5 Mar 2017
1st Sunday of Lent, Year A
We pray to God all the time: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And, certainly, God does not tempt us. He doesn’t play around with us and make us fall away from him. God does not “lead us into temptation.” But he does lead us into trials. Even Jesus, his own Son, was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tested and tried.
But when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we’re praying that the tests and trials God gives to us won’t be too much for us to handle. We’re praying that the trials we face will be constructive, rather than destructive. And we’re also praying that, in the end, the influence of evil will not win us over. We pray that God will “deliver us from evil,” and make us to find rest in him alone. We’re praying that when the test is over, our fidelity to God will be proven.
The images of battle come to mind. Consider the words of our own national anthem: “O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there; O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
By the dawn’s early light, the morning after the battle, the flag was still there. The trial of war did not overcome it. Or think about the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation . . . Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. . . .We here highly resolve . . . that this nation, under God . . . shall not perish from the earth.” And it did not.
Whenever times of trial and testing come our way, it’s always telling to see what remains after the test is over. Whether it’s the flag, or the country, or our fidelity to God, something is going to win out in the end. Something’s going to remain standing “by the dawn’s early light.” “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we pray. In the end, our prayer is that our fidelity to God is what will remain standing when the fight is over.
When Jesus was tested by the devil out in the desert, it was a test of his character. The devil asked him, “If you are the Son of God . . .” That was the test. It wasn’t a test to see if he could change stones into bread, or to see if God would come and save him. It was a test of his fidelity to God the Father.
However, his fidelity to the Father is what defines Jesus; Jesus is the Faithful One, he is the Anointed One, the Beloved of the Father. Jesus’ fidelity to God the Father defines who he is. And so, the devil was testing not only his character, but his very identity: he was either the faithful Son of God, or he wasn’t.
When God tests us, he’s testing our fidelity to him. He’s testing our identity as his sons and daughters. God doesn’t have to prove his fidelity to us—if the Cross isn’t proof enough, then nothing will convince us. God doesn’t have to prove his fidelity to us; we have to prove our fidelity to him. We have to prove that we are who we say we are: sons and daughters of Almighty God, and followers of Christ.
And, of course, we set aside this season of Lent to focus on that task. We go deeper into those trials of life that either prove or disprove our identity as Christians. And a lot of these trials and battles happen within ourselves; within our heart, our mind, and our conscience.
For instance, you might be thinking, “I should give more to the poor; I should be more involved with social justice.” And that’s fine and good. But there’s a test that might be hidden within that thought. There might be—there doesn’t have to be, but there might be—a little voice that says, “This is the height of Christian living; this is what it really means to be a Christian, to help the poor and feed the hungry.”
But the test question is: “Is that true?” Obviously, helping the poor is high on our list of priorities. But is it really the top priority? Is it the height of Christian living, or is something else? It’s a test of our basic identity. Are we someone who is simply doing the work of God? Or are we a lover of God himself? Of course, we’re both. But which comes first? Which takes priority and gives us our identity? That’s something for our conscience to wrestle with.
But the answer to that test is: Love the poor, but make sure you love God first. After all, Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. He is the end-all, be-all of who and what we are.
Another example of this testing God puts before us happens in the wider Church. You know, sometime in the last half of the 20th Century, the Church became a business. The work and ministry of the priest moved from the Altar to the office desk. And parish life became less a matter of prayer and discernment, and more based in statistics, trends, and business models.
Of course, there’s nothing especially wrong with learning from the business world. And there’s nothing wrong with incorporating some of those models into the way the Church operates. In some respects, we even borrow some structures from civil government in the way the Church operates: things like councils and townhall meetings.
But there’s a test hidden within all that. The test is when we hear that little voice which says, “It’s better to trust in facts, figures, and projections, rather than in faith and hope. I mean, with the right information and data, and good marketing that reaches all age groups, the parish could just blow everybody away. Faith sounds good but, you know, it’s hard to really quantify that; it’s hard to pin that down. You gotta go with something sure, with something solid; something that you can depend on.”
It all sounds good, but where’s the fidelity to God? Where’s the sacrifice of a humble, contrite heart? Where’s friendship with God? In fact, where’s God? Somewhere along the line, the Church became a business. It became a place where, if you’re not satisfied, you go to the powers that be and you lobby for what you want, like they do in civil government. And if that doesn’t work, you go to the gossip mill and try to influence people that way. The Church became a place where some people think that money is what makes the Church rise and fall. And so, some people trust in the power of money to make a difference.
Somewhere along the line, the Church became a business; it became just another public organization, where fidelity to statistics and fidelity to power have too often crowded out basic fidelity to God. And our youth are aware of that. They’re looking for God; they’re not looking for a power struggle. They’re not waiting to be bowled over by the latest marketing scheme; they’re waiting to be bowled over by God.
It remains to be seen, of course, how that test in the Church will turn out. But it’s safe to say that we’ll either be the Church, the community of the faithful ones, or we’ll just be another failed business.
God allows us to be tested. But, as Saint Paul says, he doesn’t allow us to be tested beyond our abilities. God knows we’re weak, and that we’re liable to stumble and fall. But that’s why he allows us to be tested. The tests in life force us to ask those most basic questions: “Who or what am I faithful to? Who am I? Am I a child of God, a faithful one of God—or am I not?”
We pray that God help us to make the right choices. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And then, “by the dawn’s early light,” may our fidelity to God be proven.