February 22, 2015
At the end of my church internship year, I went on one last trip with my youth group. We drove to West Virginia, and went white water rafting down a river that was considered ideal for the sport. I no longer remember the name of it; I just remember it was wild. Our group was large, so we were split into several rafts. Each raft had a guide, a person who was certified in white water rafting and could hopefully keep us out of grave peril as we shot down this wild and raucous river. The guide for our boat was a young man, 18-years-old exactly. He had only recently been certified, but as he told us, he’d been rafting for years. But this was his first trip as an official guide on his own. Before we started on our journey, he went through all of the rules for our ride. He explained everything that we would need to know to stay safe in the raft and out of it as well. I don’t remember most of the guidelines he gave us, but I do remember this pithy piece of advice. He looked around at our group, made up of teenagers and adults, males and females, and said, “The best way to keep from falling out of the raft is to keep paddling no matter what. You keep that paddle going in the water, you’ll do just fine. I’ll tell you right now. The only ones who ever fall out of the raft and have to be rescued are the ladies. Y’all panic and scream and you stop paddling, so you fall out.”
I don’t know how the other “ladies” felt about our guide’s pronouncement on women being able to stay in a raft. But for me it was a gauntlet. I thought, “Okay, you cocky little person, you. We’ll see who falls out of this raft and who doesn’t.”
He said that the trick to staying in the raft was to keep paddling, so I paddled like my life depended on it. On some of the bigger rapids when our raft shot up and hovered above the water for a second or two, I paddled air. No way was I going to fall out of that raft! I’m happy to say that I stayed in the raft for the entire ride. I did not fall out. Not once. Staying out of the wild water was hard work. I came close to pitching overboard once or twice, but I managed to stand or paddle my ground. None of us “ladies” fell out of our raft. The only ones who did were two middle high boys. Staying in that raft was like passing an unexpected test. It was hard as heck, but I did it.
One definition of the word test in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is a test “reveals the strength or capabilities of (someone or something) by putting them under strain.”
That white water rafting ride was not the most serious or important test that I’ve ever had to endure, but there was a certain amount of physical strain to it, and I do think it revealed something about me. There are plenty of times I’ve been told I can’t do something and I’ve believed it, right or wrong. But never, ever tell me I cannot do something simply because of my gender. When it comes to that I am stubborn, and a little spiteful, and I will do everything in my power to prove you wrong.
Even though this test on the rapids took place in what is considered a wild place, it wasn’t really a wilderness test. Not in the sense of the wilderness test that Jesus endured. Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which means that our gospel lesson, regardless of which gospel we are following, tells its version, its story of Jesus in the wilderness. The challenge that we have in Mark’s gospel is that there is not much to tell. There’s not much of a story. It is only two verses.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
That’s it. That’s all the information Mark gives us. As is typical in Mark’s gospel, the details are sparse. Matthew and Luke give us details. We hear about the particular temptations. We read about the interaction between Jesus and Satan. Mark just tells us it happened. Yet, even though Mark’s telling is lean on specifics, there is still much to discover in these two verses.
One aspect to note is the verb that is translated “drove out.” That verb, ekballo, is also used by Mark to describe Jesus’ exorcism of demons. The Spirit drove Jesus out to the wilderness just as Jesus drove out the many demons who confronted him. That is both literally and figuratively, wild. This suggests that Jesus did not volunteer for this time in the wilderness. Nor was it a tame sending. Jesus filled with the Spirit after his baptism was then driven out by the same Spirit into the wilderness.
Although the common understanding of these accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is an emphasis on him being tempted, the scholarship that I’ve read suggests that these 40 days were as much about testing Jesus as they were about tempting him. Certainly, Mark states that Jesus was tempted by Satan. But wasn’t Jesus tested as well?
What is the difference between test and temptation? In each of the wilderness stories temptation and testing walk hand-in-hand. Yet there is a difference between them as well. Mark may not give us the specifics of how Satan tempted Jesus, but we do know that Jesus was able to resist. He withstood the temptations. He withstood Satan. That is both good news and bad news. It’s good news that Jesus was human just like us. He was tempted just like us. We are not alone in being tempted. But it can also be bad news – or at least frustrating news – because while Jesus resisted temptation, I have not always been so strong. If Jesus’ resistance set a standard for resisting temptation, then I never have and never will live up to it. That is one reality that I grapple with when I read the temptation stories.
What about testing? How was Jesus tested, and how was the testing any different than the tempting? Thinking about the definition of testing that I shared earlier, what is revealed about Jesus? 40 days of fasting and temptation and keeping company with wild beasts would put anyone under strain. What did that strain reveal about Jesus? What was revealed about his humanity as well as his divinity?
Here’s the thing, when we profess that Jesus was truly human, we mean that. He was truly human. This was not the story of a superhero who possessed magical powers that helped him resist what we mere mortals cannot. Jesus was human. That is what incarnation is all about. God did not just put on the likeness of humanity. God became human. So I have no doubt that the temptations Jesus faced were real and painful. I have no doubt that he was vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. But if the testing that he endured revealed anything about Jesus, it revealed that he was faithful. He was faithful in the wilderness. He was faithful to the ministry and mission he came to share, and the reality that God’s kingdom was there in their midst. He was not only obedient to the point of death on the cross, he was faithful to that point as well. The testing Jesus endured and the strain he was put under, revealed his faithfulness.
His faithfulness never wavered. Yes, he was ministered to by angels. But when we are being sorely tested – not just in a raft on a river, but really tested – aren’t there angels who care for us as well? When we are tested by the realities of our lives – job loss, money problems, failure, illness, death – how do we remain faithful? What angels minister to us in those times? I know that even in the worst moments of my life, there were people who cared for me, who helped me, who ministered to me. Those are the angels of whom I speak. I’ve been blessed to have those angels.
We could end this sermon thinking about the testing we must contend with in our individual lives, remembering and being thankful for the angels who minister to us, contemplating on what the strain of testing reveals about us, and be done. That would be a fine way to end. But I want to take this one step further, and consider how we are tested as a church. I don’t mean this congregation alone, although we will have our own tests to endure. I mean the Church with a capital C.
There is much happening in the world to test our faith. The least of which is that the Church with a capital C is declining. There are places in the world where the opposite is true, but in our context the decline of membership is a reality. For many people, the Church has lost its relevance, its meaning and purpose. Will the Church, as we know it, still exist in another 25 years? In another decade? I do not have the answer to that, but I feel tested by it.
Looking at the larger world, how are tested by the increasing number of brutal acts that we have witnessed in just the last few weeks? Brutality and hatred have always existed. No generation has been immune to them. But never have those monstrous acts of evil been so in our face as they seem to be lately. How does the Church respond? What is the faithful response? What is the just and righteous response? Is it to become reactionary? Or is it to step up our commission and command to love – really, really love – our neighbors? All of our neighbors. It is right to condemn the brutal acts that have occurred, and to demand justice. But do we confuse the acts of a few with the faith of the many? What is the faithful response to this test? What will it reveal about our character as followers of Jesus?
I think that is the crux of testing, of temptation, and it is the crux of this specific season of Lent. Lent is a call to renewed faithfulness. It is a call to renewed discipleship. Lent is a time when we look again and again at how Jesus lived, who Jesus loved, and the faithfulness he made real. Are we faithful as he was faithful? Or do we fall short?
My guess is that most of us would answer in the fall short category. But here is the good news. The gap between who we are called to be and how we fall short of that call is closed by grace. Grace is not cheap, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Our response matters. Our faithfulness matters. But even when we are tempted and fail, even when testing reveals the worst in us, we are still covered by grace. We are tried and we are tested, but grace gives us another chance to repent, to turn around, reprioritize, and be faithful once more. Grace helps us up. Love moves us forward. We continue to be tested, but Jesus’s faithfulness guides our own. Glory be to God for Jesus’ faithfulness in the wilderness and in every moment of his life. Let us respond in faith as well. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”