I grew up going to the desert, and thought that I knew what the desert lands are all about. I’ve been camping many times in the Anza Berrego wilderness and understand that the desert is a harsh and foreboding place. I know to stay on the trails, look for snakes and take lots of extra water. I have gone hiking many times in the deserts just East of here. The desert I grew up with is dry and hot but still full of life. The scrub brush and small creatures (be they lizards and snakes) remind me that there is still some life around. I pride myself on being a semi-experienced desert traveler.
None of that could have prepared me for the walk I took in the winter of 1995 through the Judean Wilderness. Karla and I went to Israel on a tour for seminarians and our leader was a professor of Archeology from Luther Seminary in St. Paul Minn. Professor Dr. Volz or Carl as he like to be called, had taken us some strange places: behind barbed wire fences and up mountain tops onto private areas before but this was the strangest of all. He was marching us down into the ravine that contains the foot path from Jerusalem to Jericho from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Over the last two thousand years, hundreds of monks and hermits have come to live in this desolate place to pray and be isolated from the world. The Eastern Orthodox Monastery of St. George literally hangs off the cliff and goes down the ravine. Inside the walls of the monastery is cave where Elijah was fed by the ravens. Tradition also says that this is the same area where Jesus was tempted by Satan. After a few moments of prayer, Carl was off down the ravine behind the monastery into the Wadi Qelt.
Now here’s today’s vocabulary lesson -- A Wadi is nothing but a fancy archeology term for a dry river bed. We have all seen them here in the canyons of San Diego. But these canyons are not like the green chaparral covered canyons of San Diego -- they were desolate. As we turned the bend around the corner from the oasis of the monastery, everything in sight was a tannish brown or red rock. Everything was rocks. On a rare occasion, a small rubbery leafed plant would break up the tan and reddish dirt. For almost two hours we had trudged along this dirty, dusty path. The path that had been cleared eons ago by human feet and donkey hoofs was barely a flat spot on the hillside where you could put your feet. The whole scene became very scary for me -- the only sound was the crunching of rocks underfoot and the heavy breathing from out of shape seminarians walking along. The air became dry and dusty. The only thing to be seen for miles were rocks and more rocks. The winding nature of the ravine made the walk very lonely and haunting. We walked through that desert ravine for over two hours -- only small conversations and two Palestinean boys with a donkey broke up the monotony of our hike in the hot Judean desert.
At one point, we stopped and read the passage from Matthew which parallels the text from Luke that we read earlier. In this world of rocks and dusty wind, Satan threw open his arms and dared Jesus to turn all these mountains of rocks into bread. I had always thought that Satan was tempting Jesus to make himself some lunch. But in this location, Satan was tempting Jesus to turn mountains into bread. In the flash of a second, there could be enough bread to feed all of the starving people of the world -- in this one ravine alone, there would be enough bread to feed the impoverished day laborers, the widows, and the homeless dispossessed by Rome’s vicious rule. What a temptation this must have been -- to free His friends and neighbors from the cruel oppression of the Roman rule. I thought long and hard about that miracle as we finished our walk and came upon a Palestinian encampment on the outskirts of Jericho. Like in the rest of the third world, these poor people lived in shacks and sub-standard conditions. Only a short bus ride from the modern capital of Jerusalem, these social throwaways lived in squalor and poverty. We know that this situation has gone on for thousands of years.
Jesus talks about the poor frequently and their great need. As He walked out of the desert into the cities and villages, he must have encountered many poor and hungry people who looked a lot like the poor and hungry we encountered. Why not change the rocks and stones into bread? What is wrong with that? God provided manna from heaven and quail for meat. What is wrong with Jesus offering these poor and hungry people something to eat? It is Jesus himself who in Chapter 25 of Matthew tells the disciples that feeding the poor, clothing the hungry and visiting the lonely is a sign of following God’s ways. Jesus in a similar desert feeds four thousand men (and an unrecorded number of women and children) with seven loaves of bread and a few fish.
What is different about the miracle that Satan asks Jesus to perform? It is a good thing to do -- Jesus himself tells us to feed the poor, clothe the naked and comfort the dying. But it is the right thing for the wrong reason. The temptation is not the desire to feed the poor but to deviate from God’s plan, from God’s timing and to do the right thing for his own reasons. Satan is asking Jesus to suspend his trust in God and do "his own thing", to believe that this world would be better off is Jesus took control. All Jesus has to do is feed the people with magical bread and enthrone himself as the rightful king.
A quick look in the newspaper or the TV news reminds us that we live in a broken, fallen world. A planet torn apart by war and violence. In the second temptation, Jesus could take control of the world’s political structure and right all of the world’s wrongs if he only bows to the power of Satan. "Bow Down and Worship Me and I will Give you all these kingdoms." All Jesus has to do is acknowledge that Satan has control of the world, that He not God is in charge and then Jesus can rule all of the kingdoms. Jesus can take control and make the whole world a wonderful and loving place but He chooses not to. Jesus can call upon God to feed the poor and clothe the homeless but he does not. Jesus can call upon the Angels to break his fall from the Temple Wall or to rescue him from the death of the cross but he does not.
WHY?? Why doesn’t Jesus take control?
In all three of his answers back to Satan and in his cry to God in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus always points back to God’s will. "One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Being fed is more than a matter of earthly food -- we can have full stomachs and empty hearts -- our pantries can overflow with bounty while ignore the will of God. Truly living is more than food and clothing -- it is a deep passion and love for God.
We are not to tempt God or put God to the Test. Instead we are to ask God "to Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from temptation. We pray in the Lord’s prayer for direction and deliverance -- for knowledge of God’s will.
Satan asks Jesus to throw away God’s plan of redemption, worship that deviation from God’s Will and take control of the world. Satan’s plan of peace would bypass the cross and the suffering for a new world order. But Jesus reminds him that we are to "Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him." Every time that Jesus is tempted by the Devil he throws it back in the tempter’s face and tells him to "GO AWAY" -- I shall serve God alone."
Jesus is tempted three times by Satan to do things that seem right on the surface -- to feed the hungry, to call upon God’s Angels for protection and to take control of the political power and form a perfect God ruled government where the rich and powerful could no longer take advantage of the power and weak. Each one of these things seems to be a good thing but each one of them stands in the way of the will of God.
In our lives we are faced with similar temptations -- things that seem right on the surface, goals that appear righteous and filled with God’s blessing but that are off the mark by just a slight amount. They look like the will of God but are not the will of God rather a quick fix promise of Satan. Behind every apparent sin or temptation, lurks another more subtle one -- the idea that WE can make everything worked out all right by our willpower.
The media, especially the TV melodramas and movies tell teenagers that gangs and drugs are the way to a better, brighter future but we know that is a dead end. That is the primary temptation that we know to refuse. The secondary and more subtle temptation is that sports and homework will make everything all right for a teenager and they will grow up to be fine upstanding adults. The reality is that we all need to be taught compassion, God’s Word and the realities of a Christian life. Learning how to be an adult is NOT done at a desk or computer terminal but person to person in connections, humanity and love. To turn the hardness and ungiving of our hearts into the bread of life -- the bread of love -- for others.
The obvious temptation and message of the world tells us adults to get ahead at any cost. The apparent temptation is to cheat or power struggle our way to the top of the corporate ladder. We all know to avoid that blatant sin. The subtle temptation tells us to stay at work and earn that extra overtime instead of attend a child’s baseball game or piano recital. The world, the almighty business world tells us that it is better to spend time at work than with our families. It seems right, the whole world is telling us so, but it goes against the will and love of God. The subtle temptation works against God’s plan for a loving and committed family. The world is especially full of these subtle temptations for men -- telling us to play the "John Wayne" role and be tough, never talk about ourselves or our families, never say that God’s will is a higher priority. But the reality is that it takes a tough, real man to talk out his problems rather than intimidate with words or strength. The real man is the one who holds a child on his lap and reads the Pocahontas or Lion King story book to his child for the 27th time that week. The real man cares about those around him and spends time helping to feed the homeless, builds a house for habitat for humanity, goes out to coffee with a friend in the middle of a divorce, calls up children and parents to say "I Love You".
The cosmetic industry and the world of fashion tells women and young girls to look good at any cost. The subtle lie being that taking care of yourself and fitness are not part of a healthy lifestyle but a way to remain attractive to men -- worthy of attention and love. Once again it is not the actual act -- staying fit -- but the reason that is the deception. In the extreme case this deception can led to bulimia, anorexia and death. The other night on 48 hours they were saying that 35% of all elementary school girls diet, and that almost 80% of High School girls think they look fat and need to diet. Appearance is touted as everything. The real woman reads that in Christ all people have inherent worth. The Bible records that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women -- Jesus’ most trusted and loyal friends. Real women believe Christ’s words not the subtle deception of Miss Clairol, Revlon, or the fashion magazines. We should all try to look good -- but out of respect for ourselves and the God who created us to be beautiful -- not for the subtle lies of the devil.
Look into the messages of our world -- our lives -- and seek out those subtle temptations. The ones that prioritize our time and demand to be on top. The priorities that force God, force prayer, force Love and service to the back burner. The things in our lives and in our world that we accept as right but somehow down inside cause us anguish.
The temptation of the world is to do the "right thing" instead of God’s thing -- to fall victim to the subtle manipulation that places God’s will secondary in our lives. To cry out for Jesus to turn the stones of our life into bread. The temptations and diversions are all around us -- they distract us from our journey with Jesus. It is a journey that starts today in the Judean wilderness with the temptations and subtle manipulations of Satan. Our journey to the cross of Christ will continue for the rest of Lent -- for these 40 days and 40 nights.
During these days of Lent we have a choice -- a choice to stay in the wilderness ravines and complain about the fact that Jesus has not turned the stones of our life into bread. Or we can reject the crafty lies of Satan and live in a new existence where we too reject the ways of Satan and all his empty promises. Trusting that following God’s plan for out life will bring us to the right place at the right time. We can reject the evil subtle lies in our culture and live in accordance with God’s will. If we choose to follow God’s way, we will walk out of the desert of temptations with Jesus and join Him on his journey -- his journey of following God, his journey of Love. We will follow him to see the miracles of miraculous feeding and his triumph over the Kings of the earth.
Come and follow Jesus through this dusty desert to the cross.
What are the greatest temptaions in our life? Is it to cheat? We are entereing the season for the great American chaeting game called Tax preparation. Is that a great temptation? To under-report or perhaps stretch the truth to drop down from one tax bracket to another? Is the great temptation to steal or to cut a corner at work? To do the job only to the point where we know we can get by with something. What are we tempted to do? Steal cable TV if we know a friend who can get us a "special" converter box? Are we tempted to take risks at work and try to get ahead at any means? Are we tempted to lie and cover up our mistakes so somebody else will get blamed for them? Perhaps.
For most of us, those are pretty much the great temptations that occurr in our daily lives. Although things may not be perfect, we have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and clothes in our closets. Most of us are lucky, and have been blessed by God. Our lives have not been easy but they have not been absolutely down and out. I would dare to say that very few of us have really been tempted in the manner described in Today’s Gospel.
For Jesus went into the desert with nothing and was tempted by Satan to provide himself with the most basic of necessities - bread, food, nourishment and satisfaction. For the place where Jesus went is an absolutely desolate place where the temptations.
In English law, it is said that the poor suffer along with the rich - both would receive the equal punishment of hanging, if caught stealing a loaf of bread. But is that right?
It was just a little over two years ago that Karla and I walked through the Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted by Satan. We were on a Seminarian’s tour of Israel. Most of the places that we went to were on the normal pilgram’s path - places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, etc. But many of them were a once in a lifetime and walked from St. George’s monestary