I once baffled the others in my youth group by managing to get lost on a nature trail. The thing is, the trail was really hard to see and there were also deer paths and it was the middle of a Kansas prairie. If you’ve ever been in the middle of a prairie you know the problem. Everything all around looks the same. Bluestem and foxtail and brome as far as the eye can see. Milkweed and coneflower and thistle. All around you in every direction. If the sun is hidden in the clouds, there is no way to know which way is which—no clear landmarks to guide you.
Sailors know this scenario all too well. In the middle of the ocean, beyond sight of land, wave upon wave as far as the eye can see. I’ve heard of sailors loosing all perspective out there—watching the water turn to solid land before their eyes and stepping right off the side of the ship to their death.
I wonder if the vast stretch of sand that surrounded Jesus in all directions ever shifted and shimmered in his mind until he was walking across the cresting waves of the sea.
For Jesus, and for his Israelite ancestors, the wilderness is a place of hunger and thirst. But above all, it is a place of bewilderment. It is the place where we are disoriented. The place where all of our familiar landmarks are gone and our maps do us no good.
The place where your marriage disintegrates before your eyes.
The place where you must look on helplessly as your child makes disastrous decision after disastrous decision.
The place where your job—along with the money you need to pay the bills—disappears.
The place where the beliefs you have stood upon throughout your life begin to crumble and shift beneath your feet.
The place where your body, your own body, becomes the enemy.
Or maybe your wilderness is not a barren wasteland of loss. Maybe, instead, your wilderness is cluttered with good ideas, exciting possibilities, gentle nudges in so many directions that you never get more than a few steps down any one path before you decide you really should go back and try the other, equally appealing, road.
Maybe what disorients you isn’t necessarily the lack of physical landmarks, but the chaos of the lists of pros and cons that stream through your mind every time you try to make a decision.
Whatever the exact nature of our wilderness, it is a place where we are lost—body and soul lost. And you know and I know that there are no magic maps. There is rarely a voice from heaven. There is just wave after wave of sand and rock. Test after test from all of the voices within and without.
In the wilderness, you are most definitely lost. And not a little lost. You are the kind of lost where, exhausted, you may finally collapse in the shade of large rock and just lie still. Because you figure you have as much chance of finding your way by laying there on the sand as you do by running around in circles.
And maybe that’s the point of the wilderness. And maybe that’s why we might be there for forty days . . . or forty years; however long it takes for us to admit we are lost and for us to stop and be still.
Rebecca Lyman suggests that “When Jesus quotes scripture in reply [to the devil], perhaps he is not the clever rabbi, but rather the lost child who clings to the only presence of God in this dreadful place.”
Maybe Jesus is able to resist the temptations not because he is thinking fast on his feet. Not because he does the research and writes up a strategic plan. Maybe he is able to resist the temptations because he rests in what he knows already. In what he has known since he was a young child.
Maybe Jesus is able to resist the temptations because he stops in the center of the empty chaos and rests in the only reality he can grasp: that he is deeply beloved of God. As are you.
This reflection on Luke 4:1-13 is excerpted from this sermon I preached several years ago.
Here is another sermon on the same text.