What is the wilderness? Throughout the Bible, we can see various episodes related to it.
It was outside of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve faced the life of difficulty. It was on the east of Eden as Cain went out of the LORD. It was the place Abraham negotiated with the LORD. It was the place Jacob wrestled with the angel. It was the place Moses wandered with his people for forty years despite the only two-week distance. It was the place Moses received the Ten Commandments; nevertheless, his people complained, even Moses slaughtered thousands of his people. It was the place the LORD devastated Job with the infinite gap between God and His people.
The wilderness represents paradoxes and ambivalences. It is so peripheral; at the same time, so center, embracing human existence and destiny. God threw us there, saved us there, killed us there, taught us there, challenged us there; and overwhelmed us there.
It is the place for fear and trembling.
A number of prophets spent their lives with the LORD there. One of such prophets was Isaiah. He prophesied:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Isaiah 40:3
Whose voice did Isaiah prophesy? As we know, it was the voice of John the Baptist.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Matthew 3:3
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Mark 1:3
He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.John 1:23
John the Baptist was also the man of the wilderness with his ascetic lifestyle.
And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.Matthew 3:4
He was also the man of paradox. He was aggressive accusing the hypocrisy of religious people; at the same time, boldly humble insisting his unworthiness.
He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all.John 3:30-31
His death was also so abrupt and cruel.
Appreciating the dance performance of his step-daughter Salome, to keep his promise with her, Herod Antipas gave her the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.Mark 6:22-29
Is this the way that one of the greatest prophets died? He is indeed the man of the wilderness, manifesting the enigma of human destiny, so center; at the same time, so peripheral.
Jesus was no exception.
After John the Baptist baptized Jesus, the Spirit brought him to the wilderness. He stayed there for forty days and nights without eating and drinking, and yet with the temptations from the devil and satan with the beasts.
Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.Matthew 4:1-2
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.Mark 1:12-13
And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.Luke 4:1-2
It was the Spirit who led Jesus to the wilderness; nevertheless, he encountered the temptations of the devil and satan.
In our everyday life, it seems we don’t face our nakedness. We can kindly smile at ourselves and others. In the wilderness, however, our true and false selves would emerge boldly. We are naked. We would realize how much we loved and hated ourselves and others. The wilderness removed all our superficiality. We have to face our inner core and peripherals.
Even Jesus had to face his false-self as a human being. Following his ego as a human being, he would seek his worldly desires, get ambitious, and use his power for sorcery. If ever he did rely on himself, the devil and satan could win.
He never listened to the voice of his false-self. These were the devil, satan, and wild beats. Without listening to them, without arguing with them, he cited the Word of God alone, saying “as it is written.” And eventually, he was able to get out of the wilderness. The angels ministered unto him.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.Matthew 4:11
In the wilderness, we would encounter our nakedness, which could be paradoxically and ambivalently wicked and sacred. The wilderness is indeed God’s playground where we face the infinite gap – how far and near from Him, being intimately and boldly with Him.
Image by Alex Hu