Updated March 2021
Dr. J. Derek McNeil, President and Provost of The Seattle School, reminds us that the challenges of the wilderness are part of the quest toward transformation. Looking to the story of Jesus, we can learn something of what it means to submit ourselves to the unfolding narrative of God, yielding ourselves to the movement of transformation and the call to collective healing.
I’ve always been drawn, with deep curiosity, to the stories of heroic figures who pursue the quest to find their purpose and place in this life. They face a challenge, endure, and then overcome it during a journey to know what it is that they must offer as a gift to humanity. Of course, the heroes in these great stories tend to save the world, but I was equally drawn to their own transformation and the wisdom they gained about living. I must confess: the little boy inside of this man remains curious even to this day. How do some people go through challenges and gain a deeper understanding, while others seem to cycle in and out, never fully aware of what makes for peace?
The narrative of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, as told in Luke 4:1-13, is a transforming story, and the parallel for the season of Lent. It signaled a shift from Jesus’s identity as a young and gifted teacher to that of the prophet-priest-sovereign who, under divine authorization, would usher in an age of restoration and peace. The 40 days and nights in the wilderness were a threshold space, a place of trial and testing. Referenced over a hundred times in the Bible, the number 40 is often used as symbolic language for liminal or threshold space, the time of transition between “what was” and “what is to come.” At these thresholds, where the transformative authority of G-d is found in new ways, Evil often steps in to subvert, distort, or stall what G-d intends to reveal.
For Jesus, alone and physically depleted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11), Evil comes not as an accuser of sin, but as an enticer attempting to alter the salvation narrative that G-d has purposed for G-d’s Son. In the Luke passage, Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit of G-d, to a place uninhabited and uncultivated—the place where Jesus must face isolation and physical distress.
The devil tempts Jesus in three ways that often parallel our own struggles: excessive self-reliance and self-sufficiency, worshiping the wrong things (idolatry), and striving to be significant and seen as powerful. Jesus is invited, prodded, and urged to sate his hunger by turning stones to bread, to assume power by aligning with the devil, and to prove that he is the Son of G-d by forcing G-d’s hand. In response, Jesus does not deny the presence of hunger and yearning, but he recognizes a deeper truth: aching hunger cannot be satisfied by simply consuming, aspirations cannot be met in counterfeit ways, and heroic purpose cannot be found in grandiosity. So Jesus resists the invitation to feed himself, restrains his aspirations to remain aligned with G-d, and submits his will to a larger, eternal purpose.
“Heroic purpose cannot be found in grandiosity.”
That quest of resistance, restraint, and surrender is not merely about piety or avoiding sin. This is the moment when heaven and earth come near as Jesus assumes the mantle of the Son of G-d, and it is a moment that foreshadows and speaks to our own wilderness seasons—including the present desert-wandering we face collectively.
I have felt much grief in this current desert season. We continue to face acute, chronic, and enduring threats that make this Lenten season feel like a true wilderness for many. COVID has caused us to live in isolation from one another. The chronic struggles of political strife have driven a wedge through the middle of our nation, and created communities of contentiousness. The enduring pain of colorism has made itself undeniably present, expressed in the fears of white bodies and the continued threat against yellow, brown, black, and Native bodies. The wilderness we have entered is fragmented, devoid of trust, and drained of spiritual vitality. It is a place of scarcity, not one of abundance—a place where it is all too easy to hear those familiar temptations: You’re hungry? Consume without thought, without rest. You feel out of control? Grasp for power now—fight for your place at the top. You claim to belong to God? Make Him act on your behalf.
In response to that voice of quick fixes and momentary satisfaction, may we look again to the example of Jesus, who guides our way in the wilderness. Turning from the allure of self-aggrandizement and shallow satisfaction, Jesus re-committed himself to his calling and the quest ahead. In doing so, he was endowed with a new authority and a deeper power that was to be poured out on behalf of others. For Jesus, self-actualization was never the goal of the quest; the true end of Jesus’ wilderness transformation was only realized in the new life he brought to others, the life he continues to spark in us.
When the devil narrowly defined the problem in immediate and physical terms, Jesus pointed toward deeper yearnings and the true source of life. When the devil urged him to co-opt the larger narrative, Jesus answered not by demeaning or belittling himself, but by remembering there is a larger story and a truer calling ahead for him. When the devil questioned God’s love and willingness to act on his behalf, Jesus replied from a place of patient strength.
And may it be so for us. The lessons of the wilderness cannot be boiled down to easy advice or three steps to successful living; they are a challenge of transformation and purpose. The 40 days and nights of Lent is a time of physical, emotional, and spiritual preparation for transformation, and a reminder that change is not without struggles. We, too, have faced challenges and trials in desert seasons. We, too, will be urged to grasp for vision before its maturity, or to make our own transformation an ultimate end rather than an empowerment for collective healing. In those times in the wilderness, now and still to come, may we find the strength to trust G-d to supply our daily bread, may G-d give us a future and our hopes, and may G-d give us a new name.
Featured art: Temptation of Christ by Ilya Repin