I’m not very good at quiet – I’m quite a busy and frenetic person and so I find quiet difficult. Back when I was at theological college I wrote an article in our student rag about my distaste for the quiet and monastic spirituality that we often promote in the western world and it got me into some hot water with a tutor. In my defence I wasn’t saying we shouldn’t do quiet but that silence and quiet are a form of spirituality that naturally works more easily for some people and their relationship with God than it does for others. The tutor in question was a very reflective person and for him relationship with God and Silence were almost synonymous with one another. He began to question whether I was really a Christian at all if I didn’t do silence. I tried to point out that I did do connecting with God, but I did this in big spaces and by connecting with nature – by being the active person God made me to be – by climbing a mountain or walking a desolate path. I might as well have been speaking greek! (also not something that comes naturally!)
The point was, not that I don’t do silence – I do – but that many of us meet God more easily in the hustle and bustle of intentional Godly activity than we do in the quiet of a silent retreat centre.
The important thing is that Christians need to be intentional about spending time with God – about getting away to the wilderness – whatever the wilderness looks like to you.
Jesus’ wilderness took him away from people and places that he knew into the desert around the Jordan. The Judean desert as it’s known is still there today and stretches from the northeastern Negev to the east of Beit El, and is marked by terraces with long steep slopes and plateaus. It ends in a steep escarpment dropping to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley. It’s crossed by several wadis from northeast to southeast and has many ravines, most of them deep, from 1,200 feet in the west to 600 feet in the east. It is an arid and inhospitable place today and was probably far more so that day Jesus stepped out of the Jordan and entered the wilderness of it’s geography.
We don’t know for sure whether Jesus spent is time in reflection and quiet or alone in the noise of creation. Whether he found a cave or overhang and remained in the solitude and silence of that space or whether he walked and climbed and sang and shouted. OR if he did both? Forty days is a long time. What we do know is that he took no food or water – we know he fasted from food but the water he will have cleaned from desert springs, the wadis and collecting desert dew.
But the wilderness of Christ is more about the temptations he faced than it is about how he survived. Jesus while in the wilderness faces temptation form Satan. He’s tempted by the things that will look good to someone who is alone in the desert with no food and little water. He’s tempted, as we all are, by the things it’s hard to refuse.
Each of Satan’s tricks reflects the temptation that the people of God themselves had experienced and succumbed to during their wilderness, the 40 years in the deserts of Sinai after freedom from Egypt. Jesus is quite literally experiencing the same temptations but redeeming them by holding out.
The first temptation in Luke’s account sabot food – Satan offers Jesus bread:
“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.
In the wilderness of Sinai the people of Israel had been tested by hunger, and had to trust God for his daily provision of mana, literally bread from heaven. but they had found it a hard lesson to learn and were moaning and complaining to Moses and Aaron about the whole enterprise – wishing they were back in captivity.
Jesus though affirms his faith in his Father and his reliance on God’s provision for him and resists the temptation in a way the Jews had failed to. He rebukes Datan using Scripture from Deuteronomy 8: Man does not live by bread alone…..
The second temptation (5-8) sees Satan try a new tactic. He appeals to human desperation and attempts to get Jesus to worship him on the promise that the pain of the desert will quickly end if he does. Just as the Israelites repeatedly sought other God’s whenever times were hard or God didn’t fix the situation in exactly the way they wanted. Israel would seek alternative solutions to their problems through idol worship and carving of the Golden Calf. But Jesus steadfastly affirms his faith in the father’s plan for him. and refuses, again with a rebuke from Deuteronomy, to worship any one but the “Lord your God”
The third temptation is more subtle – dressed up as an opportunity to reveal God’s glory to the people, Satan attempts to get Jesus to reveal who he is, by forcing God’s hand: If you were to jump then He would send angels to your rescue – then everyone will know who you are.
The people of Israel had tested God at Mariah and Manasseh – unable to trust him for the provision of water they had been ready to stone Moses, the leader God had appointed them and through whom they had been led to freedom, and again were clamouring that it would be better to be slaves again. They demand that God provide water and they use the demands as a test of God’s faithfulness to them!
Jesus refuses the devil’s test – God does not have to prove his faithfulness to Him – he chooses to show his faithfulness to God.
Just as the Israelites repeatedly showed their lack of faith and failed to trust the God that brought them freedom. Jesus proves his obedience and trust in his Father, resists the temptations to put God to the test in order to achieve the final freedom that we will win on the cross.
But more than simply the resisting of temptations where God’s people had failed and given in, the temptations of Jesus are also symbolic of the Jewish theology of what the Messiah was going to do. It was expected that when he came the Messiah, would bring Bread from Heaven, he would make other Kingdoms subject to Israel and would perform amazing signs that proved that YahWeh was the one true God.
Jesus tempting is not just a redemption of the poor decision of Israel but it’s a clear statement to the scholars and theologians of the time. THIS is the Messiah you have been looking for.
But what of this for us?
As we begin out Lenten journey that mirrors Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness we are often encouraged to give up a vice or take on a discipline. I’ve always wondered as to the purpose of this, since Christ died to free us from slavery to religious practice, law and ritual – but at the same time in our consumerist society that seeks comfort in the ability to buy goods and things, that has nearly everything available to the highest bidder – there is something appealing about the simplicity of the Lenten call.
We follow this journey symbolic of Jesus’ wilderness not because we must but in order to draw closer to God. As we share this journey to Easter together I do urge you to do something intentionally different in your spiritual life for Lent. It needn’t be a grand sacrifice of something you love. Or an un-keepable promise to do something super-spiritual. But just make a small but intentional change in your daily routine, something that connects you with God.
My tirade against silence all those years ago was actually putting words to my uneasiness with a prescribed spatiality. God has made each of us as individuals, we all relate to God differently. The Bible says he know the number of hairs on our heads. He has made us to connect with him. So whatever you do, and I encourage you to do something this Lent, be sure it feeds your personal and unique relationship with God and doesn’t just tick some cultural lenten criteria.