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Led Into Testing

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Feb 21, 2021, Mark 1: 9-16

Last week we talked about the fact that for nearly a year now, you and I, the nation and the world, have been tested, first with the Coronavirus; then the subsequent lockdown and massive unemployment and businesses foundering; then with protests over injustice, a reckoning with our ongoing racial inequities, intense political differences that threaten our democracy, and the assault on the Capitol building. Many of us have been unemployed or underemployed this entire year and many of us have had Covid-19 or have lost loved ones to this dreadful illness. Now, this past week, we here in North Texas have been hit by a huge snowstorm. Many of us have been without power and scrambling to hold things together in the bitter cold.

This entire year has been a test at every level and there have been massive failures along the way. Government has disappointed us in its pandemic response and in managing the economic crisis. ERCOT, Texas’ power provider, seems to have failed dramatically in preparing themselves, and preparing us, for the terrible winter storm that had been predicted and has come to pass.

As for you and me, well, our mettle is being tested as never before. How have we managed during this crazy week, not to mention this crazy year? In some ways we have probably done pretty well, surprising ourselves with our tenacity and resourcefulness. In other ways, perhaps not so well, as nerves fray and the issues at hand aren’t just the run-of-the-mill problems of life but in some cases real existential, life and death issues. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in the lead-up to the American Revolution. It’s worth our while to consider the rest of his words when he wrote that:

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” Dearness, of course, means, difficulty. What we have obtained in this time of testing, as individuals, as a world, and as a nation, will be that much more valuable because we’ve had to struggle to attain it.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ forty days in the desert are presented as a time of facing and overcoming temptation. In our reading for today, the translator says that in the wilderness Jesus was tempted by Satan; but the actual Greek word used there is better translated as “tested.” Jesus is being tested in the wilderness. Testing is of course different from temptation. Temptation is inevitable in life, but it’s different from being tested.

Testing is something we all understand. In school, all of us have been tested to check our knowledge and our learning ability. It’s no fun. When one is tested one can be tempted to cheat in some fashion. Think, for instance of what has happened with the 737 Max. This plane was involved in two tragic crashes, killing hundreds of people, before it was taken offline to be repaired. It turned out that during its testing period, required by the Federal Aviation Administration, the cozy relationship between Boeing and the FAA made it easy for Boeing to “cover up … a known defect and lapses in certification by the FAA.” It was tested; Boeing was tempted to cheat; Boeing succumbed to the temptation; and 346 people died. The testing period was necessary to uncover defects and facilitate improvements, or else to certify the plane ready to fly. Temptation is inevitable during testing. In this case, Boeing caved to the temptation.

In the Lord’s Prayer, our final petition is “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” That is actually a little misleading. In both Luke and Matthew, where Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, the better way to read it is “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” God does not “lead” us into temptation. That implies that God tempts us, and that is patently not true.

But God does, or at least can, lead us to the time of trial—the time when our mettle gets tested, when our faith is challenged, the time when we either stumble or stand. We could I suppose wish God didn’t do that, but here’s the problem. We live in a troubled and needy world. In fact, Christians are specifically called into a troubled and needy world to act as God’s agents to make the world a better place. There‘s a need for us to be at our best—to be ready for the worst—to have developed the resources we need to fulfill our role in the world. Testing is inevitable.

Broadly speaking, testing comes in two forms. One is the literal test: the small challenges of life where by our responses we discover what we’re good at and what we need to work on still. Call these the “pop quizzes” of life: things that are no fun, angering, fear-inducing, frustrating or embarrassing but from which there are no long-term consequences—unless we learn from them to be more kind, more merciful, more industrious, more patient, more prayerful and more resourceful.

But the other kind of test is the one where something crucial is on the line—the condition of our own soul or another’s, some consequential decision on which much is staked, on which others depend, and from which there’s no backing out. Let’s look at Jesus’ life on those two fronts.

In our passage today, Jesus is baptized by John. The Holy spirit descends like a dove on Jesus, a voice from heaven says, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Immediately, we are told, the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to be “tested by Satan.” He passes the test.

This is in many ways Jesus’ “pop quiz” test. There’s no question that it is a serious matter, but at this point there’s only one serious matter on the line, and that is whether Jesus can live up to the lofty claim that he is God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. In Mark we aren’t given the details of his temptation. The forty days in the wilderness is a marker though, and a reminder that such testing is hardly new in the Bible. The Israelites wandered forty years in the desert in order to make them ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses was on the mountaintop with God receiving the 10 Commandments for forty days and nights. The world itself was flooded for forty days in order to cleanse it so that the world could start over anew. Cleansing, entering the presence of God, preparing one for the trials ahead—these are all Biblical reasons for the time of Trial.

But Jesus’ real test is yet to come.

Last week we talked about Jesus being transfigured on the mountaintop in front of his three key disciples. Once again, the voice from the sky proclaims Jesus is God’s “Son, the Beloved.” But this second proclamation is in the face of the most drastic test anyone could possibly face—if test even is the right word. Jesus will go to Jerusalem, confront his enemies, proclaim his message to the gathered people, the religious leaders, and the Roman occupiers themselves. Ultimately he will be adjudged guilty, nailed to a cross, and executed. Then he will rise from the dead and change the world.

This test in the wilderness is small potatoes compared to that. But the fact that he passes that test is the beginning of his preparation for the biggest test of all, a test that will lead to your and my salvation.

I for one take huge comfort in knowing that Jesus had to face testing, just like me. I also find a lot of inspiration in knowing he passed the test. This past week, Margaret and I have lived on a small scale what many homeless women and children experience all the time. We lost our electricity and one of our pipes burst. We’ve had to stay at different hotels and with a friend or two. We have felt like we’ve been living out of our car, and I am reminded of the families I’ve seen throughout this city who really do live out of their cars, everything packed in there tight along with kids and maybe even the family dog. What we are facing is nothing compared to what they face, nor compared to Jesus, starving in the wilderness for forty days facing the wild animals and Satan in person. This unpleasant test will, I hope, enable Margaret and me to have better coping skills, be more resourceful, and have even more empathy for homeless families in need.

In the Bible, the wilderness represented unformed chaos, the realm of Satan. And so it is quite telling that God tests us in the wilderness—that chaotic place where it seems like God has abandoned us, left us behind; and the only way to get ahead is to make a deal with the Devil. That’s the real temptation of our times of testing—to go into some sort of survivalist mode where it’s every person for him or herself and things have gotten so hard that all our values as Christians need to be tossed to the wayside just so that we can survive. We convince ourselves that we’re just being realists. That handshake with the devil is necessary to survive the next few days; it’s not like I’ve sold my soul over to him or anything.

When we’ve done that, we’ve missed the point. The real test of the wilderness is whether we can find God there. If we can’t, then that’s on us. Because God is there. God is there in the darkest times as well as in the best, in the darkness as well as the light. Especially when we’re in the desert we need to look for God. And if we look and look and not give up, God will be there. God will be there, in that worn out, hungry and beaten down, but strong and unbowed, man standing in the wilderness. That man is Jesus. He made it through the wilderness, and he will take us with him.