Reflection on Luke 4:1-11

[This reflection is excerpted from this longer sermon.]

We often think of “the wilderness” as a dry place. A hot place. But beyond being dry and hot; beyond inflicting hunger and thirst; the wilderness is, above all, 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.

In the wilderness, whatever else you are—hungry, thirsty, hot, tired—you are most definitely lost.

Not a little lost. Not the kind of lost where you can try one road and trace back and try another if the first doesn’t turn out to be the right one.

Not the kind of lost where you have to pull over to the side of the road and examine the map.

Not even the kind of lost where you finally pull into a gas station and ask the clerk for directions.

In the wilderness you are the kind of lost where you don’t even see a road—any road—that leads anywhere.

You are the kind of lost where you might wander for forty years and end up just a few miles from where you started.

And we know that the bewilderment Jesus experiences in the desert is not simply due to the sparse landscape. The temptations of the devil also disorient him.

I used to imagine the story as Jesus in the wilderness for, say, thirty-nine days or so and then the devil pops in on the last day to throw out the temptations. But actually, the text says Jesus was tempted—tested–by the devil for the entire forty days. Exhausting. Bewildering.

To realize just how bewildering, we need to throw out our images of a little red man with horns and a pitchfork. For first century listeners, the devil was the tempter, the tester, the stumbling block. Theologian N.T. Wright suggests that the story “does not envisage Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure to whom he could talk as one to another: the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.”[1]

That is why the temptations are truly tempting. That is why we become disoriented, bewildered. Because the voices come to us from trusted sources. And what they say has merit.

 Maybe your wilderness is a barren wasteland of loss. Or 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.

 Sometimes the wilderness means there is not enough. Sometimes, the wilderness means there is just too much.

 Whatever the exact nature of our wilderness, it is a place where we are lost—body and soul lost.

There are no adequate 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, we are most definitely lost. And not a little lost. We are the kind of lost where, exhausted, we may finally collapse in the shade of large rock and just lie still. Because we figure we have as much chance of finding our way by laying there on the sand as we 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.


[1] Wright, N.T. Luke for Everyone. John Knox Press, 2001.