before. A “dark night of the soul” when everything within me that I’ve looked to and counted on to sustain me seemed to disappear. My strengths, my gifts and talents, my intellect, even my theology couldn’t hold me up. And I felt like I was falling with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to slow my fall. I was diagnosed during that wilderness period with depression, no amount of strength, perseverance, or endurance could get me out. It was a wilderness.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in God or questioned God’s existence, it’s that God didn’t matter. It’s not that I was hopeless, I was helpless, which is different. I was utterly, completely, and totally without any of my reliable resources. Lost in wilderness. Completely vulnerable.
Have you experienced that wilderness before?
Grief feels like that. When you put out all possible effort and still fail feels like that. Addiction feels like that. I imagine that our new refugee neighbors who have had to leave their homes and their countries, and who have been living in terror for years feel like that. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.
So why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place like that?
Because it’s in the wilderness that you meet God most profoundly. Biblically, that’s what happens.
- After the wilderness, Noah met God and was given a covenant of life.
- After the wilderness, Moses met God and was given the law.
- After the wilderness, the Israelites met God and were delivered into the promised land.
Maybe it’s because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe it’s because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe it’s because we’re so desperate that we actually are willing to trust God. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, our relationship with God changes. What really happens in the wilderness is that we come to know who we are.
This is actually our Lenten journey. A wilderness journey of 40 days where we learn to rely more on God and less on the world. Where we get to know and to trust God more deeply. Where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved children.
When I was falling in the wilderness, feeling utterly helpless and vulnerable, I met God in a way that was entirely new. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t meet God. God met me in the wilderness. I realized at some point that I was no longer falling, but instead, I was being held, lifted up. As weak and helpless as I was feeling, I experienced the reality that I was worth something to God. Without access to any of my own personal resources that I had been able to trust my whole life, I came to understand that I am gifted by God.
I went into the wilderness with fear and trembling, God met me there, and I came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for my life.
Why wouldn’t it be the same for Jesus? He went into the wilderness having just heard in his baptism that he was the Son of God, the Beloved. How could he live up to that? So he was led into the wilderness, God met him there, and he came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for his life.
When you find yourself in the wilderness, when you are feeling helpless and vulnerable and weak, Jesus assures us that God will meet you. 40 days is a metaphor for a long time, but God will meet you. You eventually will have the opportunity to experience God in a new way, to recognize how trustworthy God is. You can, after the 40 days, know how loved and how worthwhile you really are.
I don’t ever want to go back into the wilderness. But if I find myself there, I will cling to the promise of a God who will meet me there.