by the Rev. Jim Purdy, Assisting Priest

Every year Lent begins with the same story, the peculiar story of Jesus and his forty days and nights in the wilderness, the appearance of Satan, and the three tests, or temptations, as they are traditionally called.

We are told by the Gospel writers that Jesus is thirty years old, just about the time when many people begin to have second thoughts about career, life direction, meaning and vocation. He has a powerful experience of self-awareness when his cousin, John, baptizes him in the Jordan River. In that baptism moment, standing waist deep in the water, Jesus experiences God’s claim on his life. He hears a voice proclaim that he is God’s beloved. Suddenly he knows that the road ahead is different — and that he needs to be different. He must decide what to do, how to live out his new sense of God’s affirmation.

The story tells us that (Mark writes “immediately”) Jesus is led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tempted. It’s not his idea to go on an outward bound trek to find himself. The Spirit leads him into a time of testing, of refining, of prayer, a time to reflect on who he is and on what his life will be. These days and nights are part of whatever it is that God has in mind. They are an important part of the whole process.

The wilderness — endless stretches of arid, dry, rocky terrain, as far as the eye can see, no green, no contrast, not the tiniest sign of life, and the deafening quiet of absolute silence, all under a merciless, baking sun and a howling night wind. And there are no paths in the wilderness.

Forty days Jesus is there — fasting. When he is famished, the tempter comes. Not as the monstrous, foul, terrifying being depicted in Medieval Art. Not as the Father of Lies, the essence of evil, presented in Ancient Literature. The devil appears, without horns, tail and pitchfork. In the wilderness, Satan is crafty, not loathsome, but clever, smooth.

Three tests. The three temptations themselves are not to commit terrible acts — rob, cheat, steal, do public
violence to innocent people. Satan attempts to shake Jesus’ trust in God and his dependence on God’s grace-filled, generous caring by coming at the three most basic human needs: survival, power and identity:

IF you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread; jump off the Temple, take power. Don’t rely on God. You can do better. You can do more on your own.

*  *   *

Jesus is tempted to take the easy way out, to take shortcuts, to persuade by novelty rather than content, by sensation rather than the substance of his teaching and his life. Jesus’ temptation is a familiar one: to be less than God created him to be and wanted him to be; to compromise his own integrity and his authenticity. To be less than God created him to be.

That sounds familiar. Life feels like that sometimes, a dry wilderness of ambiguity and uncertainty, a lonely, frightening time. Wilderness is not predictable. It is something we do not control. We want things to be simple, black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. And sometimes, in our need for certainty, we make poor choices. Sometimes, we choose to be less than the people God is creating us to be.

In the wilderness, Jesus had to live with ambiguity. At the end, he had to make choices, choices based not on proof or guarantees or calculated outcomes but based on his best instincts, his integrity, and his trust in God. So do we, every day.

*  *  *

My favorite part in the story about Jesus’ hunger and hard decisions and the uncertainty and doubt that enveloped him is the last verse: “The devil left him, and suddenly angels came and ministered to him.” That is God’s promise to us.

In the mystery of God’s love, the Spirit leads us into the wilderness. After our struggle, as angels came and
ministered to Jesus, so God comes to us at the end of the day, at the end of the wilderness.

Lead us into the wilderness, dear God;
and there startle us with your truth, your love
and your promise to be with us always
in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  

James H. Purdy
Lent, 2014


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