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The 1st Sunday in Lent; Luke 4:1-13

Maya Angelou, who died about 5 years ago at age 86, was an African-American author, essayist, poet, singer, and civil rights activist. She was also an actor, appearing in, among other things, the mini-series Roots. Spiritual, passionate, witty, she was and still is well-known and loved in her native country; sadly, she is less well known here in Canada. In 1993 she published a collection titled Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now1. In it there is an essay on the nature of faith, and one quote is worth repeating on this 1st Sunday in Lent,

Many things continue to amaze me, even well into the sixth decade of my life. I’m startled or taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is the question, “Already?” It seems to me a lifelong endeavor to try to live the life of a Christian. … The idyllic condition cannot be arrived at and held on to eternally. It is in the search that one finds the ecstasy.2

Before I elaborate, and relate this to the Gospel for this day, let me take what may seem to you like a sidetrack.

There was a time in my life when I took fitness and exercise much more seriously than I do now – although I am distance-walking regularly (my knees don’t take to running anymore) when conditions don’t make it life-threatening, and I’m re-starting on some upper body weight training because my doctor tells me I need more muscle mass. What you may not know about me, is that I don’t do things that interest me half-ways! I like to know what I am doing, and so when I first began aerobic and weight training, in addition to the actual work of getting the exercise, I did a lot of reading about the physiology of exercise, and becoming fit.

You have probably all heard the slogan common in sports, “No pain, no gain!” Interestingly, there is some physiological reality behind that. It is known that exercising at a comfortable level maintains one’s fitness, but does not improve it. Similarly with developing strength; working at a level that requires no serious effort maintains strength, but does not increase it. The way to increase fitness and strength is to work for short periods of time at levels that are uncomfortable, that cause some pain.

One theory about this is that in stressing our bodies beyond their actual capabilities, we injure them very slightly. Thus running beyond our aerobic capacity causes very slight injuries to our heart and lungs. Lifting weights just beyond our strength injures muscles slightly. Because the injury is small, the affected tissue heals quickly, within a day or two. But, it heals stronger and more capable than it was! It is by pushing the limits of our bodies, and causing them to fail slightly, that we increase our capabilities.

I would like to suggest that the nature of faith is similar. Certainly, it is in that sense that Maya Angelou writes – being a Christian is not a one-time, once and for all event. Being a Christian is a matter of growing and strengthening the faith that is within us, or at the very least exercising it to maintain it. Coming to faith and living faithfully is dynamic, not static. The Gospel story we have just heard, of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, illustrates this very well.

Just prior to the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan. Upon coming up out of the river, Jesus experiences the heavens opening, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. He hears God the Father pronouncing him as the beloved with whom God is well-pleased. Jesus is undoubtedly affirmed in what he thinks of as his mission in the world. We might call this experience “coming to faith.” And, as far as religious experiences go, this one has to be a “10”.

But, what comes next is an immediate testing of faith. Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the same Holy Spirit which came to him in baptism, and there he is tested by the devil. St. James writes that faith without good works is dead. We might equally say that faith without struggle, faith that has never been challenged, faith that has not faced doubt and temptation, faith that has not been the subject of heavy soul-searching – such faith is faith on crutches – weak, untested, underdeveloped. Just as hearts and lungs and muscles that have not been pushed beyond their present capabilities do not increase in capacity and strength, so a faith that is never challenged does not grow! The reality of the spiritual life is that faith grows – or fades – day by day. It is either growing stronger, or getting weaker. Faith is not a static, once and for all event – it either grows, or it fades.

I don’t mind saying that there are many times in my life that my faith has been tested, perhaps even beyond safe limits. Sometimes I have deliberately sought out opportunities that stretched my faith capacity. Working at a medium-sized hospital as an emergency on-call chaplain was only one of the many ways in which my life as a Christian was challenged. Watching a young man of 22 die of a rare liver ailment, a man who had never smoked or consumed alcohol. Awakening a young woman at 5:30 a.m, who had given birth after very long labour the night before, and having to tell her that her exhausted husband had gone home, fallen asleep in an easy chair with a lit cigarette, and had been burned to death. Being with the family of a woman of 40, a pillar of her church and community, who suddenly had a headache, the result of cerebral bleeding, and was now brain-dead, and introducing, gently, the notion of organ donation. All these, bad things happening to good people, and more, stretch one’s ability to believe!

And then there were times in my own life, events that had a great impact on me, things that caused me great pain, when God seemed to do anything but be there for me. And unless you have led an unusually blessed life, you too have had to face unfair tragedy, personal pain, in the midst of which you might have wondered, silently or out loud, what the good of faith was, if life could be so unfair, hurtful, awful! All of this stretches and tests one’s faith in a loving and caring God. The temptation to abandon faith, to say that the universe is random, absurd, and meaningless, and to live on one’s own strength, is very tempting.

And yet, in the end, I have worked these through, survived the pain, had my faith healed, and in that healing came back to a relationship with God that was stronger than before. And, I suspect, so have you. We’re here, aren’t we!

Let’s go back to the Gospel for this day.

When the smoke clears from the desert battleground between Jesus and the devil, what is the good news with which we are left? Let’s note first that this temptation in the wilderness was not part of the belief in a King-Messiah in the Hebrew faith. Such an experience would be beneath the dignity of a Son of David, God’s Anointed One. To the Hebrew people, it would have been a concept as contradictory as a crucified Messiah. So, we learn from this wilderness experience of Jesus that he is more than just God’s Saviour for God’s people, someone who remains faithful where others fail because failure is not possible for him. These were real temptations, really tempting, tempting Jesus’ human needs (hunger, the wanting of approval, wanting the easy road to success, power), and Jesus struggled with them just as we might. And, in this struggle, Jesus declares that he is one of us. He was tempted in every way as we are. Tempted to live by status alone. Tempted to live by personal power alone. Tempted to live by food alone. Tempted to live by work, or play, alone. Tempted to live by visions of personal grandeur and glory alone.

Further, this desert experience is not the only time that the faith of Jesus is tested. Before his arrest, in the Garden of Gethsemane he begins to bargain with God – “Let this cup pass from me.” but returns to faith – “Not my will but yours.” Even on the cross he shouts, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” which in the Aramaic language of Jesus is even stronger than in ours, with a sense of “Why have you sold me down the river!” And yet this is followed by the calm acceptance of the will of God with “It is finished.” Tempted and with his faith tested like the rest of us, with the possibility of yielding like the rest of us, Jesus is seen as the Son of God, indeed very God, who understands us and our struggles.

But the final thought on all of this is that whatever Jesus overcame – even the most powerful suggestions the realm of darkness can concoct – we too can overcome. Because the fully human Jesus overcame temptation and emerged from the desert strengthened in his faith, so we humans too can have our faith tested and emerge stronger.

By faith in this Jesus, and in the power of his Holy Spirit, we can test our faith, and have it grow, and we can live faithfully, even if not in tranquillity, in any and all circumstances.

     1 Bantam Books, New York, 1993
     2 ibid. p. 73

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller.