Luke tells us that “Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit,” and that makes perfect sense. Every time we sing “Child of blessing, child of promise”, I want to waltz down the center aisle holding that newly baptized child of God! The sky cracked open, the Holy Spirit landed on Christ like a dove, and Jesus heard God Almighty say: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.“ To feel God’s deep acceptance changes everything. Jesus returns from worship glowing – dancing – an invisible halo of radiant love streaming out hope to every village he walked into.
Luke’s next verse is a puzzle, for after Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days by the devil. Why does God lead us away from the streams of joy to endure fasting in the desert heat? Why would God lead Jesus into testing and temptation? The word ‘Satan’ can be translated as ‘adversary’; the word for ‘tempted’ can be rendered as ‘tested’ (at least if God is the one offering the tests). So consider this, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested for forty days by adversity.
Could it be that trials, temptations, and tests are essential for spiritual living? Can we take up our cross and follow Jesus without enduring trials? Can we resist the Temptor, the Soul’s Adversary, if we can’t name our temptations? Have you faced down the alluring alternatives to live for less than goodness, justice, and love?
Old Scratch is still whispering his better lines: “Are you sure God said, “You are my child, my beloved?” “Why not use your heavenly blessings to feed yourself?” “Listen, nobody is really asking you to literally worship a bespoke-but-behooved devil, but what would it hurt to build a nice castle, sit on a fine throne, and grab a little power for yourself?” “Hey preacher, why not make a grand show, test the waters, really pack them in?”
Spiritual maturity requires spiritual clarity. We need time apart, maybe 40 days, to see the temptations that pull us away from holy living. Perhaps, we need hard questioning to live into God’s deepest and richest call for our lives.
And dear Belmont friends, we are facing a test. The upcoming General Conference around human sexuality will test us for the larger church affirms every person’s “sacred worth” but keeps an unwelcoming trigger-word; “incompatible”. Who do they dare call “incompatible”? Who do we dare exclude from our pulpit or marriage kneeler? Does not our Psalter flow from King David’s pen? Who gets mad and leaves church when Pastor David’s 23rd Psalm is read? Did not God see David’s “heart after God”? (1 Kings 11) The word “incompatible” has come to grieve my spirit as deeply as the aberrant New Testament injunction for “slaves to obey….” (Titus 2:9, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:6) Old Scratch chuckles when conservatives and peace- preaching- moderates selectively speak like Biblical literalists. It angers and grieves me to see the hypocrisy of pastors nuancing Jesus with regard to marital fidelity (Matthew 19) and 1 Timothy 2:12 with regard to female leadership in church, but allowing a word like “incompatible” to stand. Oh, dear people of God, remember Paul’s words in Romans 8: “Nothing, in all creation, can separate us from the love of God given to us in Christ Jesus.” Friends, full inclusion is reasoned, gracious and orthodox. One day historians will look back on this chapter of Methodist history and compare it to the founding of the Methodist Episcopal South.
So let us face our own temptations, for a test is coming. Let us “stay awake, stand firm in our faith, be brave, be strong. And do everything in love! (1 Corinthians 16:13-14) Will you write a note or send an email? Pray…
But hear the Good News: times of testing bring us clarity. The pain and hunger of the wilderness births new insights and strengths within us.
Who could have predicted a national holiday when a 33 year-old preacher wrote a letter in long hand from inside a Birmingham jail cell in 1963? Hear Rev. King’s words that test us even today: “There was a time when the church was very powerful– when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. … By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests…. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo….. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.)
There are multiple tests before us. Let us find our voice. Let us do justly. Let us love mercy. Let us speak humbly. Let us not give up on the church, but recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church – and thereby recapture authenticity, relevance, and loyalty with our neighborhoods and our millennials. Let us become a thermostat hurting up the heat, staying awake, standing firm, being brave, being strong, being courageous ,and doing everything in love!
It will be a struggle, but God will strengthen our steps. For after Jesus is led by the Spirit to wrestle with the devil for 40 days, Luke reports a strange result. After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from Jesus until the next opportunity. Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee.
How might facing our demons awaken our better angels? Why do we leave the time of testing on a spiritual high? Why is Jesus full of the spirit after wrestling with the adversary for 40 days? How does marching against oppression, injustice, and evil strengthen and help us find our stride? Let us remember, God with us in the struggle. Indeed, God is in the struggle. We may not find God apart from the struggle!
I used to believe that “answered prayer” meant that God would solve my problems. I have come to believe that God answers most of my answers prayers like this…. it’s a two-parter so listen up: “Paul, I love the world enough to die for it; I love you enough to die for you! Child, know that nothing, nothing, nothing in all creation can separate you from my love for you! Oh, know that nothing makes you “incompatible” for you are my child, beloved. Shoot, I loved David with all his issues. You are loved, but, hey kid, stay awake, stand firm, be brave, be strong. Do everything in love.”
In “The Strength to Love”, Dr. King recounts being awakened by a white terrorist’s phone call threatening his life, unable to sleep he prayed….” I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forevermore.. … The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. …let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way.”
Being spiritually awake is profoundly different from hoping God solves our problems. We may dwell within the peace of Christ, while we are mired in terrible tests, trials, and temptations. Indeed, perhaps being awake alerts us to deeper distress within the world. We may pray, “oh Lord, not that cup”, even as we steel our resolve to take up Christ’s cross on behalf of our neighbors. As we take Holy Communion let us remember Jesus’ redemptive suffering for us!
God did not remove the cup from Jesus – despite all the love in the world. God did not solve racial injustice during Dr. King’s midnight prayer or even with his martyrdom. But God gives us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life…strength to lovingly face our adversaries. I am glad Dr. King did not decide to seek a safe spot in a seminary somewhere! I rejoice that Jesus did not give into temptation and seek a church overlooking the Mediterranean Sea or, worse yet, a chaplaincy with the Emperor. We must awaken to our adversaries with courage and love.
Jesus does not emerge from the wilderness with nothing to do! Tested and tempted, Jesus emerges full of the Spirit and ready to get to work. Let us face down the alluring options that lead us away from the cross that saves the world. Jesus’ deeper trial lurks ahead, the cross awaits, but Jesus is awake, strong, courageous, standing, hungry, filled with the Spirit, and ready to do everything in love. Let us stay awake, stand firm, be brave, be strong and do everything in love! Amen.