I was sitting on a ledge two hundred feet above the Judean wilderness. A lifeless and virtually unending sea of sand dunes was below me. It’s one of those visuals you never quite get your head around. A network of sandy spines reaches out to the horizon and then disappears. This is where things in this region go to die. Ironically, it’s a beautiful place. The scale alone is spectacular. And when the deep colors of the afternoon sky in Israel collide with trillions upon trillions of granules of sand it’s a breathtaking masterpiece.
I was here reconnoitering for my local church. A trip to Israel was in the works. This was my first time in the Holy Land. By the time we arrived at this particular spot I’d been traveling for five days. Several of the places we stopped offered an opportunity for reflection and teaching. This qualified as one of those places. We were herded out of our bus and up a slight hill. Once we reached the crest the world fell out below us into the desert. The group found spots here and there and sat down in complete silence. It was a massive sort of natural amphitheater where the show was the deepest stillness nature has to offer.
“This is the approximate location of Jesus’ temptation.” Obviously, this fact made it all the more spectacular. Somewhere down there the Son of God battled for my soul. I kept thinking to myself, “My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole…” Somewhere in the midst of this devastation after forty days of fasting the Holy Son of God was led out to bear the burden of humanity and face down the same adversary who led the first Adam to cause such destruction in the first place (Hebrews 2:9).
Needless to say, my heart was tuned to worship. I was ready to see Jesus exalted. Just then the designated preacher stood to deliver the message, “Turn with me to Mathew chapter four. I would like to offer you five steps to resisting temptation in your life.” Or, something to that effect. On the inside I was devastated. “Why would you do that? Jesus is right here! Give me Christ!” On the outside there was nothing but a sacerdotal smile. In light of where I was seated, the popular church’s ability to miss the point (Jesus) was more obvious than ever. It was a very sad moment.
Normally, this would not have been so surprising, but we were standing on the spot. Typically, this is standard stuff. It’s what the contemporary church does with scenes like this. (In fact, this was how I interpreted it the first time I encountered it in the Gospel of Matthew.) Basically, we take the epic of redemption laid out before us in events like the temptation and bury it under our narcissistic need for “relevance.” We get in our own way of the glory of our own redemption. It’s maddening how ubiquitous this tendency is within evangelicalism.
Seriously. What’s the assumed application of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? By assumed I mean - What have we been told (over years of preaching) this event is about? Is it not usually offered as a set of “principles” on how Christians can resist temptation? Or to put that another way, it’s about us. But honestly, is this really what’s happening at this moment? Is Jesus really offering an example how we can personally resist the temptation of the devil? Is this a tutorial for daily living? Of course not! A “how to” on resisting temptation is a secondary application at best if not tertiary. He’s not telling us to do anything. He’s actually doing it for us. There is something much greater under way in this moment. More importantly, do we need to be standing within view of the actual site to realize how misguided our take on it is?