Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 4:1-11
By the end of the third day his hunger pangs began to fade. He had fasted before and expected this, and thanked God for this small blessing that made the discipline easier. A little easier. But he knew, too, that his craving for food could come roaring back unexpectedly, that his body’s impulse to survive would mean that no stray lizard or bug or mouse or even scorpion would be safe from his appetite unless he harnessed his will and tuned his physical hunger to the feast of his spirit.
He had fasted many times for a day, several times for three days, and once even for seven days. He knew what to expect and how to prepare for such fasts. But this time was different. Very different. He had not prepared for this fast. He had been led to it… led here, to this parched, eerie, yet providential place in the wilderness. Led by a dove. A snow-white dove who had fluttered down out of nowhere, out of everywhere, out of heaven to land on his dripping, baptized shoulder and nuzzle his cheek, then raised its face to the sunlight, eyes closed, head cocked and listening for a moment before taking wing and beckoning him to follow.
By the fourth day he had realized that here in the wilderness it would be very easy to lose track of the days, so every morning when the first light began to tinge the sky he made a mark on the sandstone face of the wadi with a sharp stone to count the days. Then he would splash water on his face and his head and drink a sip from the small, clear pool that seemed to almost miraculously refill itself every night from a tiny trickle of stream. He supposed there must be a spring somewhere uphill or, perhaps a larger oasis. But this place and this water were enough for him, this small gash in the hillside with its pool and its single scrub tree and its long view across the desert.
And the days went by, each one like the day before. Every morning the splash of water on his face—and with each splash hearing again, so fresh in his memory, that voice he had heard from heaven at his baptism: “You are my son. The beloved. I am well pleased with you.” And he would stop and raise his wet face to the sky as the water from the pool mingled with his tears of joy. And he would stand still like that until he felt the sunlight on his face.
He would recite the morning prayer as the sun crested the horizon. Then he would sit, lean back against the canyon wall, and pray. And meditate. And listen. Listening to his body. Listening to his breath. Listening to the sounds of the wilderness. Listening to the earth. Listening to the night sky. Listening for God. And he would watch. Watching the dust devils dance across the desert. Watching the plants sway and bend in the wind. Watching, sometimes, the endless dance of predator and prey, things hunting and things hunted. Watching things rest. Watching the stars move across the night. Watching the moon slip through its phases. Watching his own dreams.
By the tenth day he would have had no clear idea of how long he had been there if it had not been for the marks he made on the wadi wall. By the twentieth day he hardly moved.
He had vivid dreams when he slept and vivid visions when he meditated so that day and night began to blend together. He began to slip fluidly from one state of consciousness to another with little or no space in between, from wakeful alertness to vision to dream so that it all seemed as one to him. His thoughts and his prayers blended into a single thing, a constant conversation with God who had affirmed him at the Jordan. He thought, he prayed about creation. He thought, he prayed about humanity. He thought, he prayed about his mission. He prayed for clarity. And when clarity came to him he sat with it and examined it, too, in his thoughts, his prayers.
And often, often the devil would come to him. To test. To tempt. To assault with phantasms of the imagination. To ask leading questions. To challenge.
On the very first night he heard the maniacal gibbering of hungry hyenas prowling through the darkness not far from him and a great shadow of fear came moving up the wadi toward him. But he just kept gazing at the stars and sang aloud from Isaiah, “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” And in the face of his smile and his song, the fear evaporated. And as the hyenas moved off into the darkness their gibbering sounded more like laughter. But the devil didn’t give up
Often the devil would come with questions. Usually the same questions or accusations or challenges repeated ad nauseum…
Are you really the Son of God? What does that even mean?
This mission of yours, is it really worth it?
Are they even worth saving? And what makes you think you can do it?
You don’t think people are really going to understand what you’re trying to teach them, do you?
You know how this turns out, don’t you?
Why are you even doing this…this fasting, this mission… any of it?
Constant seeds of doubt insinuated, whispered in the spaces between his own thoughts in a voice that sounded almost like his own or like the Spirit. Almost, but not quite.
He would sit and listen, sometimes marveling at the devil’s persistence but in the end he would tire of it and simply say, quoting Isaiah again, “The Lord called me before I was born. In my mother’s womb he named me. The Lord said I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And then the devil would leave him for a while.
On the fortieth day his body’s reserves were utterly spent. He knew that one way or another this day would be the end of his fast. He had seen angels in the night. Or had he dreamed them? He had often sensed them nearby like the hyenas.
As the first light of morning seeped into the sky he had no strength to move the few steps to the pool for a splash of water and a drink. Still, when the edge of the sun blushed across the horizon he managed to croak out the morning prayer of his people:
Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is the One!
Blessed is the One who continually authors creation. Blessed is the One whose word is deed: blessed is the One who is compassionate towards the world; blessed is the One who is compassionate toward all creatures. Blessed is the One who rewards the reverent. Blessed is the One who exists for all time. Blessed is the One who redeems and saves.
As he finished the prayer a large dust devil came spiraling lazily toward him and as it reached the apron of the hill released a tendril to blow its hot, gritty breath into his canyon, into his face. And in that tendril of wind came the voice. That voice so much like his own, so much like the Spirit, but not, insinuating itself between his thoughts. That voice with its poisonous seeds of doubt. That horrible voice. That reasonable voice.
Why are you starving yourself? You’ve fasted for forty days. You’ve made your point. You can’t do anyone any good if you die of starvation out here in the wilderness. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.
And there it is, he thought. Two things. Three things. But so cleverly hidden in that reasonable little speech. If you are the Son of God… this evil wants me to doubt not just myself, but God. God who proclaimed me the beloved Son. And then this evil suggests that I should prove my identity. Prove it to whom? To myself? To God? To this voice of evil, this hot wind blowing through the canyon, through the delirium of my hunger? And it would have me deny my humanity. Hunger is part of being human. Yes, I could change the stone to bread, but others cannot. Others must make do with the resources at hand or go without. So the last thing evil suggests might be the worst. Command the stone to become bread. Turn your back on your humanity. And make the stone something it is not. Refuse to see it for what it is. Ignore its worth and value and history as a stone. Coerce creation to satisfy my hunger. Do violence to this thing God has made and to the workings and patterns God set at work in the world so that I can take a shortcut to feeding myself? Simply because I can? No.
And then, because it would not do to simply say it in his thoughts, because, oddly, he wanted the stone to hear it, too, he said it aloud in his starved, parched voice…
“One does not live by bread alone.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he slipped into a vision. He was floating high above the world looking down on all its gleaming cities, its mountains and valleys, forests, farms and deserts and seas. An angel of light was beside him but there was something not quite right about either the angel or the light. It was a dark kind of light. And the angel wore a mask. And from behind the mask came the voice. To the ears of his spirit it still sounded reasonable, but it also sounded imperious. And hollow.
“Look at this world, these kingdoms. This is what you came for, isn’t it? Isn’t that the promise? That you will be king of kings and lord of lords, that your kingdom will rule over all others? Well, I will give you authority over all of them right now, all the glory that comes from them, because it has all been given over to me and I can give it to anyone I choose. All you have to do is worship me. Bow down to me and it’s all yours.”
He looked down at the world for a long moment and thought of the difficult, painful path that lay ahead of him if he stayed obedient to the plan. He knew there was some truth in what the devil said. This malevolence did seem to have sway over so much of what happened in the world and for a moment the devil’s caustic words echoed in his soul. “It’s all been given over to me.” But then he thought, By whom? Who gave it over to you? People gave it over to you. People you tricked. People you seduced with your reasonable, poisonous premises and your false promises. I’m here to win it back one person at a time because it was never rightfully yours to begin with. And again you try to tempt me with a shortcut. But it only shows how much you misunderstand. I did not come to seize power. I came to give love. And you can’t order people to love. You can’t coerce love. If I took your path I would be just another dictator. And worship you? As we stand in this place between heaven and earth in your sickly, false light? You clearly do not know me. And then, to bring the vision back to earth, he said aloud…
“It is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
And again his words, the words of Scripture, broke the spell and the scene shifted. But instead of bringing him back to the reality of the canyon, he found himself standing on the highest point of the temple with the devil standing beside him robed like a priest, his face behind a veil. And from behind the veil came that voice, that reasonable voice.
“I don’t know why you insist on making things so difficult for yourself. I’m not clear on what your plan is, holy man, but whatever you’re trying to accomplish, you’re going to need followers. You’re going to have to persuade a lot of people to believe in you, to trust you. You seem to believe that you’re the Son of God, so you’re going to need them to believe it, too. I suppose you could do a miracle here and there, turn up your charisma a bit, impress a few people at a time. But why not just do something big and dramatic? There is a scriptural warrant for it, too. If you are the Son of God, just throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’ And it’s also written, ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not so much as bruise your foot against a stone.’”
And there it is again, he thought. That challenge. If you are the Son of God. Prove it. And it occurred to him that he was making the devil uneasy. No, he thought, I don’t need to prove anything. God doesn’t need to prove anything. You are my son. You are beloved. I am well pleased. I did hear God’s voice. I did follow the Spirit. And I did it out of love. And those who follow me will do so out of love. And yes, it will be hard. And yes, they will miss the point, over and over again. They will get it wrong. They will make mistakes. But that’s what forgiveness is for. And impressing people, even with angels catching me in midair, won’t convince them to keep following when things get really difficult. Only love can carry them through those dark valleys, those dark days, and admiration and astonishment are not the same thing as love. No, this is just another shortcut and one that would be short lived, at that. And then, as he stood atop the temple, without looking at the thing in the priest’s robes, he said aloud…
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And as he said it, he suddenly realized why the Spirit had led him out here into the wilderness to be tested in the first place. The challenge, he realized, was not to see if he was capable of being the Son of God. That was a given. The challenge was to see if he was able to also be fully human. The challenge was to see if he was able to experience and feel and endure in the same way as those he had come to save.
The hot wind stopped. There was a moment, a breath, a hesitation, and then a cool breeze filled the canyon. He opened his eyes and saw angels regarding him with that odd mix of concern and joy and wonder that seems to be their perpetual expression. He closed his eyes, he wasn’t sure for how long, and when he opened them again, a traveling merchant was beside him, urging him to take some bread. He smiled and laid his hand fondly on the warm stone beside him as he said a prayer of thanks.
When you hear that reasonable voice that insinuates itself between your thoughts, that entices you to take the shortcut, the easy way, remember to listen not just to what it offers, but to what it asks for in return… and most importantly, what it asks you to deny.