Places mentioned in the Gospels often enough are laden with greater significance than simply mapping a route.

When Matthew tells us Jesus entered the wastelands east of the Jordan, it is more than his being in a solitary place.

This is where the tribes had first entered the land of God’s promise, while they were still becoming a nation. This is where Elijah had fled from Jezebel, encountering God on the mountain. It is where the scapegoat was driven on Yom Kippur.

In the common lore, it spoke of a connection with God’s untamed side, God’s raw power, God’s provision where none should be expected. This is the uncivilized land, the unsettled region, the uncultivated expanse, the place where one must depend on God, for there is nothing else.

Matthew records this as the direction Jesus took. In these wastelands where the Hebrews prepared to enter the land of promise, Jesus is proven.

As the Hebrew people were prepared to enter Yahweh’s fulfillment, so Jesus is prepared for beginning his ministry as Yahweh’s further fulfillment and redemption. Many of the issues the Hebrews faced – issues we all face – are detailed here.

Jesus was offered a route to manipulate God’s promises, forcing God’s hand for personal advancement or benefit. He was presented an easier means to receive God’s promise, a short-cut deviating from Yahweh’s path and purposes. He was given a means to gain power, control, and prominence by worshiping one other than Yahweh.

Wielding political power has often been a temptation for religious institutions and people. We’d like to think that we can force others to bow to God’s will, neglecting to grasp that the way of God requires is that we live and lead out of love, not fear and coercion. 

We want to believe we can use God for our personal benefit, ignoring our need to trust God to provide for us on God’s timetable. Temptation to use God to manipulate people for our personal gain and benefit distracts us and others from how God desires to work in and through our lives.

The wastelands should teach us to depend on God, bending our will to God’s will, not attempting to force God to ours or to live independently of God’s direction.

It is in the wilderness that we encounter God outside the structures of religion, society, politics, tradition and economics. It is here we find a clean slate upon which God might build, where God might refashion and redirect us. This is preparation for surrendering our lives completely to God.

The crowds, rulers and social concerns disappear as we encounter the still, small voice that ministers to us and redirects us with a fresh perspective. This is where our Lenten journey should take us.

Are we prepared to go with Moses, with Elijah, with Jesus, into the wastelands, where God might remove all else on which we would depend?

The temptation we face is to find some other foundation for living. These should be left behind in the wastelands, so that God might place on the better path where God’s servants minister to our needs. Only then are we truly prepared to serve in wholeness.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2023. Each week, an article will be published reflecting on one or more of the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. The previous article in the series is:

Lenten Lectionary | Set Your Plow Deeper: An Ash Wednesday Meditation by Ken Sehested

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