Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For generations theologians have read the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as the supreme test and ultimate temptation. Obviously, they haven’t experienced real day to day temptation. There was a man who was terribly overweight who decided that he had to change. He was very diligent and stuck to his diet. He even mapped out a new route to work to avoid his favorite bakery. Then one day, he came into work with a big coffee cake. His coworkers started to question him, but he could explain. “You see I accidentally drove past my favorite bakery today and I saw all these delicious coffee cakes out on the display case. So I prayed. I prayed to God and said, ‘if you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, have an open parking spot right in front of the bakery.’ And sure enough there was a parking spot on my 8th time around!”
Of course, Jesus was weak and alone, famished and hungry, when the devil came to meet him. Yet from the very beginning of the gospel reading, we are taught that it was no accident that the devil appeared before Jesus. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness in order that he might be tested and tempted by the devil to make him stronger. Testing, you see, can be appear as temptations.
Testing is a normal and regular part of every student’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 classroom 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?” Most adults, however, object to retaking even a driving test.
The story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is read every year on the First Sunday in Lent, not as explanation to why Lent lasts for 40 days, but it is to remind us that like Jesus, God builds up faith by testing it. Faith is like a muscle and when it’s stretched and pulled it develops and grows stronger. There is another word very similar to testing which describes this process and it is tempering. It is an ancient process of heating and cooling for strengthening the elasticity of steel. My friends, as the saying goes, if whatever does not kill you makes you stronger, then perhaps God is tempering you with a deeper, stronger faith- for even greater challenges ahead. God knows your possibilities and potential better than you do. This morning, I would like to suggest four common ways that God may be tempering your faith.
First of all, God tests your faith through difficulties. The testing and tempering 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 Spirit 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 in his human weakness. The nature of temptation, you see, is to entice a person into breaking away from trusting God and into placing their confidence and trust in other powers.
Second God tests your faith by challenging your loyalty to him. God asks us to do things that are seemingly impossible. There are 1050 commands in just the New Testament alone to obey. Of all these commands, some of them seem unreasonable, some inconvenient and some seem down right impossible. So what do you do when you have an impossible, godly command that feels like a demand on your life? It may be easy to avoid them, to dismiss them as uncomfortable truths, but God is using them to temper you and make your loyalty stronger.
Third, God tests your faith with money and wealth. There was the parishioner who found a wallet full of with money down by the church. When the Pastor asked him whether he turned it in, he answered, “Not yet. I’m still trying to decide if it’s a temptation from the devil or the answer to a prayer.” Did you know that money is one of the greatest tests of faith? Few people truly understand how God uses material possessions as a test of character and a tempering of faith. Yet, we hear it over and over again in scripture, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For many people finances are the greatest treasure of all- and the greatest temptation. They have no idea that God is actually testing them when they get into debt, or when they’re going through problems, or when they have too much and they asked to give. All of these things have to do with faith. When I’m willing and ready and able to return generously to the Lord as he has richly given to me -knowing that this money could be spent for other things, I know it is a test. Just as God uses difficulties and loyalty, to temper me, he also uses money.
Finally, God tests your faith and patience through delays. Sometimes, I think Jesus had it easy. He only had to wait 40 days and nights for his testing to be over. Many of you have wrestled with illness for months, or for the return of a lost, prodigal son or daughter for years. Worship, Bible study and prayers are all helpful rituals in nurturing your faith, but if every prayer were immediately answered, if your every need were automatically met, if your every problem was instantly solved, well you wouldn’t need faith and your faith wouldn’t need to be stretched. But life is not that way. It is human nature that we have to wait, but seldom do we like it. If you and I can’t learn how God wants to stretch and grow our faith during times of waiting, we may miss out on many of the most important faith lessons that God wants us to learn. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
My friends, perhaps it feels as if God’s testing and is pushing you to the brink right now. It’s not pleasant and it’s certainly not comfortable. Nobody likes walking through the wilderness alone, but it is there in those difficult moments and hours that you can experience and discover God’s true capacity to provide for you. He sends you into storms on life’s most unlikely seas so that he can demonstrate his ability to come to you walking on water. He surrounds you with conflict so that he can show you that he can provide for you a table even in the midst of your enemies.
So do not be afraid of the forty days and nights 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 more confident and free. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.