The idea of a desert does not mean much to us here in this rain-soaked country yet the story of the people of God wandering in the desert, having escaped from slavery and oppression, may resonate with our historical experience. In going into the desert for forty days, Jesus is deliberately evoking the historical consciousness of the people. They knew that the Exodus story was their freedom story and it is the paradigm for the story of salvation, the story of the freedom won for us and available to us in Christ.
It is the story of a people enslaved; a people whose only prospect is suffering and death. It is the tale of a leader raised up to give these people hope; to motivate them and to lead them through the waters of purification and commitment, onwards towards the goal of a Promised Land.
It is a story about people and about life so nothing is straightforward. When the people move into the barrenness of the desert, free from the distractions of forced labour and slavery, they come to know God. God is revealed to them as being One. As the desert is without ornamentation or distraction so God is revealed as one, the God of all and for all. They are moulded and formed in the period spent being led by Moses and being encouraged onward and upward by the God’s presence among them. This takes tangible form in the cloud that leads them by day and the pillar of fire that guides them by night-time. They are fed with manna, bread for life and for the journey and they are given water from the rock to refresh them. They murmur, complain, lose faith, go back to worshipping idols, long for slavery again with all the security and indulgence it offered. Eventually they are led over the river, into the land of plenty promised to them.
The desert was where they were reared as a people of faith. The temptations seemed more obvious when they were alone and the battle for the soul of a people and of individuals was won or lost in the silence of the desert.
Having recently been baptised, Jesus moves out into the desert to do battle with the temptations of Satan and to allow himself to be formed by the Father.
The opportunities and challenges of Lent are to do battle with the temptations and indulgences that enslave us and that lead us to death as surely as did slavery in Egypt. The desert of life provides us with choices to make and temptations to respond to. The false security of trusting in food, power, fame or any of the other false gods of the world are constantly available and clamouring for our attention. The choice of leader and of personal standards or values is open and the response has to be freely chosen. Christ wishes to lead us over the river of death and into the Promised Land of heaven. He wishes to lead us onwards and upwards by the magnetic attraction of his personality and teachings; by the light and guidance of his illuminating wisdom. As with Christ himself, it is to suffering and death that we will be led to in the end. Thos who have stood the test of the desert pilgrimage or journey are promised that neither sin nor death can enslave us at the end and that the land of promise awaits those who have proved worthy in the battle.
‘We cannot win our crown unless we overcome and we cannot overcome unless we enter the contest and there is no contest unless we have an enemy and the temptations he brings’. (Saint Augustine)