New Tests

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested. My sister has taken to putting things that my four year old nephew says on Facebook. The latest one was a bedtime conversation on where he came from. It ended up with his insight, “I was a newborn baby?”

“Yes,” my sister said, “you were.”

“I’m Jesus.”

“Um, no. You’re not Jesus.”

“Yes, I’m Jesus. I’m God. Gooooooooooooddddd!”

We might not admit it, but we, too, can be inclined to think of ourselves a little too highly. And we can also put ourselves down unfairly. The truth is somewhere in the middle. We are imperfect, beloved of God, and called to live our lives in faith. We may not be Jesus, but as those who try to follow Jesus, we do well to learn from his example.

Our lesson from the gospel of Matthew this morning provides an excellent case study, focusing on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We meet Jesus now that he is grown. He has been baptized by his cousin John, but has not yet begun his own ministry or teaching. He ends up fasting for forty days before the devil comes to test him. There are three temptations, as Satan tests Jesus with his hunger, his faith, and his power. Jesus manages to rebuke the devil at every turn until he is left alone. And that is when angels come to his side to care for him, nursing him back to health.

It seems, then, that his ability to persevere strengthens him for what comes next, as he begins to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

I don’t know about you, but the people I know run the gamut on faith. There are those who reject any possibility that there is more to life than what we see, all the way to those whom we might describe as “fundamentalist”, and everywhere in between. This morning’s lesson is the kind that tends to bring out those differences. There are those who would read about the devil and immediately picture and believe in a red-skinned beast with horns and a forked tail. There are others who would take it as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. And there would still be others who would see this as a reason to reject faith as nothing more than stories of fairies and bogeymen.

The words “devil” and “Satan” are two sides of the same coin. “Devil” comes from the Greek, while “Satan” is a Hebrew word in origin. Both words mean “adversary” or “enemy” and often appear in Scripture to antagonize, test, and otherwise trouble faithful people. The image of the goat beast is a much later idea, not really taking fuller form as a way to satirize pagans until the 1800s.

The bottom line is this: whether we are reading more literally or metaphorically, the point is that there is evil in the world. If God’s essential nature is as Creator, then evil is that which seeks to destroy. In the end, we don’t need to pin it on a punk with a pitchfork. There are plenty of forces out there, and within us, that can play that role just fine.

I guess that’s the problem I have with the personification of evil. If we are too quick to blame all of our problems and faults on the devil, it releases us of responsibility for our actions. Some of you may remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine, whose refrain was “the devil made me do it.” It was her way of getting out of anything she did wrong. It wasn’t her fault, it was the devil’s.

The truth is more convoluted than that. There are forces outside of us that push and pull at us. And yet, we most certainly have the potential for good and ill within us. Having faith means leaning into grace when we do less than what is expected and giving glory to God when we manage to get it right.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

Believing in a God who bestows good things on us is not particularly challenging when things go well. It’s when things turn from bad to worse that faith is ultimately put to the test. It’s when faith goes through struggles and comes out on the other side that faith becomes something that will sustain us. It’s when we praise God despite all evidence to the contrary that we our faith starts to look even a little bit like the faith we see in the lessons of Scripture.

We can even see that in the parts of our lesson today that aren’t about Jesus being tempted. The reference is so brief that we might miss it, but Jesus’ return from the area around the Jordan River back north into the Galilee comes about because he hears that John has been arrested. The one who preached about the coming Messiah, the one who stayed out in the desert subsisting on honey and locusts, has now been put in prison. It is not long before he is put to death.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Christianity does not put a ‘no trespassing’ sign on our front lawn.” Whether or not we are faithful, the world in which we live is imperfect. There is good, and there is evil. And both will happen to us. The question is not whether we have the inner strength to be tested; it is whether or not we trust God enough to allow our faith to go through trials. In the end, we will be drawn closer to God.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the tests to my faith often come along at the moments when it most feels like I’m “getting it right”. When I am most hopeful about the way things are is the time when it seems like hopelessness rears its head. When I am most “on track” with the disciplines of faith is exactly when emergencies interrupt and illness zaps my strength. When I feel like I am most in line with God is the moment when evil veers into my lane and knocks me into the ditch. It’s almost enough to turn me into Geraldine, crying out to the world, “The devil made me do it.”

About a year ago, I was encouraged to reach out to colleagues and friends that might act as an intercessory prayer group for me. I now have six trusted friends, Presbyterian and otherwise, in Atlanta and beyond, to whom I regularly turn. And what I have learned is that in those moments when I feel like I have drifted away, or when I feel that I might be knocked off course, those are the moments I reach out to my people to pray me back on course. It has been a gift to me, and I am grateful every day for their faithfulness.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

And faith, true faith, is faith that comes out stronger on the other side.

Tomorrow our nation pauses to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great prophetic voices of the Christian faith. He was ultimately martyred for his commitment to fairness and justice; and while we have traveled far since his murder nearly fifty years ago, we know that we have not yet arrived at a truly just and peaceful world.

Of the many lessons that King’s life speaks to us, it was his persistence that calls out to me today. He constantly lifted up a vision of the Beloved Community, despite all evidence to the contrary. He persisted in hope for a world that surely felt hopeless to him time and time again. And his commitment to what was possible in God’s time demonstrated the courage to work to overcome society’s barriers of race and gender and economics.

Dr. King once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Friends, my hope today is buoyed by the many people who continue to be inspired by King’s vision, those of us who continue to believe in a world that we do not see.

My prayer today is that all of us would find our strength in God to bear through those finite moments that pull us down, that test our faith, that distract us when we most need to focus on that infinite hope that comes from God, and God alone.

And my encouragement to you is to take time tomorrow to reflect on all of this. Maybe you’re intrigued by the idea of asking others to pray for you, and so you might spend some time coming up with that short list of trusted friends you can ask to hold you and encourage you. Or perhaps you see this as a moment to recommit yourself to making the world a better and more hopeful place; so you could spend some time in prayer for how you might do so. We have plenty of opportunities here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, including our work with Journey Night Shelter and Habitat for Humanity and our Food Pantry and AMIS. If you want to find out more about any of these, I invite you to make a note on the pads at the end of the pew so we can reach out to you.

Or for those of you who are not already a part of our community, maybe it’s as simple as investing some time reflecting on what church and faith means. We have a golden opportunity with our upcoming new members’ class to do just that; and again, I invite you to let us know by indicating so on the pads.

In hope, in prayer, in courage, may we all find our persistence not in our faith in God, but in God’s faith in us.