I am committed to hearing Good News this Lent. In a previous post I explored some of the ‘good news’ for Jesus and us in the wilderness Jesus was where the Holy Spirit wanted Him to be, it clarified and solidified His identity and mission, it was a place of preparation and purgation, and the place where Jesus back stories the gospel.
All this is true, but the best news about the wilderness is this: it doesn’t go on forever. Wildernesses are meant to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, . Israel’s forty-year wilderness wandering ended when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land; Jesus forty days preceded three years of active ministry, later a cross and a grave gave way to resurrection and glory. A dry, desolate place may be large, it may stretch on for miles in all directions, you may have been here for years, and you may have no sense when this season will end. But dry, desolate places do not encompass all reality. This is a part of the journey, it is no destination.
Mark and Luke’s gospels tells us that Jesus was ‘in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan’ (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2). Matthew places Satan’s temptation at the end of the wilderness time, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him. . .” (Matthew 4:2-3). It is true that Jesus was in a vulnerable state after his forty-day-fast, but I think the significance of Matthew’s timeline because Jesus’ responses reveal the trajectory, tone and rules of engagement for His earthly ministry. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (a wilderness textbook) three times On his lips, these words drip with good news and expose the devil’s dead-ends. ( Matthew 4:1-11). Let’s look at the first temptation:
“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The accuser says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The immediate context tells of Jesus’ hunger after forty days fasting. Certainly this is part of it, but Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus identifies this first temptation as a temptation toward relevance. How many hungry people could be fed if the stones would become bread? Nowen writes:
Aren’t we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones to bread he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, “Human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (18).
Rome was the oppressor. They had a wide expanse of land and resources at their disposal and ruled over diverse people groups, including Jesus’own people, the Jews. Throughout the empire they quashed rebellion through ‘bread and circuses’—people were feed just enough and distracted enough, so they didn’t organize for real change. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to embody Israel’s hopes and to restore the world to a right relationship with him. Bread from stones is a mere pittance, a cheap parlor trick, even if it fills an immediate need. God had a plan and an end he was moving toward—a new heaven and a new earth: humanity restored and Creation made perfect. If he set that aside for bread, he would have been choosing the quick fix over God the Father’s comprehensive vision for human flourishing. We choose the Word of God over bread because the wilderness doesn’t go on forever, and we have a hope to sustain us. Courage and commitment comes as we keep the end game in mind.
I am not trying to be trite. I know what the wilderness is like, both in life and in ministry. I know the constrictive stress of financial obligations—mounting bills which make you feel like you can’t do anything, the stress of not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, and the fear that when it comes it won’t be enough. I know what it is to lose something you care about and to hunger for something which lies just beyond your grasp. These are the moments I long for the stones to become bread so that I can move easily = to the next big thing. Somebody buy me a lottery ticket. Stones to bread, rags to riches, anything to help me traverse this wasteland back to where I’m supposed to be.
Jesus does what Esau could not (the guy who sold his birthright for a stomachful of stew). When Satan gives Jesus away to satisfy his physical hungry, Jesus clung tenaciously to God’s plan—every word that fell from God’s mouth. He would not be seduced by technique, quick-fixes and short term gains. God’s Word doesn’t return void but accomplishes God’s desires and purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus would not put his hope in material provision, or relevance, or magic. He trusted that what God said, God would do and He held with all his being to the promises of God.
Where is your hope? Who are you trusting in for your salvation? If we are to learn from Jesus how to not settle for bread of our own making, we need a hope and a vision big enough to sustain us through our vulnerability and weakness. Or we may sell out for a meal. Jesus knew the story and where it was headed. If we are to live by God’s Word we need to know the story. If you haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, you should. God’s Word orients us when we are in dangerous terrain.
But living by God’s Word instead of bread, also means prayer. Nouwen puts it like this, “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love” (28). The mystic doesn’t chase bread because she knows herself to be cherished and cared for by the God of love. We will be sustained through the wilderness when we know whose we are.
Jesus would say on a different occasion that his food was to do the will of He who sent him (John 4:34). But it wasn’t as though He quit eating. The gospels are glutted with stories of Jesus lounging around a table, breaking bread with Pharisees, eating and drinking with tax collectors, sinners, lepers, and dirty-handed disciples. He would instruct his disciples to pray for daily bread. His best known miracle was, if not making bread from stones, multiplying it to feed thousands. His own life was broken as bread and given for the world. But this as ever bread for Himself. It was for the world and He remained rooted in God’s love, trusting Him wholeheartedly.
Wilderness God, You stood with lean frame and your belly distended, staring down Satan. Thank you for not quitting, but staying committed to Your redemptive plan. Thank you for trusting the Father more than food. Help me to live with the same trust, and security that you had in the Judean Wilderness. Give me confidence that the desert doesn’t extend forever, and that at the end of it, You have good things. Help me to feed on Your Word, that I may live always in the love of God. Amen