When I hear again the story of your temptation, Jesus – when I read about those 40 days you spent out in the wilderness, there is one question that comes to my mind. Only one question, Jesus. It’s a question I can phrase in lots of different ways – it’s a question I can express from different points of view – but really it’s all the same question.
The story of your temptation raises this question for me, Jesus: Why?
Why did you set out from your home and your community that day? Why did you leave the routine of life and work and responsibilities that morning? It’s in our homes and in our communities that we have our life and our identity. It’s in our work and in the fulfillment of our vocation that we make real contributions to our community. It’s not through disengagement and withdrawal that we make a difference, but through engagement in relationships and community. So why, Jesus? Why did you walk out on everything for more than a month. Why did decide to withdraw and go your own way for those weeks?
I could understand if you just needed a bit of time away to be rejuvenated. I can imagine a week at a spiritual retreat centre. I can imagine a week on the Mediterranean for a rest – maybe a comfortable all-inclusive to recharge your batteries. But no, you left your family; you left your community; you left your work; you left your friends – all so that you could be alone in a desolate, abandoned place for more than 5 weeks. Fasting all the while. Why, Jesus? Why?
To be honest, Jesus, this kind of behaviour feels pretty extreme. This kind of social withdrawal is the kind of think I associate with someone who’s lost touch normal human life and relationships.
Sure, I’ve heard other stories before about people who have gone into the wilderness like this. I think of Christopher McCandless who spent 113 days in the wilderness. But at least he had a point in doing it. He spent his days in the wilderness in defiance of the empty materialism of western society. His story doesn’t have the status of gospel, although it has been made into a movie, because on account of his social protest. He died at the end of his wilderness wanderings – not because he wanted to but because he miscalculated and wasn’t able to get back to civilization when he most needed to.
Why Jesus? Why did you go into the wilderness? Why did you fast for more than 5 weeks? It certainly doesn’t seem like you did it as some kind of social protest – as if you were trying to make a point on some cultural or political question. I mean, I could at least understand these 5 weeks if there was some point to it – you were trying to find yourself, or you were trying to make a statement. But it sure doesn’t seem like that’s why you did it. So then, why?
Jesus, you say that the Spirit led you into the wilderness, but what does that even mean? All kinds of people, in all kinds of places, have claimed divine inspiration for their actions – have claimed spirit-leading to explain their odd choices. So Jesus, how did you know it was the Spirit speaking? And why would the Spirit lead you into the wilderness? Why wouldn’t the Spirit lead you to care for your neighbours during those 40 days? Why not lead you to preach against the injustices of your culture for those 40 days? Why not lead you to undertake a fundraising campaign for the hungry during those 40 days? Why would the Spirit lead you to fast and pray in the wilderness, for more than 5 weeks, when there were more profitable things you could have done with your time?
If the gospel writer got it right, Jesus – if Matthew got your words right – then apparently you thought the spirit called you out to be tempted by the devil? Well never mind that the idea of the devil feels a little unreal in our culture – on top of that, why would you make yourself vulnerable in that way?
If you were going to face the devil, why not make sure you were well-nourished and strong? If you thought that you were going to be tempted to do wrong, why would you make yourself vulnerable to that temptation? Don’t we have to take responsibility for not getting into situations where we will be vulnerable to temptation. Why, Jesus? Why? Why expose yourself to temptation when you were at your weakest? Why not face temptation when you were at your strongest.
Why? Why? Why? It’s the same question that I find myself asking, over and over again. The same question from so many different angles. Why did you go into the wilderness? Why did you walk away from human community for more than five weeks? Why did you face temptation in this way? Why?
We watch this video before we continue:
You have asked the question “Why?” I can see inquisitiveness written all over your face. You have asked many questions, but at the heart of each of them has been the question “Why?”
In the same way that you have only one question, expressed in many different ways, so I have only one answer. That one answer can also be expressed in many different ways. Your question is “why” and my answer is “love.” You want to know why I have done what I have done, and the only answer I can offer it this: “I love you.”
This answer might not satisfy all of your questions – this answer might not feel like an adequate response to your inquisitiveness, but this is the only answer I can give. The truth is that my answer will not meet every question you have posed. But perhaps that does not point to the inadequacy of the answer – perhaps it alls into question the questions themselves. But regardless, please keep asking your questions; don’t stop asking your questions. I want to be engaged with you. I want you to be engaged with me, and not for you to walk away from the conversation. As long as you are asking questions we are in a relationship. As long as we stay in conversation with one another, I can continue to say in as many ways as I can: “I love you.”
I went into the wilderness for 40 days – I left the comforts of family and friends for more than 5 weeks – I left the routine of work and community for such a stretch of time – because the wilderness is so often where you find yourself. For forty years my people wandered in the wilderness, without a homeland and without houses to live in and without sufficient food and without security. I love my people, and out of solidarity with them I have entered that place where they dwelt – alone and exiled.
They didn’t go there to find themselves; they didn’t go there to protest the injustice of their life under slavery in Egypt; they didn’t go there to recharge their batteries. In their brokenness that’s where they found themselves; on account of historical happenstance that’s where they found themselves; on account of their refusal of God, that’s where they found themselves. I love my people, deeply. And out of solidarity with them I have entered the place where they dwelt for forty years – alone and exiled.
In so many ways women and men find themselves, today, living in places of desolation. Sometimes their own mistakes put them there. More often it is events beyond their control – sickness or broken relationships or financial hardship or the loss of a loved one that find them in that desolate place. Sometimes injustice drives them there.
Why did I go to the wilderness? Because I love you. And loving you doesn’t mean standing back and saying: “Oh, that’s too bad you’re having a hard time.” In love I went to that place; in love I have undergone that suffering; in love I have dwelt with women and men in the place of pain and need.
There is truth in what you say – that we can best face our temptations when we are strong and rested and well-supported… But that’s not very realistic to life is it?
In our fatigue, we are tempted to take moral shortcuts.
When life is at its heaviest, an easy way out becomes more compelling.
When you are at wits end, it’s so easy to grasp at whatever’s on offer.
When we are hungry, to do whatever it takes to get bread.
I love you. I’m not far from you in this experience of temptation. I am there, with you. I went to the wilderness – I was exhausted and hungry and alone – and in that moment I faced the temptation to turn from the God’s way of love and obedience. I faced the temptation you face. Why? Because I love you, and want to be with you.
My love for you is not only my presence with you in the wilderness. My love for you is not only my facing temptation in those moments of greatest vulnerability. Forty days from this Sunday morning – forty days from this day – my love will take me beyond temptation and wilderness and vulnerability – my love will carry me into death.
Why these forty days? Because my love is the strongest love. I am love.
Mine is a love that death will not defeat.
Mine is a love that temptation could not destroy.
Mine is a love that violence will never snuff out.
Mine is a love that overcomes weakness.
Mine is a love that is faithful to the end.
Mine is a love that will be vindicated in resurrection life – and you will rise with me.
Why these 40 days in the wilderness?
Why this choice of isolation and vulnerability?
Why this pursuit of hunger and weakness?
Because I love you.
Come, dwell in my love.