In the Church’s tradition Lent is a time of preparation. It used to be a formal time of preparation for those who would be baptised on Easter Day, and has come, more widely, to be a time of preparation for all members of the church to get ready for the key moment of the church’s liturgical year – Easter Day. There are some obvious correspondences between the Lent we observe and the time of preparation and testing Jesus experienced in the wilderness. The most obvious is the length of time – forty days.
‘Forty’ is an important number through the Bible, and for the early church there would have been some immediate bells ringing when they heard and read this story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness. Moses spent forty days with God on the mountain (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9). Elijah flees into the wilderness for forty days (1 Kings 19:4-8). And, most obviously – Israel wanders in the wilderness for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2-6). Those early followers of Jesus would have ‘got’ the allusion in the text. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit, just as Israel is led into the wilderness by God. For both Jesus and for Israel it was a time of preparation and, probably, self-discovery.
I’m struck by several things as I read this reading. It follows straight on from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river, where the Father had indicated his favour (Luke 3:21-22). The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, descended on Jesus, and then promptly led him into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil, and choosing to eat nothing, became hungry. In Luke the Greek word for fasting isn’t used in this passage – Jesus is simply choosing not to eat, so he becomes hungry. Luke may have been making the point that this wasn’t a fast inspired by religious observance, as such. So Jesus’ hunger was a part of him being human – which is perhaps one of the keys to this passage.
As Christians we preach that Jesus is the Son of God, in fact, that Jesus is God. I wonder if Luke is not pointing to one of the fundamental truths of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus lays down his divinity – his right to be the Son of God, and to live in that way – in order to come into the world as one of us, to experience the world as we do, and to be tempted as we are. The consequence of this laying down leads straight to the crucifixion, where the world continues to misunderstand Jesus’ mission, just as the disciples do, and just as the devil tempts Jesus to do. Jesus lays down his divinity, his kingly authority and glory to live as one of us, and by his life and teaching to show us how to live, and how to relate to the Father.
Jesus, the Son of God, being tempted. Each of these temptations would be awful for any one of us – but, given the power and means that Jesus had at his disposal, it would be immeasurably worse for Jesus. Because for Jesus any of these things could be reality. He could change stones to bread and so stop his hunger – he could also solve the problem of hunger. He could achieve good in the world by agreeing to submit to the ruler of the world – he could rescue the oppressed that way. He could win Jerusalem by a display of his supernatural power and thus prove God’s power among us.
Jesus is alone and hungry in the desert. I think he was praying, struggling to discern God’s will for him, trying to work out what it meant to be about God’s business. The fact that he was filled with the Holy Spirit is indicative of the level of the temptation – he wasn’t protected against temptation by being filled with the Holy Spirit, any more than he was by being the Son of God. In fact, because he has greater power, the temptation is greater – but it is still in the order of things he can affect and change. We’re not tempted to do what we can’t do, but what is within our power. I think Jesus struggle was great, and I think the temptation was immensely attractive.
The Holy Spirit fills Jesus, and he is armed with Scripture, which in Luke’s theology is the spark and food for faith. Jesus comes back again and again to Scripture, rejecting miracles and choosing instead the living word of God – used in the right way, rather than the devil’s mis-use.
The wilderness, or perhaps the desert is a motif that runs through scripture and Christian history. Since the life of the early church there have been those God has called out, filled with the Holy Spirit, and sent into the wilderness – whether to a physical place as in the case of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, or into a wilderness of the soul (possibly a much harder place…). Why? I think one of the reasons comes from Deuteronomy 8 – the passage from which Jesus was quoting:
Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good. So obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him. (Deuteronomy 8:2-6 NLT)
If God has called you into the wilderness, or is calling you, he is doing it to humble you and test you. He is doing it to teach you to depend only on him, who will provide all you need in every situation, because he is your Father and loves you.
I know this is a hard thing to tell those who are already hurt, for whatever reason. Especially because the tendency is, for those people in the place of wilderness, to find that God seems absent. All is dry, there is enough for life, but not much more. But, like the time in the wilderness for Israel, for Elijah, and, indeed, for Jesus – this is a time for purification and stripping back what is not needed from what is essential. How you deal with that, and with the tensions – and, yes, temptations, that come with it will mark the way forward for you.
Jesus example offers us some hints about the way we might walk in the wilderness. We should follow the Holy Spirit, responding to the leading in, and the eventual leading out. We should rely on Scripture, knowing it to be the word of God – one of the ways we discern the way forward. We should choose to be simple – eating, certainly, but not seeking to populate the wilderness with stuff which distract us. We should be alive to the possibility of temptation, and see it for what it is – a testing of our strength. And above all we should remember that Jesus became one of us, lived among us, and was tempted – just as we are. The fact that he did not sin is not because he was God, but because he was man, fully alive – which is what God offers to us, and calls us toward.