Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is 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; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
had always heard from people about how beautiful the desert is. It wasn’t until two years ago, on a trip to the high desert of Arizona, that I really understood what they meant. There is something about the way the sunlight plays across the landscape, the juxtaposition of rock and life, and the wonderful array of plants and animals that were, to my eyes, new and novel.
Now, to be sure, where I was hardly qualified as wilderness, located as I was in the middle of suburbia. It was a small island of nature, hemmed in by backyards and golf courses, with water towers perched atop the mountain heights in the distance. But I understood why people would seek places like this. I understood the belief that you could find yourself in this wilderness. I understood the call to spiritual encounter in the desert.
It would be easy to project my experience of the desert onto Jesus’ time in the wilderness. It would be tempting to read of his forty days in the desert as Jesus’ journey of finding and discovering himself. After all, every great hero story has a journey of self-discovery. Even Luke Skywalker went to the swampy wilderness of Dagobah to study under Yoda, so that he could find himself. Yes, it is very tempting to view our reading in this way.
It would be easy. It would be wrong.
The biggest stumbling block we face when trying to understand Jesus’ time in the wilderness, according to some, is our tendency to romanticize it as a “vision quest.” We imagine Jesus going out and really discovering himself, learning soundbites of wisdom that he will use later in his ministry, and finding what it is that God wants him to do with his life.
The other way we often think about this story is as a test. We imagine it as a test where Jesus demonstrates that he really is the Son of God. We imagine it as a trial whereby Jesus proves to the coach that he is ready to run the actual race. Cue the montage scene from every mediocre movie, where the protagonist is transformed from the unlikely hero into a prize-winning champion.
But these forty days were not about being tested, at least not in the way we normally think about testing. No grade given for his performance. No panel of judges would greet Jesus at the end to hand him a trophy, or an ordination certificate. In fact, the only thing awaiting him at the end of it all was the cross.
These forty days were not a vision quest, either. They were not about Jesus’ self-discovery. They were not about Jesus finding his call.
You see, ultimately, these forty days were not about Jesus. They were about God.
When Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, immediately following his baptism, it was for one thing only: preparation. And that preparation was for one thing only: obedience to God.
When understood in this way, the temptations Jesus faced take on a very human tone. You can almost hear Jesus’ inner monologue at work. “Wow, if I am the Son of God, I would never need depend on anyone again, because I could simply change these stones into bread.” After all, it was the desert, and there were many stones.
“If I am the Son of God, then I could throw myself from the highest roof of the Temple, and God would command the angels to bring me safely to the ground.” It is only a little later that the full extent of what was possible occurred to him. “If I am the Son of God, then I could rule over all the nations of the earth, and all the people would kneel down and worship me.”
In short, Jesus faced the very human temptation to enjoy and exploit power and prestige. It is the human temptation to pursue privilege for his own ends and his own enjoyment.
But Jesus did not do any of those things. Jesus’ time in the wilderness prepared him to not submit his divinity to his own will, but to submit himself entirely to God’s will. Jesus did not feed himself by turning the desert stones into bread. But by submitting himself to God’s will, he fed five thousand with only five loaves and two fish. Jesus did not save himself by calling down the angels as he fell from the Temple heights, but by submitting himself to God’s will, offered salvation to all creation as he hung upon the cross. And Jesus did not seek to rule over all the nations, but came to be worshiped in every corner of creation because of his complete submission to the will of God.
Though this time of preparation in the wilderness would come to an end, Jesus’ work of becoming obedient to God would not. Throughout the gospel narrative, we see Jesus confront this question. Time and again, we see him choose obedience to God, all the way up to his fevered prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. But that is a story for another day.
The question, my friends, is how will we make use of our own time in the wilderness this Lent? Will we fall prey to the same temptation, and make it about ourselves? Will we attempt to make ourselves into better people through study and prayer? Will we use it as a second attempt at our New Year’s resolutions?
Or, will we make Lent about God? Will we, who have been called by Christ into discipleship, use these forty days to prepare ourselves to be better imitators of Christ? Will we use this time to prepare ourselves to be obedient to Jesus, even unto the cross?
For just as God was preparing for the salvation of creation as Jesus prepared himself in the desert, as we prepare ourselves this Lent, God is preparing something new in our lives. God is preparing something new in our community. God is preparing something new in our world.
What that new something is, I do not know. I cannot know. Only God knows. Of this I am certain, though—we will not find it by seeking ourselves. We will have no claim to it by seeking ourselves. We will find the new creation, the Kingdom of God, only when we make ourselves obedient to Christ. We will have a part in God’s work only when we seek after God.
Preached by Adam Yates