The Wilderness

This meditation is derived from the story of Jesus when he went into the wilderness after John baptized him.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,: he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also 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. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord you God, and serve him only.’”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matt. 4:1-11)

Jesus followed the dove. It led him away from towns and people. The way was difficult. There was no road. Not even an animal trail was visible. After a few hours, even the dove flew off.

Jesus realized that he was utterly alone.

Eventually, he found a small cave. Inside he was protected by the oppressive onslaught of the sun’s heat. He also found a small spring near the back of the cave. He drank a little and lay down. In this world, night and day must be inverted. Jesus slept during the heat of the day. At night, when it was cool, he would go outside to seek God.
In the silence of the wilderness the days blended so there was no beginning, no end. Just day after day after day. Jesus wondered how he could have gone from the feeling of joy and elation he experienced at the river when he heard that voice from heaven to this total emptiness. The sky was like bronze that his prayers simply bounced off of.

During the waking nights he tried to understand what was happening. He watched the moon wax, wane, then wax again. He began to despair.
“Maybe I should just go home,” he thought.
“Tomorrow,” he heard himself say.

The next day he prepared to leave. “If I keep the morning sun on my right I will eventually find a town.
As he left the cave he saw a man approach. He was an old man, ancient looking. He had a long robe with blue and gray stripes. His hair and beard were long and white. Deep wrinkles were etched into his face. His left hand, spotted skin drawn taught over bone and veins, held tightly to a wooden staff.
When he drew closer he introduced himself simply as “an old wanderer.”
“Who might you be?” the old man asked Jesus.
“I am called Jesus, the son of Joseph. I have also been called the Son of God,” Jesus replied, remembering that voice at the river.
“You look hungry!” the man laughed.
Jesus noticed the whiteness of the man’s teeth as he laughed.
“If you are the Son of God, why not make these rocks into bread so that we can eat?”
That suggestion brought the story of the ancient Israelites to Jesus’ mind. God had provided bread, manna, for them to eat. Why hadn’t God provided for him? Why had they been fed and he left hungry and uncared for?
After a few moments, Jesus replied, “It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
The old man smiled. He realized that his words had caused an inkling of doubt to arise in Jesus’ mind. A small chink that he could take advantage of.
“Good answer!” the man said. “Come! Walk with me!”
As they started the man lifted his staff and stamped it on the ground.
Suddenly, they were on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The old man took Jesus’ arm and led him to the edge of the Temple complex overlooking the Kidron Valley.
“What do you see?” the old man asked.
Jesus looked out over the countryside. “I see the valley and the Mount of Olives. There is smoke from Bethany. I see a road winding down the hill into Jerusalem filled with people coming and going.”
“Ah, yes! People!” the man exclaimed. “Lots of people down there. And, look! More people up here!”
“Cast yourself down!” he continued. “For, it is written, ‘He will send His angels to lift you up so you won’t even stub your toe!”
“And, the people! All of them will see and believe that you are truly sent from God!”
Jesus considered the old man’s words.
“Yes, it would certainly be sensational,” he thought. “But, it would also turn everyone’s eyes to me.”
Jesus didn’t completely understand God’s purpose for him. But, he did believe that at least part of that purpose was to point the way to God.
No, making a spectacle of himself was not the way.
“It’s also written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test!”
The old man simply smiled and stamped his staff again.

Jesus found himself back in the wilderness…alone.

The sun was setting as Jesus sat down to consider what had happened that day. Why had he even considered the words of that old man?
“I’m tired and hungry, that’s why,” he said aloud to himself.

The night came and the moon began its ascent into the sky. Jesus looked out across the barren landscape.
Suddenly, he saw a light in the distance. As he watched, the light came nearer, growing larger as it approached.
It had the shape of a person. But, there were no features. No eyes; no nose; no mouth. Fear gripped Jesus as the shape came to him and put his hand on Jesus’ arm. Immediately, they were on top of a high mountain. The being waved an arm out and suddenly Jesus saw great civilizations before him. There were cities full of many different kinds of people. Large buildings and pyramids. There appeared before him great stores of gold, silver, and precious stones of every size and hue.
The light creature did not speak, but Jesus perceived its thoughts.
“This is all mine! I will give it all to you if…”
“If what?” Jesus wondered.
“If you will do one. small. thing. for me. Knee, here, before me, and worship me.”
Anger arose within Jesus.
IT IS WRITTEN,” Jesus spat out the words, “You SHALL worship GOD, and God ALONE! Go away from me, Tempter!”
Jesus found himself back in the wilderness. There was no sign of the creature.
There were, though, others there. A fire had been built and food was being prepared.

For the first time since leaving the river, Jesus felt the presence of God.

The folks who divide up the Bible by the various stories call this one something like “Jesus is Tested in the Wilderness” or “Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness.” In fact, the antagonist in the story was named ‘the Tempter.’
As I reflected on this I realized that for something to be a real test, or temptation, there would necessarily be the possibility of failure. Theologians throughout the ages have tried to paint Jesus as a super human who could withstand all of the fiery darts of Hell. Even the way the story was written seems to lean that way. For every attempt to tempt Jesus had a matter-of-fact kind of response. It was like he was saying, “Hey, that’s it! Hit me with your best shot.” This image of Jesus doesn’t fit well with the temptation narratives in the Gospels. So, as I meditated I considered how Jesus, the son of Joseph, might really have acted. Like I’ve said throughout, I am searching for a person with whom I can relate. A bigger than life Jesus is not that.
In the story I saw Jesus weakened by hunger and loneliness. He was susceptible to the tests that came his way. Including one I added, giving up and going home. The Tempter also saw Jesus’ weakness. He put tasks before him that were relevant to Jesus’ condition. And, Jesus struggled. He questioned and doubted himself.
But, in the end, he passed the test.
In my prayer after this meditation I asked about how temptations and tests might come my way. After all, even Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” The reply I received was of course testing and temptation would find me. I rue this because my track record has been dismal when it comes to tests. But, like I wrote earlier, if there’s no chance of failure, there is no true test. On the other hand, with testing comes the real possibility of success. We are not tested in order to trip us up, to accuse us when we don’t do well. Tests come so that we can see our progress and confirm our calling. Untested faith is no faith. Jesus found that out by walking through them and emerging on the other side victorious.

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