My husband searches out old manuscripts for his research in all things Biblical. He frequently travels to Ethiopia and sends me photos of his travels and finds. Just today, he sent me a photo of a beautiful 15th century manuscript of the Acts of the Martyrs kept at a monastery out in the wilderness. It never ceases to amaze me that one can find such beautiful treasure out in the middle of seemingly nowhere. I don’t know why that is a surprise. The Valley of the Kings in Egypt was also a huge treasure buried in sand; the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves that are virtually impossible to reach. But it made me wonder if there is treasure to be found in our own wildernesses.
When we Christians today talk about a ‘wilderness’ experience, we are usually referring to a spiritual emptiness and hunger. It may be accompanied by physical depletion of sleep or food, but not always. It often feels like we have simply been abandoned by God, like our prayers are bouncing off the wall.
Scripture tells us that Jesus spent 40 days ‘in the wilderness’ – quite literally. It was in a hot, dry landscape where food and water were scarce; where sheer cliff faces are in abundance. He was alone. He would be susceptible to heatstroke – and with that the games the mind plays in the form of mirages, seeing things that aren’t there. He is probably exhausted; we are told he is definitely hungry.
‘Satan’ appears and tempts Jesus. These temptations are revealing. The first one – ‘If you are the Son of God, turn this bread to stone.’ Basically, Satan is asking him to prove his identity! The second one: ‘Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple’ – prove that God will save you like it says in your scripture (or prove the truth of your belief). And the Third one: ‘I will give you everything you see if you worship me.’ To someone who hasn’t slept in a comfortable bed for awhile and is starving and hungry, these temptations must have been very difficult to reject.
But what do you have when everything else is gone – but yourself and your God? In the wilderness Jesus found the inner strength to declare his relationship to God as one of respect and trust – a trust he would not sacrifice to Earthly gain or temporary relief. Perhaps that is the treasure that the wilderness experience reveals: your real identity. This is who I am, this is who God is, and this is how I relate to God, the Great I Am. In the wilderness, we find our truest self, a very precious treasure indeed.