Have any of you read the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed? Wild is about a woman at the end of her rope who decides, basically on a whim, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail that stretches the length of the west coast, from the Mojave Dessert through California and Oregon to Washington. She had zero hiking experience and she decided to hike it alone.
Cheryl had an absent dad, her mother had just passed, her siblings scattered, and she was finalizing a divorce. She didn’t have much left holding her to the life she was living. Feeling like she had nothing left to lose, she set out on the trail.
In her own words, “It seemed like years ago now—as I stood barefoot on that mountain in California—in a different lifetime, really, when I’d made the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself.”
During the hike she faces a variety of animal encounters, from waking up completely covered in frogs, to rattlesnakes and bears. She endured extreme temperatures, hunger, thirst, and lost most of her toenails. At one point she had taken off her shoes while resting on a steep bank and accidentally knocked her backpack into her shoe, sending it flying down the mountain, forever lost.
Left with one, useless shoe, she chucked it down the mountain, duct-taped sandals to her feet, and kept going.
I wonder if Jesus had any of these desperate moments during his forty days in the wilderness. We get a glimpse of some of what Jesus went through, an agonizing debate with the devil, but what about the other days? The form of the Greek word for temptation implies that Jesus was continuously tempted the entire span of the forty days that he was in the wilderness.
The word temptation sits heavily on my tongue. I don’t like it. It makes me think of the ways people have shamed desire by calling it temptation or lust. It makes me think of the Menno-false-humility that some of us were raised with, this lie that tells us that we must sacrifice ourselves to take care of others, and any temptation to treat ourselves well is sinful. The word temptation often carries the assumption that pleasure is bad.
So I reject that definition of temptation. Plus, according to some scholars, a more accurate translation of the word “temptation” is testing.
Jesus was tested for 40 days. Lonely, vulnerable, and hungry, Jesus was tested in the wilderness to figure out who he really was. Who is the son of God? What does this calling, this vocation, this mission mean? What kind of a messiah would he be?
You might recall that Jesus’ baptism, where the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice rang out, “You are my son, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” was right before Jesus was led into the wilderness.
And then, Jesus didn’t dry himself off and think, “You know what sounds fun? 40 days of starving in the wilderness, yeah imma do that.”
No, it was the Holy Spirit that led him into the wilderness. This Spirit of God, that had just surrounded him like a blanket, with words of deep love and acceptance, took Jesus by the hand and said, “Hey my Beloved, we have work to do. We have soul work to do.”
So filled to the brim with the knowledge that he belonged to this God, Jesus struck out.
My mom recently gave me a wooden sign for my wall with a quote by John Muir that says, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
I think that is what Jesus was doing in the wilderness, he was looking for himself.
I wonder, at what point did the devil start appearing to Jesus? Was it right away? Or was it only when hunger and thirst had driven him half crazy? Perhaps it was at his most vulnerable state that voices of testing and doubt started to manifest, perhaps in the physical form of the devil, the Accuser.
What I find kind of neat, and also kind of terrifying, was that the devil didn’t poke at Jesus, or wave pastries in front of his face, or mock him. No the Accuser’s tests were more subtle. His tests were in the form of a scriptural, theological debate.
It’s kind of like Jesus is dancing with the devil. The devil makes a move and Jesus responds in kind. Sort of like a divine chess match, or fencing. You get the idea.
First the devil plays on Jesus’ hunger: “Jesus you are starving, why not wave your magic God-wand and conjure up some bread? Or maybe Cheetos? Cheetos would work.”
In response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.” I find it fascinating that later on during the last supper Jesus calls his body bread.
Jesus doesn’t need to bring forth bread, because he is the bread, the bread of life.
Life is more than survival, it’s about living. It’s about Jesus calling us to follow him in the way, the truth, and the life. That will feed us and sustain us in ways Cheetos can’t.
The second temptation involves Satan somehow showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. This reminds me of a scene from Inception or something, when reality just shifts and bends and all of a sudden you are someplace new.
Looking out, Jesus sees everything that could be under his control. Jesus could be the next great leader. The ruler of not just one empire, but all of them. And why not? It is a kingdom that Jesus proclaims, right? Why not spread his message that much faster. Jesus came to save, why not speed up the process and make it mandatory?
But there is a catch. Jesus just has to bow down to the devil. No big deal.
I don’t know what that would mean exactly. If that means Jesus would change allegiances, if that means that Jesus would give up his status as God’s son, or if it means that to run all the kingdoms in the world would require you to make choices that don’t align with being God’s child, God with flesh, on Earth.
Whatever it would mean, Jesus didn’t want any part of it. Again Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Apparently serving God is more important than being in control.
The third and final test occurs at the top of the Jerusalem temple, “The center of Jewish power, identity, and worship.”
I wonder if Jesus experienced the “high places phenomenon” where your brain and body can’t reconcile a great height, your depth perception becomes confused, and you feel the urge to fall, to jump, even if you don’t actually want to. You are safe, but your brain processes danger, and you are left feeling unbalanced. This is also called, “the call of the void.”
“Jump, I dare you to do it,” says the devil. “Remember Psalm 91? God will protect you, and people will be so impressed they will have no choice but to follow you.”
Jesus allowed the devil to test him, but he refuses to test God. That is not his job. Plus, Jesus didn’t want to gain followers by making a spectacle of himself. Jesus was not a click-bait messiah.
In all of these temptations, Satan taunted Jesus with a short-cut, an easy-pass. But there is no “fastpass” to get you to the front of the line to the Gospel.
Jesus took the long way. Instead of being heavy handed with his power, he led with grassroots movements. Instead of leading with domination, he led with an invitation.
Self-sufficiency, capitalism, greed, hate, fame, money, power, these are all very real temptations that exist in our world today.
They beckon and call. They disguise themselves as something sweeter, less dangerous. But when you get past the façade, you unveil a rotten core.
Nick was actually the first person I have heard define sin as a “short-cut”. Instead of doing the work of building relationships, forming community, taking care of yourself, and doing the hard soul work, we find ways to short-circuit these processes.
Why invite someone over to dinner and get to know them when you can just text them?
Why journal when you can watch Netflix instead?
Why go outside and feel the sunshine when you can lie in bed instead?
There are valid reasons why we take shortcuts. Sometimes shortcuts are all we can manage and they are usually better than nothing.
Sometimes we need the walls we build up so we can take our time to heal. Sometimes shortcuts are survival mechanisms.
But then there are times when we hide behind excuses and diagnoses. When we forget that we are more than our anxiety, our depression, our ptsd. I know I have done this myself. I explain my behavior away because of anxiety, instead of taking ownership of my mental state and my actions. We can take breaks and have our activities that help us escape the world for a while, but we eventually need to come back down and meet our lives face-to-face.
Then there is the temptation to take over, to dominate, to control. If we have control then we are less consumed by fear. Order, routine, cleanliness, productivity, telling others what to do, these are all things we do in order to stay on top, to be the pilot of our own lives.
Chaos, unpredictability, spontaneity, all cause fissures in our carefully crafted, organized realities. Who are we if we can’t maintain order in our own lives?
The real trouble happens when we extend this careful control onto other people’s lives. I know how to order my life, it’s the best way, therefore you should do it my way too. Dictating other people’s actions, thoughts, feelings, making demands on their time, exerting power and control and influence on others, these are all actions hiding the scared child within us that just wants to make sense of the world.
We want to be able to do it on our own. We feel like reliance on others is weakness.
Finally there is the temptation to be famous. To earn glory. To leave a legacy. To make a name for yourself. I fall for this. I want to write books and be Menno-famous. This is a natural human inclination. The problem comes when we strive for success and want to be a spectacle at the cost of our true calling. The calling that moves attention away from ourselves (for attention sake) and towards our relationship with others, God, and the Earth.
What if we gain the whole world, but lose our soul in the process?
The Israelites faced these tests during their 40 years in the wilderness and they pretty much failed. The parallels between their time wandering and Jesus’ time in the wilderness is not a coincidence.
Where they failed and worshiped other gods, where they failed to trust YHWH to provide for them, where they failed to give up control, Jesus succeeded.
At the end of it all Jesus stayed strong and true to his identity. He trusts the Spirit within him. The one who called him into the wilderness. The one calling him to preach and teach and heal. After Jesus is tempted then he goes into the temple and clear-as-day says that his mission is to feed the hungry, heal the hurt, and be a Messiah to those on the margins.
It would be natural at this point to challenge you all to pass these tests. Don’t be like the Israelites. Don’t take 40 years to figure out that you must trust God, that you can’t do it on your own, and you can’t make others to anything.
Be like Jesus. Trust completely. Know that God will provide for your needs. There is no need to prove yourself or to draw attention to yourself.
But what does it say that we so seamlessly put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes in this story? Or Jesus’ sandals rather…
Yes we are children of God, but we are not the Divine incarnate like Jesus was. Jesus did what he did so we don’t have to. So why do we so naturally imagine what we would do if we were faced with these tests?
Maybe the goal isn’t to try and pass the devil’s tests. Maybe the goal is to remember that we are not Jesus. We are not God.
Maybe the goal is to not be the devil.
How do we test others? How do we tempt one another to be something more than they are? To give in to the seduction of greed, power, and fame?
I think that we test and push the identity of others because we are insecure about our own identity. If we control others then we don’t have to deal with the chaos within ourselves.
OR maybe the goal is even trickier than that.
Maybe the goal is to be the wilderness.
The wilderness is the home of adventure, a seed-bed of self-discovery, a place just wild enough that we can be ourselves completely.
How is God calling us to be wilderness to others?
How can we let others be a wilderness for us?
Can people come to you and unveil their insides, their fears, their faults, their failures? Can you hold all of them without judgment? Without trying to change them?
Your only goal, to remind them of who they are.
Your only goal to remind them whose they are.
Your only goal to remind them of their precious status as a Child of God.
Your only goal to remind them of their calling.
How do we help shape the identities of those around us?
Do we drag them away from themselves, hoping they can be more like us?
Or do we allow them to be 100% themselves, knowing that in the fertile ground of the forest soil, they will grow and flourish.
They will know that life is more than surviving.
That control does not contain our fear.
That fame is not fulfilling.
A good first step of being wilderness for others is being true to your own identity.
The wild natural world does not bend easily to our concrete jungle. Have you ever seen grass, flowers, and trees push up through, and crack concrete?
The wilderness is Wild, it will not be contained. It is who it is, and that is to be respected.
This reminds me of what God said when Moses asked for God’s name. What did God say?
“I Am who I Am.”
The grace in this passage is that even Jesus had to do some soul searching. He had to endure testing to secure his identity, to remember who he was, whom he belonged to.
And through it all he was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit led him into the wild and it stayed with him always.
We are not Jesus, but the wilderness still beckons us to come and remember who we are as a Beloved Child of God.
I have no doubt that God claims us as Beloved Children with whom she is well pleased.
God is proud of us. God claims us as his own. No matter if we are doing a tango with the devil, trying to figure out who we are and what we are supposed to do with this wild thing we call life.
We are loved, we are called, we belong.
Know that you are filled to the brim with the Spirit of our Wild God.
Be your Wild self so that you can be spacious wilderness for others trying to know who they are.
Despite all of her setbacks and struggles, or perhaps in spite of them, Cheryl Strayed completed her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.
This is an excerpt from the last page of her book, a glimmer of wisdom that surfaced in the face of her accomplishment:
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning, without yet being able to say precisely what it was…That it was everything. IT was my life—like all lives, mysterious, and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.”
The Gospel of Luke
The New Century Bible Commentary
The Gospel of Luke
E. Earle Ellis
Abingdon New Testament Commentaries
Robert C. Tannehill
Darrel L. Bock
Trinity in the Temptation Narrative and the Interpretation of Noordmans, Dostoyevski, and Mbeki
Huguenot College, Wellington, South Africa
Commentary on Luke 4:1-13
David Schnasa Jacobsen
Commentary on Luke 4:1-13
Commentary on Luke 4:1-13
Arland J. Hultgren
 Some have pointed out the similarities between Jesus’ debate with the devil and how Rabbi’s go back and forth over a topic, using scripture to prove their point.
 Commentary on Luke 4:1-13
Ruth Anne Reese
 REFERENCE THIS PASSAGE