Entering the Desert

In Luke’s Gospel we read about Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness of the desert (Luke 4:1-13).  But why did Jesus have to enter the desert to fast and pray? 

I’m not a big fan of animals, growing up we had two goldfish and that’s about as much as I could handle when it comes to pets.  Despite this I love watching natural history programmes on TV.  Just after Christmas, Sir David Attenborough presented a fascinating series on the continent of Africa.  Attenborough travelled the vast expanse of Africa, including two captivating episodes in the Kalahari and Sahara deserts.  In the harsh wasteland of the desert, animals battle against the forces of nature just to stay alive.  Some animals travel thousands of square miles just to find one solitary oasis where they can find much needed water.  The desert is a place which strips us right back to face the most fundamental questions of life and death.

When Jesus entered the desert he was leaving behind all other distractions.  The desert is a lonely place, it takes no account of wealth or prestige, honour and power are not respected in its severe climate.  The desert to which Jesus withdrew is a place of silence and poverty, where being deprived of all material and emotional support he arrives at the only thing which is truly essential, the one thing that we absolutely cannot survive without – an encounter with God.

The desert proves to be a place of temptation for Jesus.  Often we can find ourselves in the desert, a wilderness full of temptations.  For some people the desert is a place of addictions, where alcohol, drugs or sex seem to offer some comfort, but soon the experience of being lost and deprived returns.  The desert is a lonely place and it seems that God is not present.  What Jesus teaches us is that in the wilds of the desert, the only things that are truly present are God and yourself.  In the loneliness of the desert we encounter God without the distractions that cloud our life. 

Jesus walks the path of temptation in the desert, but turns it into a path of conversion, a place where we can meet God who is the source of our life.  From the desert of the concentration camp at Auschwitz a young Jewish girl Etty Hillesum, who initially felt God was far, discovered that by looking within herself, and not to the desolate wasteland around her, she could find God.  In the midst of great tragedy, in her disrupted and lonely life she found God.  Etty, who later died in the camp, was transformed by the experience and became a woman full of faith and love, in her diary she wrote, “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.”

If we find ourselves in the desert, in a place of no hope or consolation, where we find ourselves struggling to survive, remember that God is there with us.  Sometimes, like Etty Hillesum we need to dig deep down to find him, but under the grit and stones which block our way, the Lord of life is waiting for us.

Andrew Black