What do you imagine when you hear the word “wilderness?” It might be the barren stretches of land out west, where the painted desert is just rocks and sand and mountains. Or it might be the wide expanse of reeds with occasional cypresses of the swamps on the gulf coast. Or, for me, it’s always been the thicket of trees on rolling mountains in the backwoods of Appalachia. Wilderness is where the wild things are, where it’s untamed, where there aren’t any people. And maybe when we think of wilderness, we think of good camping grounds. It’s a place where you can reconnect with nature for a while, take a break from responsibilities, and get some fresh air.
But in Jesus’ day, and throughout the Bible, “wilderness” was never associated with anything pleasant. Wilderness was where there were dangerous wild animals. Wilderness was where you were isolated from people, and thus support or companionship or guidance. Wilderness meant no ready access to food or water for who knows how long. Wilderness was a challenge to survive, not just a getaway. Wilderness was more like a freezing and powerless ranch home in Houston’s suburbs than it was a campground a few hour’s hike from a supply station. So when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, it was into a place where there wasn’t anything or anyone to support him.
When Mark briefly mentions that Jesus was tempted, I think it’s important for us to dwell on that for a minute. This wasn’t some one-off, easy test for the Son of God who can’t be tempted. It was a real challenge for the very human Jesus to overcome in a desperate situation. Temptation is one of those things that all human beings deal with, Jesus included.
See Jesus had just been through a life-changing experience of being baptized and seeing the Spirit of God descend into him like a dove, and heard the voice of God say “You are my son, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.” Out in the wilderness, though, he had to contend with not having enough. If he was really beloved, then why was he being so deprived? Why was he being brought to the brink of starvation? And on the other hand, he was the Son of God. Why couldn’t he just conjure up bread to eat, or overcome it all with his divine power? Was either thing really that bad? Jesus’ temptation, weirdly enough, was not that different from our own.
The nature of temptation, obvious as this might seem, is that it’s never something we don’t want to do. Note that: you are never tempted to do something you don’t want to do. There is always just enough of a good reason to give into temptation that simply lining things up as “sin is bad, so don’t do it” falls apart when it actually meets real temptation. Because, as I’ve said before, we are really bad at wanting to sin. We don’t wake up and decide we want to do the wrong thing. Even when we know we can’t be the good guy, we at least don’t want to be the bad guy. So where we are tempted is when we manage to turn the wrong thing, the bad thing, the sin, into something that, quite reasonably, is not actually bad or wrong or sinful.
The spouse who gets involved in having an affair will construct fantastically complex reasons that justify their departure from the sacred vows they took. For one reason or another, the affair is the result of their spouse’s shortcomings—emotional, physical, or otherwise. They are simply looking after their own needs which have been abandoned by their spouse. That justifies giving into the temptation, in their mind.
The addict will insist that no one is really getting hurt by their habit, or that this time will be the last time, or that it’s their body so they can do with it what they will. Going into recovery isn’t necessary because they can stop any time or they’re not that far gone. Creating a justification for the addiction makes giving into temptation reasonable.
The dear friend who has just gone through a terrible breakup has your full support, right? And to show that support, you take regular pot-shots at their ex, sharing lurid details of how their subsequent relationships have been a disaster, highlighting every bad thing they have ever done or are currently doing. The temptation to demonize, dehumanize, and vilify another human being is justified by being a good friend just offering support in their time of need.
But in these and all cases of temptation, we don’t want to do the wrong thing, or the bad thing, or the sinful thing. The way that we give into temptation is when we find ourselves justifying doing things that harm others, that break down our own humanity, that do not reflect the God who is love. Jesus could easily have justified turning stones to bread—who was it going to harm to choose power and control over weakness and vulnerability? And he could easily have justified diving off the Temple—he was God’s beloved, after all, and everyone would see it. And there was only good that could come from him, the Son of God, having power over all the kingdoms of the earth—what’s a little devil worship to the good that he could do for all of humanity?
That’s just the thing, though. God calls on us to resist temptation when we make our vows in baptism. We heard it last week in the renunciations: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? All of these things we renounce are the tools we use to excuse the ways we hurt each other and ourselves. So when we are faced with temptation, it’s not enough to ask if we can justify doing it. We have to discern whether this thing aligns with a God who is love; whether it makes sense in light of Christ who chose to die rather than use the angel legions at his command; whether it comes from the Spirit who keeps widening the circle of God’s grace in the world.
So while we wander in this wilderness of Lent together, consider how Jesus was called Beloved when he was baptized, and how you have the same name because of your baptism. When you face temptation, ask how doing or believing this thing will shape you as a child of God, how it brings you closer to God or draws you away from God, how it helps you love your neighbor more fully, how it reflects the God who is love.
And lean into your baptismal promises—both the ones you made and the ones God has made to you. Know that God’s grace follows you wherever you go, even when you give into temptation, even when you fall short. Lean on God’s hope and the promise of forgiveness for all who repent, knowing that God doesn’t stop calling you beloved. This Lent, let’s reexamine our own baptisms, and how they have empowered us to resist temptation, and how we are being equipped to show the world the kingdom of God through our love, our words, and our actions.
Because the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in this good news.
Thanks be to God. Amen.