Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
This is the opening line to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the desert. It is a perplexing one, and one that at first glance can bring fear and a sense of foreboding. After all, deserts are known for their unforgiving, barren surroundings. It is clear that Jesus would not have much to help him if he was going into the desert. Survival is not a given. Yet it is there, in a weakened state from fasting, that he is tempted by the devil. And the most perplexing part is that the Spirit led him to this!
The message then, is a strong one: go to the place where you are vulnerable, hold onto that place and endure it for a while, and you will find something new.
I see the truth of this in nature each spring. We have many killdeer in our part of the country. And they are chatty and somewhat pestering birds when you get near their nests. You will often stumble upon their nests unknowingly because unlike most birds who build nests in trees or high places, killdeer put their eggs right on the ground and use camouflage as their main source of protection. They sit on their eggs like most birds, but when you get too close, they do an interesting thing…they feign injury. They run off their nests and, as my dad says, “flop around and give you the broken-wing treatment.” Which is exactly what they do. They flop around on the ground, squawking and carrying on so that you think they are injured. For animals who act on instinct (like my dog) this is a wonderful distraction as it drives their potential threat away from the nest towards the bird itself (who is not really injured at all), as a means of protecting their young. It also works for distracting humans as they make quite a scene!
I’m on to their act now, though, so I know not to be distracted by their carrying on, and I go poking about in the rocks and stones looking for their nest, careful of my steps as I could easily crush the eggs if I weren’t careful. Twice now, I’ve found some eggs hidden right among the rocks. And there, for me, the message is the same: new life is waiting to burst forth in the unlikeliest of places, vulnerable and exposed, lying against the harsh backdrop of raw, barren earth.
There is a measure of Jesus’s trust in the Spirit, that I see mirrored in the trust of the killdeer.
To me, the message of Jesus’ experience in the desert and the message of the killdeer are one and the same: don’t be afraid to start a new life by making yourself vulnerable. In many ways, this is what the Lenten season is about, really. Giving up something we’ve been holding onto in place of God. Letting go of old habits that have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too routine. We are to shake things up a bit. Only by doing this, can we see ourselves in a new light and observe how we react and protect ourselves (our egos) from the absolute truth of God. Only here can we see how easily we let the devil—that is, the great distractor– take our eyes off the new life that God wants to create in us.
There was an encouraging email that went around a few years ago that said, “The will of God will never lead you where His grace will not protect you.” As we witness Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, we can be certain this is true. In the end, God sent angels to come and tend to him. Yet, as we read the story in its entirety we find that not only was Jesus able to withstand the temptations of the devil all on his own, but he came out of the desert now sure of who he was. We’d be remiss to never notice that it was only after the desert experience that Jesus began his ministry.
Reflect: How has my act of giving something up for Lent, or starting a new habit for Lent, helped me make room for the Spirit of God to create something new in me? Have I made myself vulnerable enough to let God move in? If I haven’t gone searching in the “desert” of my heart, what am I afraid of? How might the Spirit be leading me to discover a deeper calling for his work through me?
Pray: Guiding Spirit, help us trust you as you lead us into places within ourselves that we’d rather not travel. Remind us that while we may feel vulnerable and exposed, our fear is nothing more than a distraction keeping us from carrying out your work. Hold us firmly as we lay open our hearts to you. Breathe into us the confidence that angels will tend to us, if we are willing to let them, and that a new life awaits us on the other side of our shadowed, broken selves.