In times of trial, do you really feel beloved by God? (2x)
Or, are you more apt to think that God has left you? That you must have done something wrong to find yourself in a trying situation? Perhaps you wonder if you are being punished? Or might you think it is all on you to find a way to fix what’s wrong?
Jesus shows us another way.
God makes clear that Jesus is beloved at his baptism. And, then the very next thing that happens is the Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness, into a time of extraordinary trial. After fasting for 40 days and nights, Jesus is famished. Can you imagine how weak and vulnerable a person would be in that state?
This is how God shows his love to Jesus? Talk about a test – to go from the peak experience of baptism by John at the Jordan (when Jesus hears God’s voice and is surrounded by people undergoing the life-changing initiation of baptism) to being alone, hungry, perhaps delusional, feeling tempted by the devil. Talk about a test – but, a test of whom?
Think about it. How often in the midst of our trials do we wonder whether or not God is really with us? Consider what happens when you first hear terrible news – maybe about something in your life or a loved one’s life (it could be serious illness, job loss, a broken relationship), or alarming news in the world, like Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine or the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
As we digest really bad news, without even being conscious that it is happening, we often question whether or not God is present. We can mistakenly make bad news into a test about God, telling ourselves the wrong story about why (x2) a misfortune is happening.
For example, in my work with Hospice, some people facing a terminal diagnosis would say, “I can’t believe this is happening to me. What must I have done wrong to deserve this? How could God leave me? Maybe if I pray hard enough God will heal me.” That kind of thinking is an example of putting God to the test.
Or we look at mass murders, wars, earthquakes and ask, how could a good God allow this to happen? That’s another way we put God to the test.
Once we start thinking like this, once we question whether or not God is really present, it is easy for us to begin cycling into despair, especially if things don’t get fixed the way we want them to be. And if this line of thinking continues to devolve and we begin to believe that God is not present in the midst of our challenges, that God really does not love us, can justify any and every temptation. Then, see how our circumstances go from bad to worse.
But, if like Jesus, we can remember the true story – the story of God’s faithful, unending, ever-present love for us, no matter what – then we can discover God’s grace at work in our lives and in the world in surprising, healing, renewing and hopeful ways. It just might not happen the way we expect or want it to happen.
Notice what the Tempter tries to do in his encounter with Jesus. He tries to make the story all about Jesus, about his perceived needs and desires. The story the Tempter tries to sell Jesus is one of quick fixes, an escape from the hunger and solitude Jesus is experiencing, while offering a life free from want or need, overflowing with splendor. What Satan offers feeds the ego. Sorry, Satan, Jesus is guided by, directed by Spirit, not ego.
Let’s face it. Don’t we want much of what Satan offers too? Don’t we want to escape our problems? To live with all of our needs met? To enjoy feeling in control? To dwell in splendor?
The story that the Tempter tells Jesus in his weak moment is the story the world tells us over and over. You can be in control. You can escape your problems. You can have whatever you want.
At certain points in our lives, we can find ourselves pursuing, even prioritizing any – or all – of these things. We can be tempted to choose the wrong priorities. And isn’t this so much of what modern day marketing is about? Buy this product and you will feel strong, and powerful and in control.
It’s just not true.
Jesus knows what the Tempter is selling is not the true story. He has internalized the real story. The ancient story. The deeper, spiritual story. The story of who he is and will always be: God’s beloved. No matter what. It’s our story, too.
Each of Jesus’ retorts to Satan comes from the 8th Chapter of Deuteronomy, one of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the most treasured scriptures in Jewish tradition. (Do you know it? Probably not.) As 21st century Christians in New England, we aren’t as familiar with the story of Moses speaking to the people as Jesus was. Jesus knew this story so well, by heart, that he was able to draw strength from it at one of the lowest moments of his life. It’s worth a listen:
Moses says, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
(Let me remind you that the word “humble” shares the same root as human – hummus – which means from the earth. This is a way of saying that God wants people to realize that through the natural world, in sometimes unexpected ways, God can provide for us and feed us.)
Moses continues, “The clothes on your back did not wear out, and your feet did not swell these forty years. Know, then, in your heart that, as a parent disciplines (teaches) a child, so the Lord your God disciplines (teaches) you. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by listening to him. (Be a good student.) For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.
(In other words, you may not be getting what you want, but you are getting what you need. Trust that more blessings are on the way.)
Moses goes on “… When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them… and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…He fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you and in the end to do you good.”
We should probably read more Deuteronomy. Not only that, like Jesus, it would help us to have certain scriptures committed to heart, so that when we are tested by life’s challenges, we can remember God’s love for us.
In the season of Lent, we are called in the midst of our difficulties and our ordinary days to turn to God first. To seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. To trust that we are beloved. To trust that our difficulties are ultimately for our benefit.
Some of you may know that our much beloved Rev. ElizaBeth and her twin sister, Jane, celebrated their birthdays on Friday. Have you ever noticed how ElizaBeth responds to situations when she needs to make a choice? She closes her eyes and says, “Let me ask God.”
Friends, this is what the Lenten journey is about – it is about claiming the story of faith as the true story of our lives, the anchor of our lives. It is about trusting that we are God’s beloveds and turning to God when we are being tested by the trials and opportunities of our lives. It is trusting that as we turn to God, we will be guided to the good.
Debie Thomas writes, “To sit patiently… (with what tempts us)— to become its student — and still embrace my identity as God’s beloved, is hard. It’s very, very hard. But this is the invitation. We can be loved and hungry at the same time. We can hope and hurt at the same time. Most of all, we can trust that when God nourishes us, it won’t be by magic (or taking short cuts.) It won’t be manipulative and disrespectful. It won’t necessarily be the food we’d choose for ourselves, but it will feed us… And through us — if we will learn to share — it will feed the world.”
Though this may seem difficult, even impossible to do, remember, we are never left alone in the wilderness of our struggles. Like he did for Jesus, God sends angels to us, heavenly messengers who bring sustenance and restore our strength. When we most need them, they will come to us, often in surprising ways.
We will know they are angels because they will show up and simply be with us. Not try to fix us. Or change us. Or have us do things their way. Or take short cuts. They will be kind and merciful, just like God. And we will feel loved.
This Lent, you might simply look for, notice, and appreciate the angels in our midst, like our own Rev. ElizaBeth and so many others in this congregation.
Our life challenges are not a test of God. They are a test for us. Ultimately, for our good. Can we, will we, patiently trust the One who calls each of us beloved? Amen.