Masada, the ancient fortress that was the last stronghold in Judea to fall to the Romans, has become the symbol of Jewish tenacity. All new Israeli soldiers take part in a ceremony on the mountain, and thousands visit the site every week to soak in the intoxicating idealism of freedom. It is a monument to the conflicts of the world that have been physically lost and morally won. As C. S. Lewis said, "We shall probably fail, but let us go down fighting for the right side."*
Masada is a grim place. Looking down, you can see the remains of the Roman encampments and the wall that was built around the fortress to cut off escape. Step back 2,000 years into the battle-hardened body of a trapped Jewish zealot, see the fires burning below you, hear the shouts of the sentries, and imagine what it will be like to die.
The fortress of Masada was originally constructed by King Herod, who saw the obvious defensive advantages of the promontory and developed an elaborate system of aqueducts and cisterns to collect and store rainwater. When the zealots took it over, they converted one of Herod's stables into a Synagogue. It was there that archaeologists discovered fragments of Ezekiel's Vision of Dry Bones; not an inappropriate metaphor for describing the Jew's return from defeat and dispersion to a thriving life in the land of their heritage.
Driving through the desert on our way to Eilat, I found myself meditating on the Temptation of Christ. All of a sudden it hit me that 40 days is an awfully long time to spend alone in the desert without eating anything. How dulled we become to the dramatic realities of the Incarnation! Christian education seeks to "familiarize" children with the stories of the Bible, and sometimes I think we may have done altogether too good a job of it.
Right on the cusp of His public ministry, the Spirit compelled Christ to enter the solitude of the desert, alone, without food, without friendship, without forests or flowers - just His tremendous soul face to face with the immensity of His task. Would He go through with it? Was He prepared to redeem the tragedy man had made of creation, even in the teeth of vicious supernatural opposition? Thank God, He was; He powerfully, gloriously was. As He lifted His tired and victorious eyes to heaven, a cohort of shining angels came marching in on the heels of the devil, and the horizon before Him burst into dazzling white:
The people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region
and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.**
The Temptation is the greatest estimate in the Gospels of the strength of Christ's spirit and purpose. Gethsemane stretched His resolve to the breaking point, but the choice had already been made long before. The cost had already been counted, it only remained to be paid.
The account ends with Jesus slipping quietly back into public life; it's not clear if He was even missed. Still, later on after He became popular, He kept to this same pattern of solitary personal devotion:
But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Mark 5:15-16)
Has God brought you to "desolate places"? Then thank Him, and concentrate so you don't let Him down. He just wants to see what you are made of so He knows how far He can throw you.
*C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, (Harvest/HBJ, 1987), 90-91