2024 02 18: Lenten Testing

Posted on 19 Feb 2024

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Early explorers dismissed the barren wasteland of Death Valley, California as a place to be avoided. It is the lowest and driest place in the continental United States where little can grow. Sometimes, however, beauty reveals itself in the most unexpected places -even in a place called Death Valley. In May of 1930, rain fell in the desert for 19 consecutive days.  After the third day of continuous rain the soil began to quiver.  And on the sixth day of constant rain flowers thrust their heads through the once crusty earth.  For three weeks the barren wilderness became a carpet of daisies and buttercups, and dozens of other varieties of wild flowers. Every decade or so the desert becomes a veritable garden of wildflowers which inhabitants of the South West call a super bloom. The seeds are always present in the parched desert soil, but it takes the right conditions to make them bloom.

I was reminded of this occurrence as I was preparing for this First Sunday in Lent.  Last Monday, I asked my confirmation class, “Who lead Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted?”  Emphatically one confirmand answered, “The Holy Spirit, of course.”  The answer made the other confirmands uncomfortable, just as it might bother you and me.  After all, why would the Holy Spirit want to lead you to a place where you would be tempted?  Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit lead you to a place that is safe and secure?

My friends, I do not believe the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted to give in to the devil, just as I do not believe that Spirit intentionally leads God’s beloved children down a path to fail. No, I believe the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested, so that he might discover his own inner strength.  For one day. Jesus would face Satan when all his strength would be challenged.

Like Jesus, we encounter the devil’s trials and temptations every day, and not simply in the wilderness. Ultimately, however, it is not the number of temptations that you encounter that matter.  No, what matters are the choices that you make.

In this season of Lent, as in every season of life, God wants you to bloom and to burst with a new confidence and strength.  He knows the potential that rests, often buried, deep with you, and like the dormant seeds in Death Valley, God knows the right condition to make them bloom. Today, you are being invited to discover your own spiritual strength and confidence.  So consider the companions God has sent to accompany you and the choices that you make.

First of all, remember that the Holy Spirit is always near. A little girl once told me her secret for confronting temptation. When the devil comes knocking at the door,” she said, “I don’t answer it.  I send Jesus to the door, and if he’s not around, I send my big brother.”  Apparently, complete abstinence was a possibility for the little girl, unfortunately, it’s not true for you or me. God never promised to remove temptations from the world, for even Christ was subject to them. In the book of Hebrews we read, “He (Jesus) was tested in all things, like we are, yet without sin.”  Temptation doesn’t make us more Christian or less. It does, however, make Christian men and women stronger in character and causes them to discover new resources of power.  The Holy Spirit is there to accompany you in your discovery.

Secondly, remember that the wild beasts were also Jesus’ companions. What does this mean?  Simply know and respect that there are forces that are against you. Of course, there is a word of caution; do not place yourself in a position to be compromised.  It’s rather like the pastor who confronted his tipsy church member, “Joe, whisky is your worst enemy.”  To which the parishioner responded, “But didn’t you tell us last Sunday to love our enemies.”  “Sure,” the pastor answered, “but I didn’t say anything about swallowing them.”

We are not all subject to the same weaknesses and temptations.  To one, alcohol may be the temptation, it may be impure thoughts and acts; to another the temptation may be greed and desire; yet to another it may be a loose tongue and short fuse.  Regardless of what it may be, you may be certain that Satan will tempt you at your weakest point.

Jesus too was with the wild beasts, but he was not afraid of his adversaries. He had no doubt about who would ultimately triumph.  There is no good reason why you should seek to escape the wild beasts either, for such times of testing have beneficial effects. From every victory great or small you will develop a personal sense of achievement and assurance.

Finally, remember that the angels too are your companions.  God sends divine reinforcements in your hour of trial. In his Table Talks, Martin Luther said, “An angel is a spiritual creature created by God, for the service of Christendom and the church.”  You may not always be aware of the presence of angels, nor can you predict when they will appear, but be assured of their constant ministry to you.  When Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, he knew he was not left to fight his battle alone and neither will you.

My friends, ninety years ago, the flowers in the fabled Death Valley were ablaze with life and color, and it has been true ever decade since them. The conditions were just right for a glorious and bountiful bouquet.  So do not be afraid of the temptations in the wilderness and the discipline of Lent. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the tempering of the wild beasts and the strengthening of the angels, the seeds that God has placed within you cannot fail to bring color and life to your corner of a barren wilderness. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.