“For forty days he ate nothing, and at the end he was hungry.” Luke is certainly a master of understatement, isn’t he? Why forty days? Forty is the number of testing and of judgement: it took forty days of rain to drown the earth in flood waters and make it clean again; forty days of fasting on Mount Sinai before Moses was ready to receive the covenant; forty years of wandering in the desert before the willfulness of the Israelite people was burnt away and they were ready to hear and obey God. The goal of a time of testing is to learn this simple truth: your life is not about you. It is about God and God’s purposes for you.
In Luke’s story of fasting and temptation, we hear that Jesus has fled to the desert to bare his inmost being before the Father, waiting in prayer and hunger to discover what it means to be the Son of God. To understand better what happened, let’s go back a bit in the story. Jesus is around thirty, an age that the Hebrews considered the prime of life, when a man’s strength and productivity are at their peak. Since the time he came of age, he has walked with his carpentry tools from village to village in Galilee, working wherever his skills are needed. Everywhere he has found misery, poverty, sickness, spiritual hunger and early death, and his whole being asks God why these good people have to suffer so terribly. He yearns with a mother’s love to gather them in and bring them wholeness. God is calling him to a different path.
So he announces to his extended family that he is leaving Nazareth. They are bewildered, and no doubt try to dissuade him from depriving them of his financial support. He cannot fully explain why he is leaving, only that there is something deep within that is pulling him outward. I like to think that his mother Mary understands and accepts, for she has known from his conception that her son is marked for God’s service and one day will leave her.
From Nazareth, Jesus walks through the dry lands to the Jordan River near Jericho, where he finds his cousin John preaching a baptism of repentance. Perhaps he plans to become one of John’s followers, or he is not yet thinking beyond this moment, but waiting for God. So he kneels in humility in the cold river and lets John pour the water of repentance over him, though indeed he is without sin and has nothing to repent. As the water cascades over his head and down his back, the skies open up and a great light flows over him like the wings of a dove; he is filled with the Holy Spirit and a Voice calls him “My Son.” His heart is opened, and everything he has ever experienced falls into a coherent whole. He looks into the light and whispers, “You have been with me all the time. I am part of you, and you are part of me. What is your will?”
Jesus leaves the river and the crowds behind and escapes into the wilderness, seeking a place to be alone with his Father. He eats nothing, has no shelter from the day’s heat or the night’s cold. His only companions are hunger and thirst, and always the wind blowing: life reduced to bare survival. He learns his strengths and weaknesses, as he considers the implications of being divine. In long prayer he begins to see what lies ahead, but still the easier road tempts him:
“If I am God, I do not need to worry about what I will eat; I will turn even these rocks into good bread. No! When my ancestors were led out of slavery to the Promised Land, they tried the patience of God and demanded to be fed. I hunger for you, Father, not for bread!”
“But if I am God, I can seize control from the kings of this world, even from Rome, and bring all people to worship the One True God. No! I do not want to bring my people to the Father through force, but through love. The easier way only leads them to Hell.”
“But if I am God, I will not have to suffer to redeem these people. No! I will not hold my body back, for if I am not willing to suffer for those I love, then I only love myself. If I am not willing to obey you, Father, how can I ask others to obey you? Abba, I am your servant, and I love you more than life! Show me what to do. I will be led by your Spirit.”
Then Jesus gets up, dusts himself off, and begins his journey to the Sea of Galilee to gather his disciples and begin his ministry. Wherever he goes, men will want him to be a different kind of savior. They will tempt him to take the easy way of power, but in obedience to the Father he has chosen the narrow way of humility and surrender as he fulfills God’s plan of salvation.
As we begin these forty days in our own spiritual desert, let us remember the mystery of Jesus in the wastelands, and pray: “Heavenly Father, help us choose the narrow way in our daily walk with you. You are the God of Second Chances. When we fall, help us get up again, and continue to do your will.”