First Sunday of Lent B
approached a wise, old monk for guidance.
“Tell me, please: How did you become holy?”
“Two words,” the old monk answered. “Right choices.”
Intrigued, the novice continued,
“And how does one learn to make right choices?”
“One word,” the old monk replied. “Growth.”
So the novice asked, “And how does one grow?”
“Two words,” the old monk smirked. “Wrong choices.”
Every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we plead:
Lead us not into temptation…
It’s kind of a curious thing for which to pray, if you think about it.
As if our heavenly Father would intentionally put us in harm’s way;
as if God was, for some reason, actually trying to get us to sin…
The original Greek word used both near the end of the Lord’s Prayer
and in the gospel passage we’ve just heard
can have a couple of related but different meanings:
either temptation or testing.
Let’s start with temptation.
Whether its source is the devil himself,
the wayward thinking of this world,
or the fallen state of our human flesh,
the goal of temptation is always the same: to get us to do wrong.
Giving in to temptation is rarely a matter of knowing good from evil
(we’re all pretty adept at that);
rather, the culprit is usually the weakness of our convictions.
Whatever tempts us can never force us to do something bad;
it can only lure us, hoping we’ll come to want something bad.
Temptation never takes way our free will;
it simply tries to bend and change it. (cf. B. Stoffregen)
Now, while temptation aims
to get us choosing all the wrong things,
testing, on the other hand, has a very different purpose.
Whether it’s an exam at school, or tryouts for a team,
or a particular trial at work or in a relationship,
when we’re tested, the goal is to find out
who we are and what we’re made of.
And, generally, when we’re given a test,
it’s not because somebody wants to see us fail.
Instead, they want to find out our abilities,
to reveal our true character—
and to help us to discover these for ourselves.
A good test seeks more than to find out what we’ve already learned;
it helps us to learn something new.
Temptation or testing? Which is it with God?
There’s great wisdom in using one Greek word with two meanings,
because with the Lord—in a sense—it’s both.
God certainly does not send us temptations,
but he does allow us to face them as a test—
not at all because he’s hoping we’ll fail,
but to give us an opportunity to prove ourselves—
to show who we really are and what we’re really made of.
It’s one of the devil’s many tricks—
an attempt to cover his own tracks—
to convince us that, because God allows us to be tempted,
quick to condemn, eager to punish,
constantly setting traps to snare us on our way.
This was a common enough notion
about many of the ancient pagan gods—
and one which manages to hang on still today.
How often have we said or heard
something a little irreverent,
and then waited—
even though tongue in cheek—
for the lightening to strike?
Notice, however, the sign God gives to Noah
when the floodwaters subside:
I set my bow in the clouds.
And when God says, “bow,”
he’s talking about a piece of artillery.
God symbolically hangs up his weapon,
never to fix an arrow on its string again.
In fact, the Lord has hung his bow
pointing toward heaven and away from the earth.
So have no fear of dodging those divine thunderbolts!
Even in his testing, God is for us—not against.
Taking our human condition upon himself completely,
we find Jesus emerging from his baptism in the Jordan River
only to be tempted by Satan.
The desert experience of God’s own Son
is a vivid reminder for all of us who follow him.
Passing through the saving waters of baptism
is a sacrament—not magic.
It’d be nice if it formed an invisible force field around us,
protecting us from every evil;
clearly, that’s not the case.
We find ourselves, as Jesus did,
among wild beasts and angels alike.
But while it’s not magic, baptism does give us grace:
a spiritual shot in the arm,
a good dose of God’s own life, of God’s own strength.
As with temptation, grace doesn’t take away our free will,
but tries to change and shape it—
to lead it toward God and the good,
away from the devil and his empty promises.
Cooperate with God’s grace, and we can conquer anything.
The God who promised
not to flood the earth again to destroy it
has also promised to flood our souls
with his gifts
that he might restore them.
With these forty days of Lent,
as with Noah’s forty days in the rain
and Jesus’ forty days in the desert,
God gives the human race a chance
to start over, to begin again.
Let us not neglect this opportunity
to be renewed in the grace of our baptism.
So, you see, the test God sets before us
is the one every student has always dreamed of:
it’s open book!
God gives us all the answers!
And what’s more, as that wise old monk knew so well:
even by occasionally making wrong choices
when faced with temptation,
we can still grow—by grace—
and learn to make the right ones.