Listen to the sermon from March 13, 2011, “How to Take a Test” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
The First Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2011
“How to Take a Test”
Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” – Psalm 19:14
When I was a child I went through a “scientific” phase of wanting to know what was at the center of things. I unraveled a baseball and under a pile of yard found this funny pink pellet. Cut that in half and the center was plain old cork! I stole one of Dad’s golf balls and used a saw to cut through the rubber bands. Its core was a spongy rubber ball with some mysterious goo inside. I cut the strings off a football and pulled out the black oblong bladder that looked altogether like a bicycle tire tube. Inside that was stale hot air. Disappointed, that’s about as far as my interest in scientific research took me.
According to Matthew, Jesus’ hair is hardly dry from his baptism when he decides to go out to the wilderness alone. I’ve been through that desert in Israel on an air-conditioned bus, and man is it bleak! But Jesus went to the wilderness on purpose to get to the core of things.
Through the centuries the desert has been viewed as a spiritual retreat, the prime place for self-discovery, where all the distractions of the world are stripped away so you can concentrate on your inner work. Some romantically imagine it’s a place where you can get alone with God to find peace far from the pressures of life. The problem, as it turns out, is that you are there, too, with all your inner drives and wounds and voices. The desert is the place where your demons come screamin.’
The wilderness is where you are tested. No wonder we prefer the air-conditioned bus, or better yet, the television and cell phone and laptop and sports and movies and Facebook and fine dining. Those things aren’t evil but they distract us, they entertain us, they pacify us so we can live at the surface of things and keep away from the core. We want to keep a lid on the boiling pot. We don’t want to deal with those screamin’ demons of fear and confusion and shame and self-loathing. We don’t want to discover our core is a shriveled pink tiny ball or just cork or goo or stale hot air. So we wrap our core in yarn. There’s the yarn of who we tell ourselves we are, the self-deceit of our psychic defenses. There’s the yarn of our busy-ness, where frantic activity and self-importance excuses us from dealing with our selves. There’s the yarn of those distractions I mentioned, to which we sometimes add an addiction or two which numb the pain and silence the voices we don’t want to hear. Wrap it all it in a nice leather cover so we look good, even though somebody ought to tattoo on our foreheads: “Warning: contents under pressure!” I know I’m being snarky, but, isn’t it true?
So hooray for Christ having the courage right at the beginning to head for the wilderness and get his core in order. Matthew says he was “led up by the Spirit.” Mark says Jesus was tested by “the Satan” or “Adversary.” Luke calls him o` dia,boloj, “the diabolical” or “devil.” And what student hasn’t thought so about a professor giving a test? Matthew actually identifies him as “The Tester.” The Greek word for “test” and “temptation” are the same, you know. Jesus is tested at his core. Hunger, the economic test. Celebrity, the religious test. Power, the political test. These are all about Jesus taking the easiest shortcuts to fulfill his destiny, even though they would sabotage his destiny. But they aren’t so different than the demons that call us to give up, give in, or give out in our own spiritual journey.
Famously, Jesus and the Tester get into an old fashioned “Sword Drill,” throwing Bible quotations at one another. Mr. Diabolical boxes Jesus into a corner where he must disobey scripture, but as as my friend Kyle Childress suggests, Jesus is right to resist it:
How and who uses the Bible makes a difference in how it is heard. In one case it might be God’s Word and in another it might not. Whether the Bible is God’s Word or not depends on who the speaker is and who the hearer is. It depends on context, purpose, motivation, and so on…. Satan takes the Bible and seeks to decontextualize it. He is saying that the Bible is good in and of itself. It has authority and power whether God is connected to it or not. The Evil One is perfectly happy for us to have the Bible and use the Bible, just as long as we leave God out of it.
And that’s how Jesus passes the test. Not just by quoting the Bible. But when everything else is stripped away, and his demons are screamin’, Jesus has God’s Spirit at the deepest core of his being. God’s Spirit gives him the strength to endure, the will to continue, and the courage to stay true to himself. The wilderness is when Jesus prepares for the cross, and every test he will face before that.
Historically, Lent is a time when Christians follow Christ into the wilderness. That is, we do our inner work by stripping away the distractions, denying ourselves certain comforts, and taking an intentional spiritual journey. It involves letting go of some things that keep us from living at our center, taking hold of other things that focus our attention there, and facing down our demons on the way. We take on the test. We go to our core to see what’s there and center our lives again.
It’s a smart thing to do, because the truth is life has a way of stripping your defenses anyway, and blowing the lid off your bubbling pot and amplifying your screamin’ demons and testing your mettle to see what’s at your core. It takes you into wildernesses called “illness” or “unemployment” or “divorce” or “war” or “poverty” or “failure” or “disappointment” or “grief.” Life will cross you up. The wilderness is where you are tested. It’s best to get ready beforehand.
But let me tell you the good news. Even if your core consists of cork or goo or stale hot air as most of ours do, that’s not all that’s there. Even if your demons are screamin’ and nasty and threaten to knock you to your knees, there’s another Voice that’s louder. At your core is a Presence who is strong. At your core is a Voice which tells you, “You are my beloved child.” At your core is a Spirit who calls you into life. That is God’s word of grace to all who place their faith in Christ.
You can pass the test because your core is more than anything life or death can throw at you. So go to your core, live from the center and let the surface things take their place. They won’t sustain you when the wilderness comes. But God will. God will.
So as we make our Lenten journey we come to this table today where we are nourished deeply and reminded of the grace and power and love in the center of our souls which no one can take away and from which nothing can ever separate us. Strength for the journey, friends. Thanks be to God! May we pray?
In this season, Divine Companion, may we be guided by you to the wilderness you choose and find you in our core preparing us for the wildernesses that will choose us. Accept our Lenten soul work as a service to you and prepare us by this journey to find you in all seasons, to thank you in all things, and to serve you in all ways from the center of hearts where Christ is at home. Amen.