‘…a time of testing’
March 6, 2022
Scriptures: Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
In past encounters with this passage, I think I have often seen it as a time of testing and a purification of purpose that was unique to Jesus. As some sort of final spiritual preparation he had to undergo before beginning his ministry here among us. Almost as though it was a special time that enabled him to perform all of the miracles recounted in the gospels, something he needed to make him ‘fully holy’. As though his childhood and early adult life before this was undeniably human, within which he surely demonstrated times of being very much like the rest of us mortals, and perhaps even prone to moments of weakness or behaviors that would be frowned upon. But now…now it was getting serious, now he had some real decisions to make, as to whether or not he would accept the calling to walk the path of unfailing and unconditional obedience to the one he called ‘Abba’, or ‘Father’, wherever that path might prove to lead.
And somehow, our understanding of this scripture tells us that this period of fasting and preparation of his soul and heart out in the desert for forty days purified his purpose, and prepared him to encounter the adversary or tempter, the one known to the Hebrews only by his description – ‘the one who tests’…the same one who had been sent by God to test Job in the Old Testament.
But still, I saw this whole sequence of events as something that was unique to Jesus, as something only he had to go through, even though when I was in seminary, I came to understand that the book of Job was perhaps best understood as an historical allegory of the trials and testing of the Hebrew people as a whole, and not just the woeful trials of a single, very unfortunate yet faithful individual.
But as I read through this passage again in preparation for today, and in thinking about the precarious state of world affairs currently unfolding across Europe and in Russia, I wondered if this might be one of those passages that is uniquely able to travel across and through time, and speak directly to this moment. Speak not only to the real struggles unfolding day by day, but perhaps also, how these words might cause people of the Christian faith to examine their beliefs and actions to see if they are up to the task of standing fast against the very real tests and trials of today. Perhaps we need to look at this passage as one that not only was meant as a time of intense preparation and strengthening for Jesus, but for all of us who follow after him as well.
After the time of testing was through for Jesus, the ‘tempter’ who was sent to test him left him alone. He was exhausted, famished, and surely in need of the angels sent to assist him in his fully worn down and depleted state. And I would not be surprised if dealing honestly and openly with the tests and trials currently before us may leave us in need of holy assistance as well. I think that this passage truly can find us, and will surely test us, if we allow it to.
I have also found that this passage is one that can rather easily be dismissed or ignored by any afraid to dig into it more deeply. For the actual ‘temptations’ that were put before Jesus seem like ones we might say were either not applicable to us, or not really that hard to resist on the face of them.
Firstly, being famished and considering ways to find food, make the tempter’s suggestion of ‘turning stones into bread’ particularly hard to relate to. For so few of us have ever had to go without food for more than a meal or two, and that, usually by choice. And fewer still would even consider fasting for forty days…surely that is something that is unique to someone like Jesus, or at least to some other extremely religious individual, one whom I am quite certain we would surely wonder about as well.
I think our reaction to this particular ‘hunger’ trial of Jesus may be actually purposely muted, for hunger is something that is very real for so many across the world, particularly in times of such warring and strife. Perhaps we just don’t want to consider Ukrainian shortages of food and water as being a possibility for us?
The second trial, that of offering to Jesus all the riches of all the Kingdoms of the world, is one we are quite familiar with as well, for most of us at least have been carefully taught that rank excess and extravagant wealth is something that is by its very nature bad…at least the level of wealth that is held by the top one or two percent of our society. And so I think we may resist being challenged by that ‘trial’ because it seems far away from us, as not really possible, and therefore not really our concern individually. But like the previous trial of hunger, isn’t it true, and actually are we not aware that we live within and tacitly support the most inequitable system in the history of humankind? A system and practice whereby all across the world, and even here within the margins of our own neighborhoods there are so many suffering deeply due to a lack of access to even the most basic of human needs? Needs that by and large, are often assumed to be our starting point on so many fronts?
And then there is the third test we are told Jesus faced. That temptation to think that his ‘privileged status’, his position as the ‘Son of God’ would allow him to act in ways that flaunted that same status. That he could take unnecessary risks, knowing that he would not fail, knowing that it was this status as the firstborn of God that would keep him safe no matter what he might choose to do in publicly demonstrating that power and privilege.
This is also one we can quite easily keep safely tucked away within the ‘Holy Only’ realm of issues or concerns that would never affect us. For we do not think of God being there for us if we choose to do something as foolish as jumping off the top of a building, trusting that we will be caught by some nearby angels.
But might there not be more to this that actually can find us? Find us as we sit comfortably in places of feeling quite supported and protected already by our own power , privilege, or citizenship? Do we not have a tendency to sometimes ignore or shut out the cries and struggles of others because we feel there are others whose job it is to take care of them, or address their needs?
These three trials were not just there for Jesus…and this passage was not just to tell of events long ago, or uniquely meant just for him in order to prepare him for his upcoming ministry. No, they are also very much words for today, words meant to test each one of us, to ask us to look deep within our own lives and at our own ‘comfort levels’, to see if we are up to the challenge of this moment…if we too are dissturbed by the cries of all those who still struggle.
And I wish…I so wish this was simply a problem that we could all just gather around and solve. I so wish that it was as simple as repenting and turning around as people of faith and willingly engaging all of these outstanding needs together. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could marshall all of our resources for distribution for the common good, just as did those in the Book of Acts at the very beginning of our Christian faith story?
I wish we could do that…it would be nice…but honestly I am not sure we can. For the greatest problem we face, and the source of our greatest weakness as people of faith, is the lack of unity and purpose around what the core message of Jesus really was. I truly feel that the greatest commandment Jesus gave to us, his call to ‘love one another’ has to be the least understood and most widely twisted and perverted passage in the whole of the bible. And this is why I feel that today’s passage is as much for this moment as any other in the story of humankind.
The profound time of testing we are facing is not just on a national, or a democratic, or even a political front. For the reports of death and destruction now filling our airwaves are very real, even if they are half a world away. But it is this lack of unity of understanding and willingness to walk in the ways Jesus asked of us, that not only prevents us from ‘heart-feeling’ the cries of those truly in dire need, but causes us instead to waste the energy of the moment by turning on each other, in what is now one of the greatest moments of division within the whole of the Christian faith. How can we love and care for others when we can not even find a way to love and care for each other?
Until we gather around a willingness to love one another in all of the ways Jesus taught us
…until we are willing to love and forgive others as he loved and still forgives us
…until we are willing to stand with all those in need, to care for all who are oppressed, to share our blessings with all who are in need, and to comfort all who have lost, or who are alone
…until we insist on seeking first the Kingdom of God, that promised moment of love and justice for all, until we begin to act like that is even possible
…indeed, until we accept that our only call is to work to bring about this day of peace and justice for all, and until we insist that weapons of war be melted down and refashioned into tools to tend the earth that is our common home, this time of trial and struggle will only continue to worsen, eventually affecting every single one of us.
Until we as people of faith can come together in common purpose, given strength and resources by the Spirit of our God…
… until we truly commit to act in love, living into our created nature as the image of our God…
…until that day we too are suffering.
I am sure there are some who will say that this is an impossible dream and that there is no way we will ever come together to that extent, even as people supposedly of ‘one faith’. And I am sure as well that some will hear this plea as only the ravings of a dreamer or a madman, or at the very best as the mumblings of another socialist crackpot.
And there probably was a time when I too would have had similar feelings, a time when I was comfortably ignorant in my understanding of my special privilege and protections, sufficiently unaware of my complicity in the degree of global systemic social inequity that leaves so many in the deepest of sorrow and need.
But I am there no longer. And I am also one who believes that the answers to all of this may not be as hard to find as it would seem. For loving one another, truly putting oneself out there as a ‘vessel of willing usefulness for the Holy Spirit’ will slowly and surely begin to turn the tide, and bring about real substantive social change that is the work of that same Spirit of our God.
For if one can start, then two can as well…and if two can, then a small group can also…and soon, the power of love will begin to overwhelm and stifle the far weaker power of hate and division, and the possibility of seeing real change and real hope will begin to emerge among us.
Jesus simply asked us to love…and to do so here and now…not just to gain points that would get us to Heaven, but rather in order that the love of God could begin to wash over the whole of the land, so that a time of truly living for one another could begin to be our lived experience, and not just the words of Prophets of so long ago.
It will not be easy, it never has been…but each one of us can be a part by sharing the love which has already been poured into our hearts out into the hearts and lives of others…and that my friends, is our only real call…
We are living within a time of the greatest of testing, as well as in a time of great temptation just to ‘wait and see what will happen on its own’ over the course of the immediate future. But we cannot give in to that temptation to sit idly by, for people are dying because of a lack of love…people are killing one another in the name of God…and this must be turned around.
I do not think our call to love one another can be better expressed or be more deeply challenging than in the famous words of Mahatma Gandhi who simply said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’.
‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’…
So, in this time of testing and trial, let us be quick to listen…and even quicker to love bravely and without reserve…