Temptation in the Wilderness

Temptation in the Wilderness

If you joined the live service on Sunday, you heard me preach about Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I’d like to use this space this week to extend our meditation on that moment as we enter into Lent together. Mark describes the wilderness as a desolate place, out with the wild animals. As I discussed in my sermon, though we often resist thinking of ourselves being stuck in this vulnerable place, the wilderness is where we find ourselves. We aren’t promised a painless life, as a time like this brings into vivid focus.

My purpose in being so insistent isn’t to bum us all out. It’s also not to deny the goodness and beauty and grace that breaks into our lives so blessedly and unexpectedly. I’m so insistent that we locate ourselves out here in the wilderness because until we do, we will wander around lost in a lie.

My sermon didn’t touch on the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness. Mark’s gospel doesn’t give us the full account like Matthew’s telling, but we don’t need to hear the words to know the temptation. We know what Satan whispers to us out in the wilderness. You deserve better than this. Don’t you know how great you are? You don’t have to go grovelling to some God to bail you out—the same God who left you here in the first place.

It’s a good lie, because it’s the lie we want to believe. It promises salvation without that other s-word we hate: submission. We reflexively cringe at the word, loaded as it is with misuses and abuses. We want to shake off submission at every turn. To be caught in sub-mission is to have your mission placed under the authority of something or someone. Submission means diminishment of ourselves, which in our world, means failure.

But, friends, submission is inescapable. We live our lives subjected to so many forces outside of us—forces as ordinary as the weather and as complex as technocratic algorithms. Satan’s lie is the siren song that we are strong, we are independent, we are powerful enough to free ourselves from submission to anyone or anything. That’s what makes the protective bubbles we construct so dangerous. The more insulated we are, the easier it is to believe that we are powerful and invulnerable. But God’s word confirms what some of us have learned from hard experience: humans always bow down to something in the end. In the temptation narrative in Matthew 4, Satan’s promises follow the cycle of sin we know so well: increasing autonomy and power, right up until the moment we are enslaved and left powerless.  

Our life’s great choice is not whether we will bow down or be free—the great choice is whom we will serve. We can follow the lie that we can serve ourselves, or—if we will stop pretending and confess that out here in the wilderness we are awfully afraid and awfully alone—we will ask for help. When Jesus was vulnerable out in the wilderness, Mark records that he had some help: angels were there ministering to him.

To be honest, I don’t really pray for angels to help me. I’m sure I’ve rehearsed the words in written prayers, but when I offer my own words to God, I don’t ask for the help of angels. Don’t misunderstand: I believe in angels. Many Christians, even Christian ministers, can’t muster up much faith in angels anymore. They are embarrassed by the idea of it, stuffing Angels back in the closet of belief that we hope visitors won’t open, or we’d have to apologize: please excuse all this old junk— really should have just thrown this all away years ago.

Perhaps we are resistant to the idea of angels because they bump us down a peg from ‘god status.’ To ask for the angels’ help is to submit that we haven’t conquered this world the way we think we have. Maybe all our natural abilities still aren’t enough and we need to call on the supernatural to bail us out. It feels humiliating—literally. This feeling of helplessness, of exposure, creates humility. In the book of Romans, Paul writes that suffering has this crucial domino effect on us—it produces endurance, then character, and, ultimately, hope. Without the humiliation of suffering, we’ll never learn to look up at the horizon in expectation of dawn’s first light. Without humiliation, we are stuck in the broken and self-destructive narrative that we are supposed to manage without any help.

But for those who have given up on trying to be God, for those who live out in the wilderness, vulnerable and exposed, it’s sheer joy to learn that help is on the way. We don’t have to understand how angels intervene in time and space or how they cooperate with human action to accomplish their God-ordained purposes—we’re just glad they’re on our side.

As we enter this season of Lent together, I encourage you this week to pray that angels would come and minister to you in your suffering. In whatever desolation you are experiencing in this time, submit yourself to the God who has not abandoned us, but stands ready to meet you where you are and lead you to himself.