(Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ps. 91:1-2,9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13)
There’s a recurring dream that I have, about once a year. In this dream I’m in college – I’m my real age, but I’m in college - and I’m at the final exam of a course that I know I signed up for, but never went to class or did any of the reading. I know I’m not the only one to have this particular dream; and it’s a common type of dream: one in which we find ourselves in a situation we should be prepared for, and aren’t. It’s rooted in the sense of inadequacy that most of us have to some degree or other. But the anxiety about tests is a way it commonly shows up; we get that anxiety in grade school, and most of us never entirely shake it.
But as we progress through the educational system, hopefully we learn something different about tests: that they’re not intended just to expose us (although that what it usually feels like.) In high school or college, you may have heard from your teachers that a test should be a learning experience. A good test doesn’t simply ask you to regurgitate stuff you’ve memorized; it gives you an opportunity to see how the things you’ve been learning about come together, to connect the dots, to get a sense of the whole. What’s the course really about? What are the main things the teacher has been emphasizing, and what do they have to do with each other? What is it, really, that we’re all looking at together?
And – most importantly - what do you make of it all? What are you able to do with it? A really good test asks you to be creative, to do something with what you’ve learned; to make it your own: so, in the test itself, you learn something; and not just about the material you’ve been studying, but also about you yourself: you learn something about who you are: and in that, you grow. It’s hard work, preparing for a test; but when you do it with that in mind, it becomes easier, because you’re aware of a purpose larger than just getting a good grade: you’re finding out who you are.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent (my favorite season of the church year, because it’s the most intentional.) In our church year, Lent is the season in which we test ourselves. In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), there’s a short section at the beginning called the Exhortation, in which the celebrant invites the congregation to “the observance of a holy Lent”, and talks about specific ways to do that: prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on Scripture; but the first practice mentioned is: self-examination. That’s the hallmark of the season of Lent. The basic idea is to take a good look at who we really are at this stage in the course of our life; and as people of faith, we understand that “who we are” means who we are in relation to God, who created us and is the ground of our being. However we choose to test ourselves in Lent, that’s the real subject matter.
In all of this, we find ourselves, as always, following Jesus. The gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is always the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by the devil. This story is in all the first three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and over the three-year cycle of the lectionary we hear from each one – and, in the story of Jesus, it occurs in the same place in all three. This is important. The temptation by the devil occurs early on, immediately after Jesus’ baptism – at which the voice of God says, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased – and immediately before Jesus begins his ministry: he does no teaching or healing and performs no miracles before this.
The story in Luke begins this way, as we just heard: “After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” The Greek word here translated “tempt” primarily means “test”. So this temptation, this test, is not a punishment for something Jesus has done wrong; or a chance occurrence; or something the devil initiated. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness specifically in order that he be tested: just as the Holy Spirit leads us to be tested: our church invites us to test ourselves: in ways much smaller, much easier to fit into our lives, than in this story; but the basic track is the same. And this testing is a means by which God invites us to grow, in the knowledge and love of God.
Of course, the traditional way in which we test ourselves in Lent is to give something up; although as commonly practiced that’s usually not much of a test. In modern society, giving up something for Lent has become something like making a New Year’s resolution: it’s a quaint social custom that, for most people, isn’t really connected to any coherent system of belief, so it either gets ignored altogether, or fizzles out within a few days, and doesn’t really touch the spirit at all.
Well: the point, in Lent, is to test yourself; and giving something up is one way of doing this; but you have to give up something meaningful. The idea is to take on a discipline of some kind or other, which costs you something, forces you to step out of your normal routine. This is the intention: when I give something up I identify an appetite I have – something I like doing, or something I’m in the habit of doing, or something I think I need. I identify that appetite, and I refuse to satisfy it for these six weeks. I do this, not to punish myself for having the appetite, or to prove my endurance; but to see exactly what kind of hold that appetite has on me: to what extent my life – my spirit – is affected by putting it aside; and to see exactly what I’m left with when I feel its pull: to see who I am, and how I respond, at that point.
And the stronger the appetite, and the harder it is to refuse it, the more we come to understand that what we’re left with is God, and the power of God, and of God’s love for us. And if we really see that clearly, we see that that’s plenty; in fact that’s what we’ve been looking for all our lives, and God has been there all along. This is the point: I’m more than my appetites: they do not determine who I am.
I am who I am in my relationship with God.
In our fast – in our test – that’s how we follow Jesus, in his temptation. The devil says to him, You say you are the Son of God? Command this stone to become a loaf of bread, and satisfy your hunger. That’s how you can show me who you are: through your powerful deeds. You say you are the Son of God? Throw yourself down from this pinnacle, because the angels will save you. That’s how you can show me who you are: through what others think of you. Worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms, and the wealth, of the earth; and that’s how everyone will know who you are: through the magnificence of your possessions.
And Jesus says to the devil, That’s all a lie. None of that defines who I am. I am who I am entirely – and only – because of the love of God. Jesus answers each of the three temptations with a quotation from Scripture that lifts up our relation to God. That’s what’s real. That’s the truth of who we are.
It’s no different for us. This is the gift of Lent: that as we test ourselves, as we let go of the baggage of our lives, as we shed the illusions of this world, the more clearly we see this glorious truth; and the more firmly we can take hold of it; and live in its truth . Thanks be to God.