The hot sun beat down, and shimmer of heat and relentless light dazzled his eyes. All he could see as he gazed around was endless sand and rock with just the occasional thorn tree dotting the landscape. It was a pitiless place, and, right at that moment, it seemed to him like the emptiest place on earth. Was it odd that the first deliberate act of his ministry was to depart from everyone into the cruel Judean wilderness? No, in order to be fitted for the task he must be tried and tempered like the finest of swords; in order to re-enact Israel and be all that she had failed to be, he too must spend a symbolic period of time wandering in the wilderness being tempted as she was, yet not falling into the sins she had so readily embraced.
At least a little water could be found, enough to keep a man alive, but after a few days he was dizzy, faint and tormented with hunger. It was then that the tempter came to him; stealthy in attack and sibilant in whisper. “If you really are what you claim to be, you could make these useless stones into bread! What good will it do you to starve to death?” It was not an academic question, he felt as if every inch of his flesh cried out for food.
But no, God hadn’t sent him out here to satisfy the flesh. He must walk the road of the least of these, through hunger and physical lack. There were more important things at stake. With great effort he replied, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.”
But there were other torments. He was so ordinary, so nondescript. He felt the irony of Isaiah’s words, that he should have “no beauty that we should desire him”. Would he be enough?
And there was the tempter, yet again. It seemed that they were in Jerusalem, standing at the highest point of the temple. “Cast yourself down, and God’s angels will rescue you!” Now wouldn’t that get everyone’s attention? He would be in prime position to really work the crowd.
But no. The only way to go was the way of humble obedience. He would not manipulate anyone. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test!” he replied, quoting the scriptures once again.
But he knew there was one last area where the tempter could torment him. There was one end to everything he was called to do – a hideous, torturous abandoned death. Was there no other way to get there except through the horror of the cross? Flesh and blood recoiled from it. And then the tempter took him to the top of a mountain, and showed him all the glory of the earth and the brightness of men’s kingdoms. “All this can be yours, so easily, if you will just bow down and worship me.”
The struggle was real, the stakes were beyond price. But he knew that he had come from God, and was returning to God, and with him would come, at the end, a great company of the redeemed who no man could number. So, with every effort his wracked flesh could muster, he cried out, “It is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!” And, renewed in purpose, he ordered the tempter to gone.
And the empty place was empty once again. But forty days and forty nights had passed in his great struggle, and now it was over. And the empty place was filled with a sweetness of angels.