The temptation in the desert is a favorite story from the life of Jesus. There are some excellent insights into what it is to be human, and the temptations that we all face in one way or another, in our effort to get life apart from the source of life himself.
The story starts as John has just baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and the heavens were opened. The writer describes the Spirit of God coming upon Jesus like a dove, and to punctuate the moment a voice from heaven said that Jesus is “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It is from here that Jesus heads off into the desert and where he will experience several temptations.
Beginning in Matthew chapter 4 the first temptation was when the Satan suggested that Jesus could satisfy his hunger by turning rocks into bread. The second was when Jesus was being tempted to test God and throw himself off the temple and whether God would rescue him. The third temptation was the offer of all the wealth and power of earthly kingdoms in exchange for Jesus worshipping the Satan.
In each instance, Jesus resisted by holding onto the faithful love of his Father, rooted in the life-giving and sustaining union with God. Scripture tells us that after these three temptations, ministering angels came and cared for Jesus. Traditionally there have been only three temptations but I think there was one last temptation for Jesus. This last temptation was whether Jesus would leave the desert, leave the experience of the ministering angels and return to a society full of problems. To return to a society of people living under foreign occupation and a prevailing religious and political system that was hostile to the plans of God, especially in his son Jesus.
This last temptation can be one we also can identify. For many of us, as harsh as the desert can be, in many ways, it can be preferable to having to engage in real life in genuine ways. This is not uncommon and has its roots in history as well. For example, after the domestication and assimilation of Christianity by the Roman state, many found the character of this kind of Christianity very unpalatable. Many saw the politics, the violence and the excesses of the “new” state church as incongruent with Jesus, and to escape these excesses they fled to the desert and lived as hermits and in small loosely connected communities. There were some incredibly rich thoughts and stories that have come out of the lives of these desert Christians and there can be a benefit to seasons of hiddenness, retreat, and prayer but these seasons prepare us to re-engage the real world. Jesus certainly modeled this rhythm. I think there are some folks who are truly called to live a life separate, but this was not the case for Jesus, and for the majority of us.
Consider how our faith might have looked if Jesus decided to stay in the desert. To set up camp in his place of victory, in the place where he experienced God in some deeply profound ways and where he was ministered to by angels. What would have happened if Jesus had been contented to stay put and not wade back into the world? (Perhaps he could have written his books about Building Your Las Vegas in the Desert, 7 Sustaining Prayers to Move God's hand, or maybe started a podcast and became a sought after conference speaker! ;D)
The good news is that Jesus left the desert and entered society where he demonstrated in numerous ways - small and profound - the love of God in a world that so desperately needed Good News. It was in Jesus dwelling among us that humanity could experience first hand the God-who-loves. Jesus engaged the world in which he lived in everyday ways and being a manifestation of the very nature and character of God and had a profound impact.
Sometimes we can spiritualize our fear of the world, that is we hide behind a pious rationale that keeps us safe in the hot-house of the Church, our prayer closet and our iron tight theology and worldview. By doing so, we reduce the chances that we might be frightened, hurt, experience pain but while in an effort to avoid all these we avoid living real life. The deep joys of genuine friendship, of discovering beauty in new ways and actually growing up into a faith that is authentic and resilient. A faith that reproduces, that makes whole. A living faith that is actually good news in that it impacts the world around us with the Good News of the God-who-loves.
Jesus resisted the temptation to hide, to rest on past glories, to playing it safe. Instead, he chose to engage real life with all its wonder and all its challenges knowing that the same love that sustained him in the desert is the same power that sustained him in the hustle and bustle of the world. It was also the same love that took him to the cross through to resurrection. The same abiding life that sustained Jesus in all of his life is the same love fuelled presence that sustains each of us. It is in living real everyday life that our faith becomes deeper, over-coming and life-giving.