Sunday, March 7, 2021

SERMON: "Tried and Tested"

A Meditation on Matthew 4 
Lent 2 + February 28, 2021


What’s so odd about this forty-day test in the wilderness is that Jesus has just been baptized. And not just baptized, but anointed: anointed in the tradition of the prophets, anointed with the Spirit of God, named by that Spirit. “This is my Son, this is my Beloved.” The heavens are opened up to Jesus, what an epiphany, what a vision, what a deeply affecting, powerful experience of love. Love at the heart of the universe. Love at the heart of his life. Love. Jesus hears. Jesus knows. Jesus is baptized in the limitless love of God.

So you might think that kind of an experience unleashes a season of creativity of Jesus’ life. Or maybe a wave of enlightened preaching and teaching. But the Spirit leads Jesus in a different direction: out into the dry, scorched, barren desert. He doesn’t compose his once-in-a-lifetime symphony. And he doesn’t write his great magnum opus. Jesus fasts out there, for forty days and forty nights, and along the way he’s very, very, very hungry. It’s a harsh landscape, a lonely landscape. And Jesus is tested out there, tested by visions and appetites, tested by demons and doubts. He struggles with his faith. To remember the Jordan. To remember the love. The remember the path. Forty days and forty nights.

Friends, it’s important that we learn to struggle with our faith. It’s important that we welcome the testing and the tempting and the wrestling that comes with the joy and wonder of belief. The story reminds us of this. The story insists on it. If you believe in the Love of God; if you cast your lot with Jesus and his great, big, open, healing heart; if you commit your life to his teaching, to his service, to his path—you will struggle to understand that path. Sometimes. You will be tested by the sadness and cruelty that seems to mock God’s love. Sometimes. And you will be tempted to follow other teachers, to pursue other goals, to yield to cultural norms and expectations. To believe is—at least, in part—to struggle. To be faithful is—at least, sometimes—to be tested. And tested hard.

In Christian life, in Christian practice, in Christian community, we want to make space for the struggle. We want to allow for testing. As we come to the 12 month mark of the COVID pandemic, many of us are questioning God, even lamenting God’s absence; some of us are weary, so very weary that we despair for the purpose we’ve lost or the meaning we can’t place just now. That kind of struggle is faithful. That kind of struggle is honest and authentic and human. There’s space for that struggle here: in our prayers, in conversation, in the yearning and searching and aching of our souls.

I’m reminded this morning of those stunning papers Mother Teresa left us: her own journey with doubt and despair. Mother Teresa who loved Jesus with every ounce of her spirit, and every breath of her body. She struggled for most of her life: with her faith, with the fragility of her belief. In one of those papers, she said: “When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.” Such convicting emptiness. Thoughts returning like sharp knives. That’s Jesus is the wilderness. To believe is to struggle. To be faithful is to be tested.


So Jesus is out there for forty days, tempted and tried and tested hard. And that number forty is so important here—because it links Jesus’ journey with the exodus journey of his Hebrew ancestors. Jesus is a Jew, and his forty days in the wilderness join him, embed him, in the Jewish story. Forty days for Jesus. After his baptism in the Jordan. Forty years for the Hebrews. After their deliverance in the Red Sea, after their collective dash to freedom and new life. During those forty years in the wilderness, the people of God are tested by hunger and deprivation and ego and pride. During those forty years in the wilderness, the people of God are tempted to turn back and give themselves over to Pharaoh’s terrible, but predictable, cruelty. Freedom is demanding and difficult. New starts are disorienting.

And Matthew intends to remind us of all this: as we encounter Jesus, as we consider his call to discipleship, as we entertain all that Love in his heart. This spiritual journey, Matthew says, will necessarily test you. This loving path is sometimes a struggle, and it involves temptation, and it requires soul-searching and discernment and courage. Discipleship is demanding and difficult. This new start is disorienting.

A rabbi friend reminds me that the Hebrews had to spend forty years in the wilderness, before they could enter any kind of promised land, before they could take on God’s new economy, God’s commonwealth, because it takes two generations to clear out the old habits from Egypt, it takes two generations to cleanse a people of addictions and idolatry and terror, it takes forty years to prepare a people for that new project. I guess, in some ways, you make the way by walking. And that’s hard.

So the three vignettes Matthew describes suggest not just temptations, as if you can master one and move on, but lifelong opportunities for prayer and discernment. I don’t think these represent singular moments in Jesus’ life—open and shut tests that he conquers with a quick biblical note or cheeky citation. I think these are challenges, struggles people of faith have faced throughout history. Just as you and I must face them now—as we grieve that “convicting emptiness” that sometimes keeps us up at night; as we wrestle with the seductions of success and power and wealth; as we discern our commitments and listening for the voice of Love amidst all the noise, all the static, all the enticements of our generation.


What I hope we can see this morning, as we set out on our own Lenten journey, is that a robust faith can travel hand in hand with a questioning one. In a sense, this is really the way it has to be. The way it has always been. We see God’s hand in the mysteries and magnificence of creation: God in flight with the red-tailed hawk, God shimmering like diamonds in the sea, God shining in the face of a five-year-old learning to dance. And almost simultaneously, we wrestle with our pride, with our sense of entitlement, with the privilege that comes so easily and naturally. That’s Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple, and the devil suggesting that Jesus’ faith sets him apart, that Jesus’ faith privileges him in some way, that Jesus’ faith protects him from the pain and sadness the rest of the world lives with. And Jesus says, No. I will not set apart. No. I will not be privileged. No. I will embrace life’s vulnerabilities, life’s sadness, my own humanness in every way.

I want you to know this, and even to welcome the struggle. The struggle doesn’t diminish your faith. Your robust faith, your living faith in a living God goes hand in hand a questioning mind, and a wrestling spirit. Jesus doesn’t leave his questions in the desert. As if that part of his life is over and done with. He takes those questions with him. He returns to those doubts, to his own uncertainties, to the struggle itself. And in faith, you and I do the same. With our friends. As a church. A community of robust faith and intense struggle. People of God.

The point of Lent isn’t to dispense with these questions; it isn’t to figure out the riddles, solve them during these forty days and prepare for an Easter season of certainty and conviction. I think the wisdom of Lent invites us to get comfortable with journey, to accept the rhythm of testing and tempting, to trust that in the struggle itself we can see the hand of God and the love of Christ moving in our world and in our life. Not as a magic wand making all things easy and fixing all problems fast. But as the Power of Love: the Power of Love in our journey to bring justice to our community, the Power of Love in our pilgrimage to wonder and reverence for creation’s beauty, the Power of Love in our partnerships and friendships and in the church itself.