Summary: Having grown up in hte desert, I know how harsh the place is and how tempting the options presented by hte devil really are. On the surface the temptations seem harmless and perhaps even good in the right hands but they all take our attention off God.
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.