Encountering Christ in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness

Luke 4:1

That sounds quite pleasant. Like a Wellness retreat. Glamping, maybe. Healthy buffet-style breakfasts, a day spent in yoga and massages and cleansing rituals of various sorts. The evening watching the sun set over the desert while sipping a kale smoothie, before retiring to a luxurious five star tent, snugly wrapped up while listening to the jackals howl safely outside the perimeter fence. Just the thing before beginning an arduous preaching and healing tour of the Holy Land. In fact, I’m thinking about my own forthcoming ordination and wondering whether there might be some sort of Australian wilderness retreat I could indulge in before getting started with a busy year.

Photo by Martin Robles on Unsplash

It’s a long way between cultures. For us the idea of going to the desert suggests hot air balloons ascending over the Serengeti, or staying in a luxury resort with complementary cocktails and a view of Uluru in the sunset.

The thing about the wilderness in Jesus’ time is that it was properly wild. The desert is so called because it is deserted. Maybe the occasional group of wandering nomads grazing their sheep might come past, if it’s the right season. But otherwise, no help if you get into trouble. Just bandits, who would probably rob you or even kill you for the hell of it. Rough, un-farmable land. Wild animals who could maim or kill you. Nothing to eat, obviously. Not a lot of water either – or else it wouldn’t be wilderness.

Imagine your car breaking down on a dirt road a few hundred kilometres outside of Katherine in the Northern Territory. You can die of thirst quickly out there, get lost easily, be within a few kilometres of town and not know it.

The wilderness where Jesus went was unpleasant. Dirty. Dangerous. Away from human habitation and help, if you fell down a gully and broke something, that would be it. No rescue helicopters summoned by mobile phones.

The abode of evil spirits howling in the night.

Why on earth did Jesus think it would be a good place to go? What is the appeal?

Scripture doesn’t say, just that the Holy Spirit led him there. 

Perhaps an underlying theme here is something to do with God’s solidarity with us. What does it mean to be God and human simultaneously?

Wilderness is a pretty good metaphor for our lives. I’ve heard it said that we’re on average only five years away from something truly terrible happening to us, or to someone we love. There are times when life feels like a wilderness. Our cries for help go unanswered as the sun sets over our predicament. The bone-biting chill of night draws in. The temptation to despair presents itself. There is something profoundly human about being in the wilderness, and a deep Christological theme is of Jesus coming into the hardest and most difficult places in our lives.

Or, as Paul put it in his Letter to the Philippians, Jesus:

  did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

Philippians 2:6-8

Perhaps the wilderness is where we can encounter Jesus most profoundly.

The other thing to note before we dig any further might seem like a bit of a grammar nerd point, but it’s important. The NRSV translation says that “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” The past tense is imperfect, not aorist. This means that, rather than describing a complete event – that Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit, who then left him to it – it has the sense of an ongoing past event. So a more literal translation might be “and was being led by the spirit in the wilderness.”[1] That is, the Spirit was leading Jesus during his time in the Wilderness, even during the times of temptation.

In the wilderness, Jesus faced three temptations. To turn stone to bread, to worship the devil in return for worldly power, and to perform a showy miracle.

Blake – Christ Tempted by Satan to Turn the Stones to Bread

The first temptation is to change stones to bread, which Jesus rejects saying ‘One does not live by bread alone.’

Why resist? Why not create the bread? It would seem ridiculous for this one who is, after all, God’s son, to starve to death in the desert before he even began his ministry. When the devil says “if” you are God’s son, it is in the sense of “given that, since you are” God’s son. He isn’t asking Jesus to prove it, merely to make use of the various conveniences available to someone like him.

We all know the desire to make our lives a little bit easier. If I was holed up in a cave in the wilderness for any length of time, I would pretty quickly furnish it with whatever conveniences I could. A particularly successful bit of flint-knapping for instance. Something I could use to carry water about in. Some way to keep the fire going so I didn’t have to keep lighting it every day.

But I don’t think the problem here is exactly the comfort. Not eating is what makes this a fast. If Jesus makes bread, then he isn’t doing what he sets out to do, which is, presumably, to prepare for the ministry that he is about to commence. The whole of the passage that Jesus quotes is:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.


Deuteronomy 8:3

Eating or not eating is the means, not the end. It is hearing from God that is the point of the exercise. And if what it takes to hear God is to refrain from eating for forty days, then that is what Jesus is prepared to do.

Blake – The Second Temptation

The second temptation in Luke’s account is that Jesus is taken up to a mountain and shown every kingdom in the world. Worship me, says the devil, and this will all be yours.

The world is, it has to be admitted, in a mess. Discord, violence, poverty, ignorance are rife. Easily preventable diseases killing millions of people in the developing world, while the diseases of affluence kill millions more in the developed world. Sexism, racism, the whole basket of deplorables. If only, we think, someone could just sort this out.

But Jesus says “no.” The reason? Scripture says: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ In my first draft of this sermon I went on a bit of an excursion about political economy and the problems with utopian thinking. But then I read the passage again and noticed that Jesus doesn’t actually talk about the problems of imposing God’s reign by force. Instead he goes right to the heart of things: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ Root your life in God first: worry about the world, and one’s role in it second.

William Blake The Third Temptation

The third temptation is for Jesus to be taken to the top of the temple, the very pinnacle. The devil uses Scripture this time, presumably having noticed Jesus’ previous strategy. Jump off, he suggests, and let the angels catch you. Jesus once again replies with Scripture, saying ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

Like the stones to bread temptation earlier, this is a bit strange on the face of it. Jesus does lots of miracles in his ministry: healings and stilling storms and feeding crowds in the wilderness. What’s the problem with doing them here and now? Is levitation somehow problematic in a way that these other miracles aren’t?

I think that the key here is motivation. It’s the “why” of miracles, not the “whether.” Scripture doesn’t talk about miracles as much as signs. When Jesus does out of the ordinary things, it isn’t to show off like a magician. It is because it is a sign of the Kingdom that he brings, and already inhabits. Or, to put it another way, he is doing what God wants to be done. Not what a plausible argument suggests to him.

Even when it would be easier, safer, more fun to do things the easy way, Jesus does not. He takes up his cross every day. He does what needs to be done.

I want to draw out two things here. Firstly a theological point. Secondly something practical.


The Resurrection Piero della Francesca

Perhaps the main Christian theological question is this: What does Jesus Christ mean? One aspect of the question is that Christians all agree that he somehow opens the way to the one who he called “abba, father.” But how? There is no one “official” answer, but one very old suggestion is known as the classical or Christus Victor theory.[2] It generally seems to be applied to Jesus overcoming death through his resurrection. But I don’t think it would be drawing a long bow to see the overcoming of the devil in the temptation in the wilderness as being part of his triumph over evil in every area.

Of course, we might say, it’s all very well for him. Jesus is, as even the devil admits, God’s son. He could do it. It’s not so easy for us.

In fact Christian orthodoxy insists, it’s not even possible for us. Our continual taking of the easy, plausible answer, our refusal to take responsibility for our lives, to offload it onto other people, to not see things as they really are – to not love the world like God loves it, like we see God loving it through Jesus – is technically known as sin. When we fail to love, when we fall short, we distance ourselves from God.

But the Good News is that somehow Jesus’ having taken full responsibility somehow implicates us. We are somehow bound up in that perfect connection with the Father. Or, as we say, forgiven, welcomed back, like the prodigal son in the story.

Detail from Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciplesby Tintoretto

The practical outworking is this: Jesus focused on what is fundamental. Faced with questions about food, about politics, about power, Jesus put the focus on his relationship with God. Listening to God. Worshipping God. Trusting God.

We live in a very busy world where urgent things clamour for our attention. To have opinions about things we don’t have time to understand. To be outraged. To support this and to denounce that. Not all of us live in the social media information maelstrom, but anyone who watches the evening news regularly feels this need to respond somehow to the chaos of the world.

So the practical suggestion I take from this is the primary importance of beginning at the beginning. Getting our foundations right with God. Listen to God – read the Scriptures, develop an awareness of God in daily life. Worship God – here in the liturgy, but in a whole life aimed at serving God rather than ourselves and our ego. Trust God – in a world where chaos seems to reign, where we are bombarded every hour of the day with reasons not to do so.

And let’s today begin with the knowledge that God, in Jesus Christ, has walked our path. God knows about our suffering and grief and battles with temptation. In the literal wilderness, Jesus joins us in the metaphorical wilderness of our own lives. And, just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness, the Spirit can lead us through our own wilderness. If we allow it.


[1] Thanks to Mark Davis http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/02/twice-led-not-fed-well-read.html

[2] Daniel L Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp.182-183. This is literally theology 101.

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