I’ve never been in a true wilderness. I’ve come close, I suppose. When I was a student at Furman University in South Carolina back in the 70’s, there were places in neighboring Pickens County that were pretty remote and where people were few and far between. Nature … and home-made moonshine stills … ruled the land. But it wasn’t really a wilderness.
When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn … Sunset Park to be precise … I felt like the seven blocks I walked from my apartment to the medical center were a bit of a wilderness. I heard zip guns firing most days … I was surrounded by languages I did not understand … and the gang members sitting on the stoops of their brownstones, made the area feel like a hostile and dangerous landscape. I was surrounded by people in the city … but I felt completely alone. But that wasn’t a true wilderness, either.
Back when my kids were at Penn State, I often walked across what was then, Lot 80 near the East Hall dorms … dubbed “the Tundra” because of the blistering wind and snow that arrived by November most years, which made any crossing of the parking lot worth your life. It certainly felt like a northern wilderness trek every time I said goodbye to Jess and left the dorm for our car during those winter months. But it wasn’t, obviously. No, I have never been in a true wilderness setting … well, I was in Hoboken, New Jersey once … does that count? Of course not … I have no idea what it is like to spend a prolonged amount of time in such a severe and barren landscape.
But I have traveled through spiritual and emotional wildernesses in my life … maybe you have, too. Times when I felt as if I was truly alone with no support … no help nearby. Times when I very well might have been surrounded by people who cared for me and supported me … but my head or my heart had closed me off from them. Times when even though the devil wasn’t standing toe to toe with me in person, it sure felt like he was standing just outside of the range of my field of vision, just waiting to pounce. Times when I found myself tested and tempted by voices that were hard to distinguish from the voices of God in my life. Times when the temptation on the table wasn’t so much one of doing evil instead of good – those are choices I have an easier time recognizing. Instead I found myself tempted to do a good thing for the wrong reason … or doing a good thing at the wrong time. The devil is a subtle creature, and his temptations are never obvious. What he tries to do is lure you away from what you know it right, small step by small step, until you find yourself in a place you never intended to be.
Let’s look at Jesus’ temptations for a moment. The suggestions that the devil places before him are subtle lures. The first temptation is for Jesus to make bread from stones … what’s really wrong with this, after all? A few chapters later in Luke’s Gospel he will turn five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for thousands … is this really all that different?
The next temptation the devil offers is to seek the glory of the kingdoms of the world. Is that not what we who are Jesus’ followers have worked for since Jesus’ challenged us with the Great Commission to go to all nations and bring them into the fold? Isn’t the whole goal that of the entire world recognizing Jesus as Lord and Savior? We all know worshiping the devil is wrong … but isn’t it a small thing we can live with considering the greater purpose it fulfills?
The third temptation Jesus is challenged with is to ask the angels to come and protect him. We don’t read about it here, but in Matthew’s version of the story, that is exactly what happens at the end of Jesus temptation in the wilderness … the angels come and minister to him. Isn’t that what angels do? … serve as protectors of God’s people? Why is this such a big deal? All three temptations are a big deal, because they are “wrongs” masquerading as “rights.” The invitations presented to Jesus are not to do something wrong … but to do something right in the wrong way, or something right at the wrong time.
We fall into this mis-interpretation easily … after all, we’re talking about the Devil, right? … the kingpin of evil … of course these are bad things, cause the devil is by definition of his name, evil. Or is he? Anyone know the Spanish word for devil? … diabolo. Guess what? … the Greek word for devil here is diabolos … the same word. And what does the word diabolos translate as in the Greek? … slanderer. A slanderer doesn’t go toe to toe with you in a fair fight … a slanderer attacks you indirectly … by tarnishing your name or your reputation. And then the slanderer sneaks away while others do his or her dirty work. It is a sneak attack … a cowardly attack … an attack that looks harmless, but never is. Just ask someone whose name or reputation has been slandered.
This is the kind of activity that the devil invites us to try on for size. This is the wilderness into which the devil tries to lead you. It is not a wilderness in which we are invited to stand up to God, face to face. Because face to face encounters allow for honest dialogue … honest disagreement … and honest opportunities to find the right path through the struggle. No, the devil invites you to try a hit and run encounter with God … an attack in the middle of the night … a bomb sent through the mail … a slanderous comment sent through a Twitter account. The devil invites you to be sneaky … and evasive … and slanderous. And thus slowly separate yourself from the God you love.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to fight the cosmic battles of heaven and earth. Jesus invites us to step into the skirmishes of the world, in which we are tempted in far more subtle ways. Skirmishes that are made up of modest encounters … and the simple choices in life … slanderous moments in which we just take one small step away from the person we know God wants us to be. But skirmishes that confront us regularly … every day … multiple times a day. Skirmishes that in time create more and more distance between us and our God. We are given tools with which to do battle … they are the tools Jesus used. The gift of God’s Word in the Bible … the gift of prayer … the gift of trust in the God who made us … the gifts of patience and strength. You might this that these are rather ordinary tools for this battle we face. And that is exactly the point … they are here for us all the time … they are tools we understand … they are resources we already know how to use. If it sounds simple, it is not … because our sin and our brokenness are self-slanderers in our lives. But it is achievable … because Jesus’ love fuels the good choices we make. Let’s get about the task of putting that old slanderer back in his place where he belongs. The task has a name … it is called “the season of Lent.”