No sooner does Jesus get baptized by John in the Jordan River then He finds Himself in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil. The heavens had just opened up and the Spirit descended on Him like a dove, marking Him as the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. If that were not enough, then the voice of God declared, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” Then the same Spirit leads the Son of God off into the wilderness where the Devil tempts Him for forty days. Now, forty days in the wilderness ought to cause us to think of the forty years Israel spend in the wilderness as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the sons of God. They are His children, children who spend many years being tried and tested in the wilderness. So, here we find our Lord, the true Son of God, the eternal Son of God, Israel reduced to one person, and He is heading off into the wilderness for forty days.
Now, I could be wrong, but I think when we contemplate the whole idea of heading off into the wilderness, at least when it comes up in the Bible, it is a time of punishment, right? And there certainly is a punishment reality to it. After all, Israel is sent into the wilderness because they refused to trust God would fight for them and secure victory in the Promised Land. But the real thrust of the wilderness is how it is a place where one learns to trust in God, to rely on His grace, His care, and His protection beyond their own strength and means. In the book of Revelation, the Church is depicted as a woman who flees to the wilderness. It is described as: “A place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished.” The way through the wilderness is one which relies on the promises God. It pulls us away from the protections and securities of our own making and thrusts us into a place where we must rely on our Lord.
This is precisely what unfolds as we watch Jesus go off into the wilderness. Here is the true Son of God, yet He does not use His own power and might to subdue the Devil. No, He relies on His Father. Jesus is fasting and hungry, so the Devil says to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” He has the power to do it. It would be easy for the Word who created all things to turn a stone into bread. But no, He says, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” So, the Devil then shows Him the glory and splendor of the cities of the earth and says, “If You will worship me, it will all be Yours.” And Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” He is relying on the Word of God in the face of the temptations of the Devil. So, Satan changes his tactic. He takes Jesus up to the precipice of the Temple and quotes scripture himself saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You, to guard You,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, lest You strike Your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus simply answers him saying, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Jesus in the wilderness relies on the Word of God. Jesus is the faithful Son in every way. Now, at this point, when we ponder what this text means to us today, things can get a little strange. It is popular to see this as some sort of prescriptive pattern for dealing with the Devil in our own life. If we simply know the Bible well enough, if we can quote the right words at the right time, then you too will be able to resist the temptations of the Devil in the wilderness. And while we certainly ought to know the Word of our God, while we ought to gnaw on it and digest it, I do not think that is the point of this text. It is not so much a prescription for us to do like Jesus, but it is a proclamation of how it is Jesus and only Jesus who does this for us. He alone is the faithful Son.
Think of it this way, each of you have your wilderness you are caught up in. Yours will no doubt be different from hers and hers different from his, but these are real wildernesses in which you are wandering. They are wildernesses where the Devil is at work tempting and challenging you every step of the way. Perhaps your wilderness is one of grief and mourning, one where you are torn and hurting from the loss of a loved one or the loss of a relationship, or both. Or maybe your wilderness is one marked by depression and anxiety. It is one where you cannot seem to find the pathway forward, where you are unsure if you will ever make it through the wilderness. Such wildernesses are invisible to those around you, difficult to explain, and so many are left to wander them alone.
For others there is the wilderness which is not invisible but all too easy to hide. These are the ones that come from family struggles, the heartaches and trials that are part of lives lived together. We become great at putting on the mask others see. It is a mask which hides the wilderness, the face that is all smiles and happiness, but when at home behind closed doors, there remains anger, shame, and distrust. You sit and look at your life and see your regrets, your failures as a father, or your quick temper as a mother. You wish you could go back and do things differently, but it is too late. The relentless march of time moves on and the wilderness stretches in front of you without any end in sight. Desperately in need of comfort, love, and compassion you spend your days scrolling endlessly through social media in hopes of some way out of the wasteland.
Then, if that was not bad enough, as you are struggling through you own wilderness all by yourself, Satan makes an appearance. Did you know, by the way, the name Satan in the Hebrew means: “The Accuser?” And this is precisely what he does. He accuses you. He levels accusation after accusation at you. He works his way in through your doubts and fears, through your loneliness and confusion and he makes his accusations. If you are a child of God, why would he allow you to hurt this way? If you are a child of God, why are so filled with anger and rage? If you are a child of God, why have you not been a better mother, a more attentive father? If you are a child of God, why does sin cling so easily to you, why do you not live better, do better, be better? Satan would have you turn in on yourself to find a way through the wilderness. He proposes a never-ending journey and dangles the hope of release, the promise of victory, but will never deliver it.
Are you going to be able to battle with the Devil? Are you going to be able to defend yourself by quoting the right Bible verses to beat him back? Good luck! He has been at this for a long time. He has heard it all. He knows every play you are going to make long before you make it. You cannot overcome the temptations of the Evil One, but there is One who can, One who does! Jesus goes into the wilderness to beat the Devil. He goes into the wilderness to do what you could never do. He goes to be the pure and faithful Son so He might give the victory to you. Which means that as the brothers and sisters of Christ, as the baptized, Jesus goes into your wilderness. He goes right into it, right to the point where Satan accuses you and exposes your sin and failure. And Jesus proclaims for all to hear, “This one is mine. This one is forgiven. This one you have no claim on.” Your wilderness is where you learn over and again to trust in the promises of Christ alone. He has not abandoned you there, and He will deliver you from it all.
As we sing in the great hymn, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is He. Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the filed victorious.”