The trouble all began in the garden. Paradise. The man and woman who God made were placed in the newly created blessed garden with only one prohibition: not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “For in this day you shall eat of it you shall die” God warned.
The rest is history. It seems a day didn’t go by when the craftly serpent asks the woman the first question recorded in scripture “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” The snake asks a misleading question and turns the woman’s attention to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. On closer examination, the woman saw that the tree was good for food, appealing to the eye, and it was desirable to make one wise. All good things. Emboldened by the snake the woman and then the man go ahead and eat and indeed, as a result of their disobedience, they are banished from the garden. They lose paradise.
It just figures. The first thing the human couple do in their new life is disobey. The first thing they create is wilderness.
In the Hebrew, wilderness means “that which is beyond.” It is terrain that lies beyond the bounds of settled communities. It includes the desert, poor steppe lands, land that is marginally cultivated, thick forests that are uninhabitable. Thesy are home only to wild beasts, nomad tribes, and evil spirits. Cursed harsh land that is a constant reminder of the human experience of temptation, exile and disobedience. Rejected areas to which refugees must flee—where Cain is sentenced after killing Abel, where Hagar flees an abusive Sarah. Like when David runs away from a jealous King Saul. Wilderness, the first creation of humanity, becomes the place where unwanted people are sent to or where innocent people must flee to escape oppression.
But it is in the wilderness where Moses encounters the burning bush. I It is in the wilderness that God declares he will deliver his people. It is to the wilderness that the people of Israel are led to when God delivers them from the slavery of Egypt. There is the wilderness God reveals a covenant, a new hope of community. In the wilderness God forges a redeemed people.
Because of this, it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit sends Jesus to the wilderness after his baptism. Not to a garden or to a great city of learning, but to the wilderness. God sends Jesus to the wilderness to understand the primordial human experience of alienation, brokenness and fear.
The devil, crafty as ever, finds Jesus just as it found Adam and Eve. And just in the experience with Adam and Eve, the devil tests Jesus with food.
Jesus has just been fasting for 40 days and he is famished. The devil coaxes, “If you are the Son of God, turn those stones into bread.” Now what damage would Jesus have done to turn one small stone out of the millions of stones in the desert into a morsel of bread to appease his hunger?
In the pain of hunger, Jesus knew his destiny was to be one with us, how hard it is to face all the trials and temptations we face in life. Jesus knew that to turn that stone into break might appease his physical hunger, but it would also deaden a more important hunger, a Godly hunger to be a child of God. The devil is not interested if Jesus is hungry or not. The Devil is seeking to destroy Jesus’ mission before it begins. The Devil is trying to focus Jesus on himself, his own needs, and not the hunger of the world. Jesus knew he was the son of God. He didn’t need to prove it to the devil. And so, Jesus refused.
The devil is also not interested if we are hungry or hurting. When we are hungry or hurting, sitting there in the wilderness, it’s easy to focus on our own needs and not the destiny God is calling us to. Tragically our spiritual hunger to know ourselves as children of God contributes to ongoing real hunger and deprivation in the world. We must learn to discern what satisfies for a moment and what will satisfy for a lifetime.
In the second temptation Jesus faces, the Devil takes Jess to the pinnacle of the temple the most exalted place in the holy city. And there the Devil says “If you are the son of God, just throw yourself down. God will not allow you to be hurt. The angels will catch you.” If we read between the lines the Devil implies ”Jesus, just think of the publicity this will offer you, just as your getting started in your work. This will prove to the people and the religious authorities that God’s hand is upon you. This is what the people what to see. Signs and wonders. Go for it, Jesus.”
How quickly the Devil can take us there. If the Devil can’t get us to succumb to the body’s hungers, then the Devil will test our emotional hunger and our pride. The pinnacle is not the space of sorrow and lack in our heart, nut rather the place of exaltation and fulfillment.
The Devil knows us well. Not just where we are weak but where we excel, where we belong, and have real power and authority. Where we crave attention and affirmation. So, the Devil takes us to our pinnacles and says “Go ahead. Razzle and Dazzle them. Doesn’t God want you to shine? Show them the stuff you’re made of.”
Who are we, deep down, when we’re standing on the pinnacle? Who are we really when things go well? Because when we are the object of human praise and admiration, it is easy to forget God’s will.
The Devil is not interested in our gifts or our development. The Devil wants to sever our connections to others so the gifts we have we hoard, not share. So, are we going to jump and show off even if it makes all the human sense in the world? Will we use our skills and talents to elevate ourselves or to serve? Who are we really, not when times are hard, but when they’re going well?
In the third and final test Jesus faces, the Devil takes him to the top of a mountain, and he shows Jesus in the flash of a second all the kingdoms of the world throughout all time in their full splendor. So, the Devil tests our physical hunger, then our emotional hunger, now the Devil tests spiritual hunger. The Devil wants Jesus badly. For the Devil is willing to give all the kingdoms of the world over to Jesus if Jesus would just once fall down and worship him.
The Devil doesn’t care about our dreams; The devil doesn’t want to share power. The Devil knows as God knows, that the human soul is of far more value than all the kingdoms of the world. The Devil is not stupid. It would not offer of deal in which it would come out on the short end of the stick. The Devil knows our value to God, that we were made for a loving relationship with God, and how much, how much the devil wants to keep us from the loving embrace of God and replace it with the false love of the powers of the world.
So, in this final test we encounter the hunger of the spirit. Who will we ultimately worship? Will we worship God, or will we worship the Devil by enslaving our souls to the wealth and glitter of the world. The issue boils down to this, as Jesus put it: We cannot serve both God and Mamnon or Money.
Temptation is real, and through our journey of Lent the Devil will coyly and overtly try to damage our relationships, our relationship with our selves, with others, with God. The Devil endlessly manipulates all our hungers, physical hungers, hungers for acceptance and approval, for success in the world.
But because Jesus overcame temptation in the wilderness a way has been forged. Because of Jesus we can endure that hunger and put down the stone. Because of Jesus we can stand on the pinnacle and not jump. Because of Jesus we can stare at all the grandeur of the world and not kneel before the counterfeit god.
Because of Jesus we discover the wilderness can be a place of renewal of covenant, that God is with us in our trials. May the wilderness of Lent lead us to our true self, connected in spirit to our souls, to each other, and to God. May the wilderness of these forty days lead us back home. Home to Paradise Amen