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Sermon: Lent I - Testing or Temptation

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on February 22, 2015.

First Sunday in Lent, Year B (RCL); Genesis 9:8-17; Ps. 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

      Today, the First Sunday in Lent, is traditionally when we reflect upon Temptation. So when I say the word temptation, what comes to mind? For me, my first recollection of ‘temptation’ was the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies cooling on the kitchen counter. My mother would look at my older sister, brother and me over the top of her glasses and say sternly, “Not before supper.”

        In the rather bare account from today’s Gospel, Mark simply tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days where he is confronted by Satan -- and faces temptation.

        The Greek word for this confrontation, peirazó (pi-rad'-zo), serves as to “try,” “tempt,” or “test.” Here it be better to translate that Jesus was ‘tested’ rather than ‘tempted.’ This story reminds us of biblical precedents where God tests people called to play a significant role in the drama of humanity’s redemption, and gives us a key to discover what Mark is saying to us. God sent Abraham away from the land of his people to a new land that God would give the children of Israel.

        The forty days of Jesus’ temptation also recalls the great flood, the “baptism” which the faithful Noah and his family endured. Just as from Noah’s baptism of testing there emerged a new people of God, we find in Mark’s narrative, soon after his baptism and testing, Jesus calls his disciples and reconstitutes a people of God. As with Noah and his family, Jesus and the disciples will be the beginning of a new humanity “born again from above” (as John writes), in the image of Jesus, the one after God’s very own heart.

        With this scene of Jesus’ testing being set in the wilderness, God’s dealings with the children of Israel following their exodus from Egypt is undoubtedly being referenced here. The Hebrew people were constituted as a nation, not just through “baptism” as they escaped the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt through the Red Sea, but in their formative testing during forty long years in the wilderness.

        Such testing may or may not include temptation as you and I imagine it. Yet it did involve the people facing extreme conditions, out on the edge, where, not having common human comforts and support, the strength of their faithfulness to God’s calling could be both assessed and refined.

        Since Israel is God’s “child,” the biblical tradition describes God’s testing of Israel in the wilderness through the image of a father’s disciplinary testing or training of a son. This, then, is the background to Mark’s record of Jesus’ ‘testing.’


Jesus has just seen the Spirit descend upon him and has received verbal assurance of his relational status as God’s Son. Now in the wilderness, he relives the experience of Israel being tested as God’s people and strengthened for his mission that lies ahead. That mission, of course, anticipates and prepares him for the supreme test that, as “the beloved Son,” he will undergo in his Passion – beginning with his anguish as he prays in Gethsemane and concluding with his cry of anguish on the cross.

        Let me share a contemporary interpretation of today’s first epistle from Peter. This excerpt comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, which is an interpretation of scripture, not a translation:

        “That’s what Christ did definitively: suffered because of others’ sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive—to bring us to God. He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier generations who ended up in the prison of judgment because they wouldn’t listen ... Jesus has the last word on everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s standing right alongside God, and what he says goes.” (1 Peter 3:18-19, 22)

        This is not the time to go into issues around whether God purposes evil for good. I simply note that the aspect of disciplinary testing is one way in which biblical thought interprets the experience of suffering visited upon those who are otherwise devoted to God’s cause.

        This is not a view with which contemporary spirituality or theology is comfortable. Certainly, most of our western society which seeks comfort from the cradle to the grave as the highest good, finds this inconceivable. Yet, what such thinking is trying to express is the sense that God’s good providence is present and at work even in situations where, in our experience, it seems most utterly absent. This is true testing.

        This is no easy claim to make. All of us experience wilderness times where we find ourselves with “wild beasts”: we lose loved ones or are betrayed; we struggle with illness, loneliness, bewilderment and suffer disappointments; we endure injuries to both body and soul; bad things befall our children or those we love. Our temptation might be to just give up.

        Wild beasts can also live within – such was the experience of the demoniacs that Jesus meets throughout Mark’s Gospel. In difficult times, we are surprised to learn things about ourselves we would rather not. You may know the saying, ‘that when you knock the cup it spills whatever is inside.’ Elsewhere in Mark, Jesus said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” (Mark 7:20)

        At these times, when we may find ourselves locked into such battles with ourselves or the situations we are in, we see no hope of deliverance.

        Yet this wilderness time is also when we may be “waited upon by angels,” where we can especially find God’s presence mediated to us in an intense, albeit an unexpected, way.

        For Jesus and the Israelites, the wilderness was not just a place of testing but a place of sustenance and grace. It was a place to meet God in the midst of turmoil. So it can be for us also.

        On Ash Wednesday, we gathered to make our Lenten vows. This holy season of Lent is meant to be a time of serious personal spiritual reflection and renewal. It is a time for self-scrutiny and rededication to a life of service in the cause of the Kingdom. So how then has it become a time to give up chocolate, or exercise more, or to sign off from Facebook? The temptations that Satan flings at Jesus after his forty-day-fast in the wilderness weren’t just challenges to DO something he wasn’t supposed to do. They were tests challenging Jesus to BE someone he was not born to be.

        Mark offers us a picture of Christ that we may rightly observe during this time before the Passion. Jesus overcame temptations by putting his complete trust in God. That’s a good example for us all. Faithful disciples eventually discover, if open to the Spirit, that God will provide all we need for our journey.

        Yes, the beginning of Lent is hard. With the cross signed upon us, we are marked with the symbol not just of our destiny as those redeemed by Christ’s death, but we all still face our own time of walking in the wilderness.

        This year, Mark’s Gospel gives us no soft edges in which to take shelter, but rather seems to me, to be full of challenge. Today’s reading of baptism, testing and proclamation of the coming reign of God, sets the tone as well as the agenda.

        So here are some points to take and ponder:

        First: If we are to follow Jesus, we follow him into his baptism and through his testing. There is no escaping this.

        Second: To be sustained in this, we must claim our status as the sons and daughters of God: we need to go deep within the life of God to receive the anointing of God’s Spirit and experience the sustaining presence of God both with us and within us. We must be open to hearing God’s word for us, no matter how difficult.

        Third: When we submerse ourselves in God, we need have no fear, no matter what evil or “wild beast” we confront. This testing is an extension of, and the meaning of, our baptism, just as it was the extension and meaning of Jesus’ baptism. Entering into such a baptism involves embracing our vulnerability as human beings; it involves humbly abandoning our rights before God and accepting that wilderness experience as part of our calling, part of equipping us for the mission of proclaiming the presence of God among us and within us.

        Fourth: We are baptized to be sent into a difficult task which requires discipline. We should a life with grief and conflict if we are about God’s business of confronting the powers of the evil one. This, too, is part of our baptism of testing.

        Finally: In all this we should expect a blessing; we should expect an anointing; we go to the wilderness expecting God to meet with us and lavish sustaining, life-giving grace upon us. Throughout these early chapters of Mark’s “good news,” the Spirit is evident everywhere: anointing, propelling, driving, strengthening, and sustaining. This is no temptation. This is expectation. We should expect and seek no less from God today.

        Let us pray:

        Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil which may assault and hurt the soul, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.