Dress Rehearsal in the Desert

Lent rolls around every year, but for most Christians, it is less like a birthday and more like a flu vaccination. 

We know Lent is necessary, that it's good for us in much the same way cauliflower might be. We've heard all the preachers' clichés as to how it makes the joy of Easter possible, but the truth of the matter is that Lent never comes naturally. 

It is hard to explain to our non-Christian friends, because, to tell the truth, we don't fully understand it ourselves. We are prone to engage in its practice without ever asking why we are doing what we are doing. We do it because, well, we've always done it. 

We cut out chocolate, lay off the red meat, maybe we stop drinking carbonated beverages for forty days, all to declare ourselves better prepared for the resurrection. To an outsider, it looks more like a diet.

But if we don't have a good explanation for our Lenten behavior, if we don't seem to fully understand the focus of the season, it's not completely our fault. It is Jesus' own sojourn in the wilderness that inspires this odd season, and Jesus doesn't seem keen on offering any explanation for what he's doing.

Year after year when the first Sunday of Lent arrives, we watch as Jesus wanders off into the wilderness again. And while the Bible is full of spiritual retreats, this one doesn't follow the typical pattern.

As a refresher, let's set the scene a bit. The people--Jesus' people--have waited impatiently for a Savior; and while there were some rumors awhile back about a birth in Bethlehem, they've seen no evidence that anything has changed in the world.

But one bright day on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus shows up, seemingly out of nowhere. He's come to be baptized, though it feels more like a coronation ceremony. It's glorious. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, God speaks from on high. It is good stuff, the kind of event that almost makes up for four centuries of Messianic expectation.

It's the sort of positive event you build on; maybe you follow it up with a reception or a press conference. Let folks know that their long-awaited hope has finally arrived.

That is, unless you're Jesus. If you're Jesus, you do none of those things. If you're Jesus, you show up out of nowhere and then immediately move on. To nowhere.

Now, conventional wisdom suggests that he goes to the wilderness after his baptism to prepare for what is to come. This is the biblical precedent, after all. Like Moses, Elijah and other spiritual leaders before him, Jesus has to spend some time alone with God before he can carry out his mission. And as everyone who has read the Old Testament knows, it takes at least forty days before you can hear what God has to say. 

But unlike all those other folks who spent time in the wilderness, Jesus does not come out here in order to listen to God, at least that's not his primary purpose. He heard God loud and clear at his baptism.

No, Jesus doesn't come to the desert to hear God more clearly. Jesus comes to the desert in order to hear from Divine Enemy Number One. This doesn't fit the precedent. This is not the kind of spiritual retreat your church might sponsor on breath prayer or building a healthier home life. It is a Spirit-inflicted dark night of the soul.

I say "Spirit-inflicted" because the gospels all agree that this spiritual detour wasn't his idea at all--Jesus is led into the middle of nowhere by none other than the Holy Spirit. Saint Mark is, as is his custom, a little more blunt about it, saying that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. He is shoved by the Spirit.

The very same Spirit that descended at Jesus' baptism like a cooing game bird calls Jesus out into a place where human life cannot survive. The good news, I suppose, is that Lent did not come naturally to Jesus, either. It took the Spirit to get him there; and if you listen to Mark, Jesus may never have gone on his own. 

So why? Why does the Spirit drive him into the desert, if not for a deeper connection with God? Because the newly crowned Messiah has a date with the devil. He has come out here, the gospels tell us, to face temptation.

It is understandable, perhaps, why he doesn't build on the raised expectations brought on by his dramatic baptism. Maybe that is technically his first temptation, to live up to the crowd's appetite for Messianic ambition. But, frankly, I am uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being temptable at all, but the gospels are unwavering in their witness that he was, in fact, tempted.

That means that temptations work. They get his attention. He doesn't have a copy of the script, he's not reciting canned responses, there is no protective force field reserved for the Son of God. It gives you a good idea as to why Jesus would tell his disciples to always pray "Lead us not into temptation."

One of the most powerful messages the life of Jesus leaves us with is that no one is exempt from the power of the tempter, not even the best of us--maybe especially not the best of us. We are all vulnerable to temptation, though what tempts us may change.

The devil's taunts are gussied up in the noblest of intentions--these are truly temptations worthy of the Son of God. They prey on his goodness, and they tell us something about Jesus' own heart.

The devil doesn't show up as a serpent offering fruit; there is no red spandex and pitchfork--in other words, the devil doesn't announce himself. Temptation doesn't wear a nametag.

For Jesus and for all of us, the voice of evil sounds an awful lot like the voice of good. 

"Take care of yourself."

"Save the world."

"Prove your faith."

None of those things sound particularly self-destructive on the surface; in fact, it sounds like a good basis for a baccalaureate address. And this is what temptation looks like for Jesus. 

When culture talks about temptation, it's usually describing the irresistible urge to do something that we already know will destroy us, the kind of stuff that we'd rather stay in Vegas. The kind of temptation that looks like temptation from the get-go. An alcoholic raiding the hotel mini bar. A lonely husband spending too much time with his attractive co-worker. Stuff we know is wrong but we are drawn to do all the same. 

Christians who celebrate Lent certainly wrestle with those obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of the season is to help us recognize the more potent tools of the tempter--the temptations that don't look like temptation until we see them in the rearview mirror.

The temptations that are the most dangerous are the ones that sound most like good, the ones that sound the most like God.

Jesus has every good attribute in spades--he has character, integrity, faith, a moral compass that is unmatched--and yet he is tempted. The antidote, then, to temptation is not strength. It's not moral fortitude or depth of character. 

When we imagine ourselves religious enough, mature enough, moral enough to be exempt from temptation, it is just a matter of time before we give into it. But our temptations won't be the hotel mini bar. They will be played out on the road paved with good intentions. When we are led by our own wisdom, when we are led by our own desire to see the good done, when we are tempted to take shortcuts to get there, we will always find ourselves vulnerable; and the greater our moral character, the more tailor-made we will find temptation.

The only vaccine to temptation is obedience. Jesus' escape from the tempter is not a matter of weighing pros and cons and making the best decision; it is a willful choice to submit to God. Again and again and again.

  • "Life is more than eating bread," Jesus whispers, though his rumbling stomach disagrees.
  • "Worship God and nothing else," he says, the world's kingdoms and all that power to do good right there for the taking.
  • "Don't test God," teaches the one who will be tested even unto death.

Half-dead from hunger, and seemingly alone, this man looks nothing like a king and this is certainly unlike any coronation ceremony. But make no mistake; he is the real thing. The promises made to him at his baptism are refined in the desert.

And maybe it must happen now so that he is more ready for it later. These will certainly not be the last temptations. This is a dress rehearsal, a preview of what awaits Jesus deeper into his ministry.

  • When Peter, the chief of the apostles and the rock of the church, tries to coax him into a kinder, gentler, way of saving the world that doesn't involve execution, Jesus recognizes the voice.
  • When he hangs dying on the cross and the crowd tries to bait him, "If you are the Son of God, meet our expectations," he knows better.

Then, as now, it is obedience that will deliver him. The one who teaches with authority will live under the authority of the One who sent him. 

Which brings me back to our time in the wilderness, this mysterious season of self-denial and other things that don't come naturally. Lent isn't strength-training for the soul. It's not about exercising our spiritual muscles. It is about obedience. Reliance. Dependence. It's about the awareness that every good door that opens is not necessarily the will of God. It's about learning to be led--or if necessary, driven--out to the desolate place within ourselves where our hungers and our dreams and our fears all take turns trying to shut out the voice of God. 

In just a few weeks, we will follow Jesus to a garden where, for a moment, his own desires will conflict with the path he's been called to take.

"If you can take this cup from me, please take it away," Jesus will pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. But his prayer is not finished. "Yet not what I want, but what you want."

Obedience. Blind, radical obedience.

Lent doesn't come naturally, even to the best of us. But that's exactly why Lent is our only hope. If we can learn to recognize the voice of the tempter here in these forty days of self-denial, perhaps we will be wise enough to know him when he speaks with our own voice.

There are some places God intends to take us that we will never reach if left to our own devices. We would never go there following our own compass.

But somewhere in the desert, alone but not alone, Jesus chooses obedience. May God grant us the grace to do the same--to choose who we will be and whose we will be. In the wilderness of this holy season, and wherever the road takes us on the other side.