Moonrise over the Wadi Rum desert in present-day Jordan.  What is it about the desert that makes it a spiritual place?  From Abraham, to Moses, to Jesus, the desert defines crucial moments in spiritual growth.  No sooner has Jesus been baptized and the witnesses have heard the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, than he is driven by the Spirit into the desert wilderness.  He is alone there, but for one other voice – the devil’s. [Luke 3:22; 4:1-14]As Luke reports these things, he pauses to tell us who Jesus is – He is “the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of …” and so on… for a whole page of genealogy. [Luke 3:23-38].  These are important historical details, and they do indeed tell us who Jesus is.  In order to know someone it helps to know where they come from; it’s usually one of the first questions we ask, to learn who their people are, and from what roots they have grown.

But we can’t really know a person from merely from genealogy.  And so, with his very next sentence, following this family history, Luke reports that Jesus was led into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.  Now we see more clearly who this Jesus really is.  The devil gives Jesus the chance to prove who he is, to prove he is the Son of God, to prove he is the beloved and anointed one who comes in power.

And what does Jesus do with this opportunity?  He turns down the offer.  He says no.  He has the opportunity to save himself from hunger, and at the same time to save the world from doubt.  And he turns it down.  He chooses not to show anyone who he is by such actions.  He chooses not to prove that he is the Son of God.  And in that choice, which represents abject failure in the eyes of the devil, and in the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor,[1] and potentially in our own eyes as well, Jesus reveals who he truly is, for he is not defined by our ideas of how he might exercise his power.  He is not defined by the devil’s gambit.  Nor is he defined by our wish that he might prove his glory and deliver the world through main force.  He is not defined by anything we can think of for him to do for us.  No, he derives his identity from none of the above.  His identity comes rather from the one and only desire of his heart – to be his beloved Father’s Son.  His identity rests entirely in this relationship.

And so this desert place, where Jesus says “No”, is the place where the grand unspoken “Yes” of his true identity gives him the strength, hope and love to be who he really is.

This is the power of the desert – to strip us of all the details and entanglements, temptations and opportunities which we so often use to define who we are.  But the job and the paycheck do not define who we are; nor do the grades or the medals; nor do the praises or criticisms. No, none of the above.  The Yes’s that define us are the relationships that we hold most dearly in our hearts – the relationships defined by life, not by genealogy. And the one relationship that defines us most completely, the relationship that reveals the single-most core of our being, is the relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  This relationship tells us who we are – God’s daughters and sons, made so by Jesus who reveals who he truly is by refusing temptation in the desert.  Jesus is the one who shows us who we are truly meant to be.

[1] I have commented below on the Grand Inquisitor in “The Temptation of Christ(ianity)”.


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