It was right after the baptism in the Jordan. John lifted him, still dripping, from the water, and something shifted. He felt full—full of something powerful and good—full of love—so loved. He belonged. He was beloved by God. Filled to the brim with this awareness of God’s Spirit with him.
And it was that awareness that led him into the wilderness. It was a place of testing—a place to figure out what really mattered—a place to sort out what would come next. He went to the wilderness not to get closer to God—because he knew God was already as close as could be—no, he went so that he would understand how close God was—he went so that he would know God with him deep in his bones.
At the end of 40 days, though, he just felt empty. Hungry and dry and wrung out. And that is when the pull came.
“If you are really so special—if God has really given you special powers—then turn these stones into bread. Eat. Meet your own needs. Provide for yourself.”
The desire was there. His stomach growled, and his limbs were weak. Food sounded so good. But there was one thing deep in his soul that was stronger and louder than the hunger: “It is written, one does not live by bread alone,” and he stayed hungry one more day.
He found himself windswept and overlooking a valley where it seemed like he caught a glimpse of the whole world, and he heard the pull again, “Look at all those kingdoms—they could all be yours. It would be so simple to seize control.” But Jesus recognized the lie—the pull to worship power instead of the truly powerful One, and he fought the temptation away: “It is written—Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only,” and he felt powerless for one more day.
Finally, he was standing high at the pinnacle of the temple, and he felt that pull again, “Don’t you worry that you’re wrong—that you’re not really that important to God, after all? If you want to be sure of God’s love, there’s a simple test—just throw yourself off of this temple. If you’re as special as you think you are, God will not let you come to harm—for it is written that God will command his angels to protect you, right?” Jesus knew that voice, by now. He knew the lie. He also knew the truth—he didn’t need to test God’s love to know it was real. “It is written, do not put the Lord God to the test.” And he kept wondering for one more day.
Forty days in the wilderness, and what did he have to show for it? Confidence it his ability to provide for himself? No. Motivation to se
ize power and make the world run better? No. Assurance that God would always protect him? No. But he did have love.
He had God’s love, and his own love for God, and he
had chosen to stay vulnerable for the sake of that love. He chose to stay vulnerable, dependent on God, because he trusted God. He loved God. He b
elieved that voice from his baptism. God loved him.
Now, I know that I’ve just told this wilderness temptation story in ways that might seem different to you, but I have a very specific purpose for the changes that I’ve made.
See, I think that often we read this story and we think of it as the Devil tempting Jesus to do something supernatural—to exercise his powers in the wrong ways and at the wrong times—we think of it as a temptation that is unique, or specific to Jesus, but I think there is something more universal going on, here. I think the temptations Jesus faces are temptations each of us face at times in our lives.
So let’s look at each of the temptations. First, the temptation to provide for ourselves rather than waiting and trusting that someone else (who loves us) will provide for us. It is the toddler who sneaks a treat from the cabinet and hides behind a piece of furniture to eat it, not knowing that Mom or Dad would offer it freely after lunch. It is the spouse who asks her partner to do the dishes, and then does them herself, anyway, because she can’t seem to trust that her spouse will remember, or do them the right way.
The temptation with the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to grasp for power and control. The temptation to cheat at school in order to keep up appearances as the perfect student. The temptation to keep up the façade of having it all together, in order to save face, or avoid asking for help. It is the temptation to fix the surface of a problem in order to feel in control again, instead of addressing the underlying issues. It is the temptation to smile widely and dress nicely when you are feeling depressed, instead of seeing a therapist.
And the temptation at the top of the temple—the temptation to test love. It is the teenager who gets a tattoo and shows up at home drunk, because they feel like their parents don’t care what they do anymore. It is the lover who withholds physical affection out of fear that their body is the only thing that matters to their partner.
These temptations are not obscure, supernatural hurdles that Jesus had to overcome because he was the Son of God. No—these temptations are at the heart of every human relationship—they are at the heart of every person’s response to God. Can we trust? Can we give love freely and receive love freely? Can we choose to be vulnerable with someone else—to expose our needs and our weaknesses, our failing and our desires and trust someone else to respect and honor and care for us in that vulnerability.
Sometimes, like Jesus, we find ourselves in the wilderness—hungry and tired and parched. Usually we don’t know how or why we got there. We may not have the benefit of Jesus’ assurance that the Spirit led us there, but we can still choose to learn, to grow, to trust God while we are there.
I’ve been in something of a wilderness, myself, during the past couple of years—it’s a wilderness that I am just beginning to have the courage to name “depression,” and I can attest to the fact that trying to provide for myself and trying to grasp for control have been entirely unhelpful. What has made a difference is letting myself be vulnerable. Letting others see my weakness and my need, letting myself ask for help, letting myself admit that I cannot manage on my own. Vulnerability helps because that is when I am able to truly receive love and care. When I am pretending to hold it all together, the love sent my way bounces off of my defenses. It can’t penetrate to the core of who I am, because I am shielding that true and wounded part of myself from the world. It is only when the defenses are lowered that love can reach the parts of me that most need love.
Throughout the season of Lent, we will be looking at different facets of what Jesus’ life teaches us about love. This first idea is so simple, and yet, it is also so challenging that we’ll come back to it again on Good Friday. Love chooses to become, or to remain vulnerable. Love lays its weaknesses out in the light. Love has the audacity to need someone else—to depend on someone else. Love is not weak, but it chooses what looks and feels like weakness, for the sake of being open and true. Love is vulnerable. And God meets us in that vulnerability, assuring us that we are never, never, never alone. Assuring us that we are, indeed, beloved children of God. Amen. May we know that truth down to our very bones.