Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days. It’s not that he took a wrong turn somewhere and got himself lost or forgot how to get home. He was beginning his public ministry. Some would correct me on this and insist that Jesus was preparing for his public ministry and began that ministry only once he left the desert. After all, except for scorpions, rocks, sand, the Spirit, and Satan, Jesus was all alone.
I don’t want to quibble. It is true that Jesus moved from wandering alone to walking with crowds of followers. But he began walking in a distinctive way already in the desert, and following Jesus means getting the hang of how he walks. That’s what will transform us from aimless wanderers into pilgrims with a sense of direction.
Let’s take a look together at Jesus’ time in the wilderness so that we can learn how to walk.
You’re Only Yourself When You’re Hungry
After forty days of fasting, Jesus was probably ready to eat his shoelaces. The devil simply points to the obvious. Jesus can perform miracles. Later in his ministry he will multiply a few loaves and fishes to provide a banquet for thousands of people. So, Jesus, just say the word and the rocks at your feet will be a basketful of warm muffins.
It seems a harmless enough suggestion. You’re hungry. With a little effort you’ll have all the food you care to eat. So what’s the hold up?
The holdup is that Jesus is learning the lesson that hunger has to teach him.
As a human being, Jesus needs food to survive. He is no different from you and me. Starvation shadows him in the wilderness just like it would stalk you or me in similar circumstances. The most natural thing in the world would be to do just as Satan suggests. Turn the rocky desert into your personal vending machine.
Have a Snickers, Jesus! You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.
We live in a culture of immediate gratification. Hunger–and any other sort of human need–seems an unfair intrusion into a life defined by consumption and gratification.
But Jesus sees in physical hunger the deeper spiritual truth that our physical nature is meant to symbolize for us. We are dependent upon something beyond ourselves, someone greater than ourselves for our being and our well-being.
We do not live by burgers and beer alone. More fundamentally, we yearn for God, for without him we grow increasingly hollow and desperate. And while we properly address our physical craving by seeking something to quell it, we surrender ourselves to mere dust when we treat our spiritual longing in the same way.
And frankly, much of how we operate in contemporary life seeks to extinguish our spiritual longing. We anesthetize ourselves with entertainments or chemical substances or sexual adventures.
We consume food or travel or clothing or bling in the vain hope that it will quiet the rumblings of a hungry heart. Spiritually speaking, we become less, not more, when we stuff ourselves with things and activities so that our souls won’t ache any longer. We identify increasingly with the dust from which God has made us rather than the divine image which only he can breathe into us.
Spiritual hunger invites us to feel it keenly and even to take steps to increase its hold upon us. God is infinite. We are finite. There is always more of God for us to receive and to love. We can for all eternity yearn for more of God, and the object of spiritual longing is just this: that God would stretch our souls to receive ever more of him.
You are only yourself when you are hungry, hungry for the infinite God. And the temptation that tracks us all is the allure of gratifying our infinite longing with merely finite things.
More than Applause
When Jesus emerges from the desert he will teach the lost and heal the sick and cast demons out of tortured souls. Satan again asks what seems a natural question. So, Jesus, how do you think that’s all going to work out for you?
If he’s like most of us, he would want to be a success. He would surely want applause in one of its many forms. Satan calls it glory.
His average Sabbath attendance could go up. The budget could increase every year. Maybe he could buy a sports arena and convert it into an auditorium and broadcast his teaching and healing to millions around the world. Go on world tours. Appear on talk shows. Make the cover of Rolling Stone or Time.
That is certainly one way to assess a ministry. The public’s approval ratings and standards for success would gauge our words and actions. The minister becomes a master people pleaser.
We all know about people-pleasing, even those who think themselves immune to it. Glory, as Satan calls it, comes in many forms.
Career success. Physical fitness. Our children’s achievements. The car we drive. The university we attend.
We use these and scores of other social statuses to define who we are. Find the one you don’t want to sacrifice or the one whose loss would burden you with shame, and you’ll find the glory that tempts you.
Jesus, however, knows that people-pleasing becomes a kind of slavery to the whims and preferences of others. When our sense of purpose and significance derives from how others respond to us and what others say about us, then the public becomes the organ grinder, and we become the monkey capering to its tune.
When we set our sights on winning public approval, we turn the point of life into being loved. We are always seeking applause, and as soon as the applause dies down, we rush to the next stage desperately seeking another standing ovation.
By contrast, Jesus came to give love to the loveless. Not to win love for himself. He came to give love precisely to those who would boo him, revile him, torture and eventually kill him on the cross.
In turn he sends us into the world in the name of love. Our temptation is to seek to be loved, to gain a status that proves our worth. But our mission is to give love as followers of Christ. To give the rogue a second chance, to give a helping hand to the good-for-nothing, and to wait patiently on the misguided sorehead.
We don’t need their applause to motivate us. Jesus’ love for us–poured out for us on the cross when we were the rogue, the good-for-nothing, and the sorehead–propels us.
Lowering Our Shields
Jesus knows with his head and feels in his gut that God loves him. That’s why he does what he does. In response to the Father’s love.
For the third and final time (at least in this particular bout), Satan poses what seems to be a perfectly reasonable question. If God really loves you, surely he won’t let anything bad happen to you. Right?
That’s what Satan is getting at when he dares Jesus to take a flying leap off the Temple. Make God prove how much he loves you. If he really loves you, there’s no way he will let anything hurt you.
Satan wants Jesus, and he wants us, to think of God as the provider of a kind of invisible shield. Like in Star Trek. When the Klingons attack, Captain Kirk orders Sulu, “Raise the shields!” The shields protect the Enterprise from damage.
But God sent Jesus into the world with precisely the opposite commission. Lower the shields. Make yourself vulnerable to the pain and the sorrow, the disappointment and the grief, the violence and the hatred, the suffering and the death of this world.
The Father said to Jesus, “Let them break your heart, because they need it. I will heal your heart, and that is how I will heal their hearts.”
We are drawn by the allure of security. But, as followers of Jesus, we are sent into the world to love. God does not guarantee a painless ride. When we love, our hearts will break. But as it turns out, broken hearts are the instrument by which God continues the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus began on the cross.
Being a parent and being a spouse is not about getting a biblical technique right, but about learning to stay together when we let each other down, giving each other a new start, and promising to be there no matter what turn the road takes.
Being in community means more than having a membership card or asserting your rights, it means refusing to leave anyone behind, being willing to have less so that others have enough, and rejecting the idea that we can vote anyone off the island.
This is all heartrending stuff. It is all healing stuff. It is the stuff of walking like Jesus in a ruined and beautiful world.
Jesus wandered, but he was never lost. He wandered not only for the sake of his own discernment, but also to show us how to walk. When we follow Jesus in his wandering, our own daily coming and going becomes anything but aimless. It leads us from the very heart of God to the very heart of God.
This sermon was preached at St. Luke’s, Jennings.