‘And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.’ (Luke 4:1-2)
As we begin our journey towards Easter, the Gospel tells us of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The first thing to note here is that Jesus, the one who has been revealed to us as God’s ‘beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased’ (Luke 3:22), experiences temptations. Temptations, though they try us, are part of the our human condition (Genesis 3:1ff) — Jesus was tempted; we will likewise be tempted. The Gospel ends with: ‘When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.’ (Luke 4:13) We are never done with temptations; they always come back at an opportune time when we are vulnerable, and when we have to wrestle with them once more. The Good news is that, in Jesus — one just like us, we have one who was able to successfully negotiate them all; temptations need not end badly.
The next thing to note is that Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. The wilderness or the desert is that place where we experience our fragility, our vulnerability, our aloneness, our mortality. It is that place where we find ourselves wrestling with life’s awkward questions: Why suffering? Why me? Why death? Why bother? What’s the point? And for the more religiously inclined: How can a God who is supposed to be all loving and all powerful let this happen … to me? Wrestling with them is not pleasant and they can leave us quite disturbed; the wilderness is a bleak place. So, we tend to avoid it, if we can. But the questions come, either bidden or unbidden — in a bout of melancholy, or through circumstances that overtake us, forcing us into an uncertain future … a sudden accident, wild bushfires or raging floodwaters, or even an attack by some enemy who forces us to flee our homes leaving everything behind. Try as we might, we cannot avoid going into the wilderness; better to befriend it by willingly sitting with life’s awkward questions from time time, so that when they force themselves upon us, we are not taken completely by surprise and thus so easily overwhelmed.
The final thing to note in this Gospel passage is that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit and that he remained there forty days. We might never wish to go there, but we will find ourselves there from time to time anyway. We might say that it is part of God’s plan for us. Thus, the actual experience, while it might be unpleasant, is not bad; there is something to be got out of it, which we will not get if we do not go through it. But to get the blessing from it, we need to sit with it, ponder it, and not be too frightened by it and run away. Here permit me to share again the end of my own inglorious career as a teacher. I really hated teaching and it made me terribly unhappy. One day I found myself pushed right up against the blackboard (I could get no further away from my students), thinking to myself, “Why are you doing this? You don’t even need the money!” So I decided to quit and go to university to finish off a degree that I had begun by correspondence. I had found out that I could get some government assistance to do this, and from my time in Teachers’ College I knew I didn’t need much to survive. So I handed in my resignation. My parents thought I was quite mad to give up a secure job for an uncertain future, and for which I had no plans. On the day I quit, I got a letter from Commonwealth Education informing me: “Hard luck! No money; you’re already qualified.” (C.f. Job 1:6ff) Panic! What to do? I thought about trying to withdraw my resignation, but it didn’t take me long to understand that, if I were to do that, it would be to die. (Deuteronomy 30:19) So, while I didn’t know how I was going to support myself, I just decided to have a go, and go to university as I planned. After I found myself a place to live, I put my name down for relief teaching — the school would ring me up in the morning and ask if I was available for that day. I never knew from one day to the next whether I would have work or not. Sometimes I would get a couple of days, but then I might not get any for a couple of weeks … while I watched my bank balance steadily dwindle. Once I got over the insecurity of it all, I found the experience quite liberating. For though I had nothing I could rely on, I found that I was actually able to do what I needed to do anyway. In the end I averaged about two days a week, not much but enough to live on, and I was happy doing it! (We really do live not on bread alone; there is more to life than that. (Luke 4:4)) What I learned from the experience was that, if we have to, we really can rely on that old notion of Providence — a lesson we can only learn by doing it; and the prospect of having to go into the wilderness from time to time, I no longer find so daunting even though I know some of the stresses that lurk there to test us. (C.f.: Psalm 26:2)
In Jesus’ experience of the wilderness, he too, found that we do not live on bread alone. The other lessons he learnt were that we are to worship only God (as opposed to many false gods that come along and demand we serve them, like security), and that we are not put God to the test … by demanding that he save us from whatever it is that besets us — who knows, in the end it may be for our own good! (Luke 4:4, 8, 12) These were lessons Jesus needed to learn for him to embark on the ministry God was calling him to and to see it through to its end. (Luke 22:39ff) The wilderness experiences that beset us have something to teach us, that we need to learn for us to do what we need to do. They are tough lessons to learn, but they are ultimately for our good. Armed with them, we will find the strength to meet life’s challenges and live, which is all we need to do to have a happy life even though it may not always be an easy one.