About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” At once the Spirit forcedJesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.
After the Holy Spirit descends upon him, Jesus makes a beeline for solitude. Look closely at Mark’s language. “AT ONCE the Spirit FORCED Jesus out into the wilderness.” It’s as if Mark senses that as the heaven’s opened and the Holy Spirit descended, Jesus underwent a fundamental change of being.
Mark is, of course, playing a bit of a literary game here. By sending Jesus out into the wilderness, he reminds his Jewish readers of their people’s own time in the wilderness. He is also not-so-subtly making his case for Jesus as a new Moses, who also headed for the hills after his God encounter.
While Mark gives Jesus’ desert time short shrift, Luke expands on the details to remind his readers that nothing Jesus did was possible without his complete and utter reliance on God.
Mark wants us to recognize God’s presence as the force that changes the course of our lives. Yet he also acknowledges that once we give into the Spirit, we will also need time to contemplate what has just happened to us.
Luke, as he so often does, builds on Mark’s foundation and creates the desert temptation sequence to also remind us that even after our baptism, we will be tested. There will be adversaries and adversities to overcome. Luke tells us to hang on to that baptismal moment of complete oneness, complete surrender to God.
As we read the temptation scene, notice that Luke has Jesus respond to each of Satan’s temptations with scripture, both as a rebuke and as Jesus’ way of staying focused on God.
Luke 4.1-21 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
Until the next opportunity—Luke’s cue that this battle is never over, so we should always remain alert and steadfast in our faith. We should never forget to surrender to God’s light, which eradicates the darkness in our souls and our world.
Luke finishes his account of Jesus’ confrontation by having Jesus travel to the synagogue to make an astounding declaration:
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
At that point, Jesus drops the mic and says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Notice how Jesus comes out of his wilderness time: anointed to preach good news to the poor, to open our soulsso we can see God, and to liberate the oppressed.
Liberation. Liberation is the result of wilderness time. When we enter a spiritual wilderness and finally get over ourselves, God pushes all our ego out of the way and liberates us from any of the chains binding us to, for lack of a better word, Satan—the adversary.
Now, I bristle at the idea of a devil pitchforking us into evil deeds. But Satan is an essential character in the desert sequence. We must wrestle with what he represents. To be clear, I do not believe in the idea of universal puppet masters, whether called God or Satan. Those aren’t the ideas the biblical authors wanted to convey, either. The ancient Jewish people, like Jesus, understood Satan as a metaphor representing the idea of adversity. Anything that prevented someone from living a God-bearing life was considered ha-satan, a block to spiritual Oneness with God, a break in the covenant.
As followers of Jesus, we must also enter the wilderness to face our adversaries, our own ha-satans. Lent is an opportunity to let God utterly obliterate our egos as we enter deep moments of self-reflection and confession.
In that ego-less wilderness, we realize that only the power of God flowing through every quantum bit of our being can defeat the greatest adversary we will ever face, the only thing Satan every truly lords over us: fear. Fear of others, fear of a changing world, fear of the unknown, fear of helplessness, fear of fear.
Our egos are afraid to lose control, so the temptation to rule the world, or have endless wealth is attractive. It appeals to our fear of lack, of never having enough. But, in the desert, Jesus shows us that in his ideal for humanity (which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven), God is the ruler and has just one rule: love each other.
It is the knowledge that not us, but God’s love through us,is what defeats our fear that inspires us to continue to rage against fear’s machinery of intolerance, corporate greed, and the “us against them” mentality so prevalent in today’s civilizations.
There are soon to be nine billion of us on the planet. Can you imagine the change we could achieve if even one percent of us started consciously entering the desert wilderness every day, allowing God to control every interaction, every thought, in every moment?
If we just spent a few intentional moments of every busy day in the wilderness with God, we might be able to achieve Jesus’ dream of a united world guided by God’s unconditional love.
I’d like to share a poem by Ann Lewin that I think beautifully describes why we willingly travel into our own spiritual wilderness every year. May it inspire your Lenten journey as it has mine.
“Lent” by Ann Lewin
from Candles and Kingfishers: Reflections on the Journey
Lent is a time to travel
Light, to clear the clutter
From our crowded lives, and
Find a space, a desert.
Deserts are bleak: no creature
Comforts, only a vast expanse of
Stillness, sharpening awareness of
Ourselves and God.
Uncomfortable places, deserts.
Most of the time we’re tempted to
Avoid them, finding good reason to
Live lives of ease; cushioned by
Noise from self-discovery,
Clutching at world’s success
To stave off fear.
But if we dare to trust the silence
To strip away our false security,
God can begin to grow [holy] wholeness in us,
Fill up our emptiness, destroy our fears.
Give us new vision, courage for the journey,
And make our desert blossom like a rose.