Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Testing is a normal and regular part of every child’s academic life. From an early age children grow to expect that their teachers will test them, and that there will be positive and negative consequences. Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a teacher at a boarding school in India, I had the evening duty of gathering the students into one room and observing them as they completed their evening homework. They all looked up at the clock on the wall, which had an attached placard. “Time will pass. Will you?” And they had all learned the unwritten school motto. “Sometimes, we finish the exam and sometimes, the exam finishes us.” I had sympathy for the students. I was still of the mindset that “Tests are the only way to know something, at least for a few days.” I was struck by one of the youngest students who was terribly frustrated with his arithmetic problems. He wrote an imaginative letter. “Dear Math, please grow up and solve your own problems.” Far more often than not, I discovered that during a test, even in good schools, “People look up for inspiration, down in desperation, and side to side for information.”
The story of Satan confronting Jesus is a reminder, that regardless of age, all God’s children are being tested. Scripture tends to use the words test and tempt interchangeably, but as we meditate on this morning’s readings, I think it is important that we learn to differentiate between the two.
The testing of faith occurs whenever and wherever God brings events and challenges into someone’s life in order to reveal that person’s own true character. It’s like an academic exam intended to make you more aware and confident of what you know. The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, and the Holy Spirt was there to accompany Jesus in his prayers, in his thoughts, and in his moments of human weakness. The Devil, however, decided that Jesus’ 40 days of self-examination would be an opportune time for temptation. The nature of temptation, you see, is to entice a person into breaking away from God’s laws and commandments and into placing one’s confidence and trust in other powers.
It’s easy to misinterpret the purpose of God’s testing in our lives. Frankly, if you’re like me, you can spend whole lot of time and energy trying to stay out of the wilderness, and keeping your loved ones from being lured out into the wilderness as well. And since you’ve never been truly tested, you’re never become fully confident of what you know and believe.
If we are honest with ourselves, however, we all have something that prevents us from truly being tested and being drawn closer to God. Yes, there is something that is preventing us from being drawn closer to his heart of love and compassion and understanding. It is often something that offers a more immediate assurance, explanation or gratification. That is where the devil tempts us.. It may be the temptations of the world, the so called vices of luxury and indulgence. Often, the devil uses the glittering images of logic, intelligence and rationalism to distract us. They are the socially acceptable habits, vices, patterns and attitudes that keep us from exploring and experiencing God’s holy purpose for our life.
That is what St. Paul was describing in his Letter to the Romans, and why he was encouraging them to focus on the power and victory of Jesus’s resurrection. For Paul, the peace of mind and confidence that God offered was greater than the promise of a future place in his kingdom.. For Paul, salvation was about the whole human experience of deliverance from the guilt of sin and hell, and from the temptations and trials of the world today. And yet being spared from hardship and sorrow was not to be confused with salvation. God did not spare his own son from such pain, and as a loving Father, knew the depth of that great death and loss. Paul was instead, inviting the faithful to experience the “fullness of salvation” which at times would be tested. God promised to those who call upon his name that they “will do His will” and that is to experience his overwhelming commitment, faithfulness, joy and peace, even in the face of hardship that one cannot understand.
My friends, I must confess that I too am wrestling with the issue of God’s testing this Lent, but I refuse to give in to the devil’s temptation. I am struggling with two tragic deaths that have placed bookends on a long week of pastoral ministry, the death of two friends whose families I dearly love. I know that faith in God does not spare us from these tragedies. Nor do I believe that God leads us into a time trial and testing merely to be tempted and abandoned to the devil. What I do know and trust, is this, that, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That may be the mysterious word of promise that you and I must focus on these forty days.
For forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil. And what was accomplished in that solitude and testing? The wilderness ultimately freed Jesus. The wilderness freed him from all the devil’s attempts to distract him. After forty days, Jesus had learned to trust himself and the Spirit that had led him there that all he needed would be provided. And after forty days in the wilderness, Jesus was confident of his Father’s love for him, and that not even death could separate him from his love and care.
Charles Plumb was a US Navy jet pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent 6 years in a Vietnamese prison. He survived the ordeal and now lectures on the lessons learned from that experience. One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, an unknown man at another table came up to him and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down.” Plumb inquisitively responded, “How in the world did you know that?” The man answered, “I packed your parachute.” Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man then smiled, “I guess it worked.” Plumb nodded. “It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Plumb couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent at a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship, carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he didn’t know. The sailor wasn’t doing it for himself. He was testing the parachute for someone else’s life and safety. That is a part of God’s testing of faith. The parachute might not be used today or tomorrow. But it would be needed one day. And all the while, the devil will be tempting his prey to do less than what is needed.
That my friends, is the strength that God’s testing in the wilderness provides. It doesn’t mean that you and I will be spared life’s tragedies and sorrows, indeed they may be greater because we have opened yourself to some else’s life. But we can live with the hope filled, Christ-centered promise of the resurrection, that one day, all will be well. “For no one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
So do not be afraid of the forty days in the wilderness and its time of testing- if that is where the Spirit is leading you. For it is there in the wilderness, that like Jesus, God will make you strong, and confident and free. And through his testing, he will give you life’s ultimate assurance, that, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.