I.Have you ever had to wrestle with a right versus wrong issue or a damned if you do/damned if you don’t matter until your energy source is absolutely depleted? I don’t know what it would be like to be the leader of a nation like ours and be faced with the potential need to send courageous military women and men into a battle where almost certainly lives will be lost. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that I will never be elected president and have to make such a decision, but I believe Barak Obama is a compassionate person who feels the loss of each life. I believe the same of Secretary Gates, which I could never have said about his predecessor. I picture these leaders literally agonizing over war-related decisions, and by the way I think US military leaders should stop making known to the American public and secondarily to the rest of the world their recommendations for troop counts.
In any case, I’m asking you if you’ve been in an agonizing situation about what you needed to do at some point along the way. If you have, you will have a greater understanding of what Jesus went through in his wilderness experience--that critical period when he had his last pre-ministry wrestling match with temptation about how he would invest his life and the gifts he knew he had.
The story of Jesus’ wilderness temptations is usually told, in my experience, as a factual story with Jesus literally out in the desert areas separated from the hubbub of routine life hassles. He is confronting a set of struggles in determining how he should serve God.
The thought that the wilderness event might not have been a literal forty days in the desert kind of thing was originated by someone other than I, but I don’t recall from whom I first heard about the possibilities. Still, I liked the idea that Jesus was wrestling with, agonizing over the possibilities of what he could become, what he should become as someone compelled to spread what he believed about God.
The people who see Jesus as this being who knew from the get go exactly what his life would be about at every juncture--never wondering or wavering--have been reading too many fictionalized accounts of Jesus’ life not based on the actual evidence we do have, limited though it may be. Jesus struggled in his life; he struggled at many points, through many dilemmas. By no means was he always satisfied with the options available to him. So, whether in the physical Judean desert or in the depths of his being, Jesus confronted temptations so real they were personified. He could see temptation drawing him to be someone that didn’t ultimately suit his call.
So temptation, whom the Gospel of Luke calls “the devil,” said to Jesus who had no food readily at his disposal, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” This was a twofold temptation. On the one hand it was a temptation for Jesus to showcase his miracle-working skills; that is lucrative in every age. There are always people who want to see an act that appears to have been caused by forces beyond human forces--call it faith healing, call it magic, call it what you will. On the other hand, this temptation was a temptation to use his God-given skills for his own purposes, and Jesus understoodd his mission as being for others, not for himself. Thus, he refused to do what temptation coaxed him to do on the grounds that a human being can’t live on bread alone meaning that even if he turned the stones into something to eat his fuller hunger wouldn’t be satisfied. He would still not have settled in his depths what it was he had to do for God’s cause.
Next, temptation taunted him with fame, with the very simple changes he could have made in his message that would have brought the glory for all he was able to do with his God-given abilities to him; then, maybe, he’d be as famous as Billy Graham’s son, Franklin.
...the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.’”
Finally, the grandest temptation of them all.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command God’s angels concerning you, to protect you.’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Temptation personified tried to get Jesus to call God’s hand. “Let God prove what God’s adherents claim God can do...what God must do.”
Jesus said, “No way. My role is not to turn God into a side show by making promises that God will do this or that on demand! I will be grateful whenever I’m aware of a gift from God, but I will never put God to a test!”
Now we have this little story all nice and polished up--almost like a pageant. It’s even neatly organized in to three acts or scenes. There’s a prologue and an epilogue. Except for the fact that the chorus has been omitted, this would have made Sophocles smile--knowing that the influences of Greek drama had lived on beyond him.
The temptations escalate, if you will, and the most audacious of the three, the final one, is to dare to put God Godself to the test--to take what is good from God and try to force God to act in order to save face.
If someone has convinced me that God protects God’s people from all harm--unless they have some hidden sin somewhere--I can believe that all my sins are cleaned up (if I had any, of course) and give God a chance really to show God’s stuff by lying across the Amtrak tracks so that God can miraculously rescue me. Chances are, the only ways God would be involved in that caper would be to classify my entrance into heaven as a “psychiatric admission” and to comfort my bereaved family and friends.
One of my favorite hymns during my growing up years was one that a few of you could probably sing along with me. The tune was catchy and in a major key. Peppy is good sometimes, my friends, for no other reason than that it’s peppy.
In time, as you know, I became a spoil sport and began to try to understand the words I was singing; this has made life complicated for me and for all of my parishioners since. Silverside folk have suffered most of all on this count, and yet you still allow me to wear my hair long without penalty.
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse.
All your money talents, time and love.
Consecrate them all upon the altar.
While your Savior from above sings sweetly
Trust me. Try me.
Prove me saith the Lord of hosts and see
If a blessing, unmeasured blessing, I will not pour out on thee.
That is blatantly testing God--peppy or not. That is blatantly putting God to the test. The advice, the directive of this hymn is to give generously to God’s causes and then sit back and anticipate the blessings that are sure to come to you. Giving to try to get something in return is not only a very bad reason to give, it is trying to force God to have to bless you. My conviction is that God doesn’t play that game. Giving in search of rewards is wrong all the way around.
Gideon was an ancient Hebrew judge who was tapped by God to become a military commander. He was a judge in a small berg somewhere, happy with small-tribe life when God, according to the book of Judges, puts him in the national and international spotlights almost as quickly as John McCain did Sarah Palin. Gideon put God to one of the most famous tests ever--as far as I know--recorded.
I have loved the story of Gideon from the time I was a kid growing up in the Sunday school program of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads although, with some adult insight and a broader reading of the Bible, I have learned that not everything about Gideon--notably his putting God to the test--is exemplary. Theological offenses aside, however, Gideon is a likable guy--as honest and earnest as the day is long, and since he came along very early in humanity’s efforts to learn about one and only one God, we won’t be too critical of his faux pas. What we have to be critical of is the person today who has the means to know better than to put God to the test but who still keeps trying it.
Gideon, as I said, was a judge in a small tribe, and I say “small tribe” rather than “small town” because his people were still largely nomadic at this point in their political and geographic evolution. He was not a part of the more prominent tribes, and he was perfectly content where he was. Think Mayor Holmes in Elsmere for a reasonable modern-day comparison. Dick was the mayor of Elsmere--the first mayor of Elsmere thirty-something years ago. He loved what he did in the small berg where I now live. Just think of God’s calling Dick to move, all of a sudden, from the Elsmere mayor’s office to Pentagon to take charge of some military hot spot such as Afghanistan. I think Dick could have brought world peace through his humor had he been given this opportunity.
Gideon was called into service by God at a very dire time in the life of his people--not just the people of his tribe, but all twelve or so tribes that made up the whole of ancient Israel. The sad, but widespread, belief was that when something bad happened to the nation, God had caused it as a punishment on the people; conversely, when something good happened to the people, God was pleased with them. The interesting thing was that, many times, when God punished the people, God immediately gave them some bonus to help them deal with the extra burden their punishment would lay on them.
You may remember that when Eve and Adam were ashamed of their nakedness, as soon as they ate of the forbidden fruit, they tried to cover their nakedness with leaves and such--which is how poison ivy was first discovered...just kidding. But God, as upset as God was with them when God cast them out of the Garden of Eden, made more substantial garments for them out of the hides of animals who began to die when death was introduced into paradise as part of the punishment for sin brought into what had been paradise. Though required to face their punishment, God eased part of their pain. Similarly, when Cain killed his brother, Abel, and God punished him for his crime, God still put a mark on him so that other humans could not try to put “an eye for an eye justice” into effect.
In Gideon’s time, the writer or writers of the book of Judges tell us that his people on the whole had failed God and that God had given them into the hands of yet another set of enemies. That time, it was the Midianites, and they were formidable foes indeed--ruthless and bloodthirsty. Their attacks were incessant. If they saw the Hebrews trying to re-start life somewhere such as by planting seeds for a garden, the Midianites would come immediately and rip up the ground and seedlings.
When the Hebrews cried out to God for help--which is a bizarre notion to me: asking the one who punished you to ease the very pain that she or he caused--God seemed in the book of Judges more than willing to assist. The help for the whole struggling nation was Judge Gideon, from the clan of Abieezer in the tribe of Elsmere...I mean, Manasseh.
Gideon is reluctant but accepts because he wishes to honor his God. Before he accepts his appointment, however, Gideon had to get one thing cleared up in his mind. When the angel, the messenger, of God came to him to give him the news, the messenger began by saying, “The Lord is with you, mighty leader.”
Gideon said, “Is that a fact? If God is with us, as you say, why in the world is all this horrible stuff happening to us?” That is the sixty-four thousand shekel question! Good for you, Gideon! Once he got started he couldn’t stop! He had some questions to which he wanted answers
...where are all God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.
Just so you know, neither God nor God’s angel answered the questions, but God did promise Gideon that he would be the sure fire winner in the battles against Midian. Gideon believed what he was told and went ahead with setting up his office at the Pentagon.
Before long, the time for the first battle engagement was upon him, and Gideon remembered that God had promised him victory. Gideon also remembered, however, that there were questions he had about some unanswered divine promises that no one had ever explained to him so he did what anyone with a legal mind would do. He asked for proof. He dared to ask God for proof; he blatantly put God to the test.
God had told him he would win the battles, to go forward and fight those Midianites. Gideon smiled and nodded his head and said, “I will absolutely do that if...IF you will be so kind as to give me a sign.”
“What now?” God asked.
Gideon said, “A small thing, really.”
“Go on,” God said.
And Gideon did:
I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone [in the morning], and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.
Did you get the challenge? Gideon told God he was going to put a measure of lamb’s wool on the floor of the community threshingfloor overnight. The next morning if all the ground around the fleece were dry, but fleece damp from dew then he, Gideon, would have confirmation that he could begin the attack confident of victory.
Next morning, things were just the way he’d asked. No dew on any part of the threshingfloor, but the fleece was damp as could be with morning dew. Pretty amazing huh?
God said to Gideon, “Are you happy now? So let’s get this show on the road. Go after those Midianites, General!”
And Gideon said, “Absolutely, God. Absolutely. Just one more tincy wincy thing.”
God said, “Oh my self!”
“It’s a small thing, really. A very small thing for such a mighty God who makes such tremendous promises. Don’t be angry with me, God. I mean, you made me with this skeptical mind. So this will settle it for me. If you will reverse the process and in the morning let there be dew all over the threshingfloor, but the fleece as dry as Eden after Adam, I’ll be on the warpath sooner than you can say, ‘Monotheism.’”
When Gideon got up to report to the officer’s dining room for breakfast, he found damp ground and dry fleece. Just what he’d asked God to do for him.
Two tests of God back to back. There was another one earlier that we can’t get into today. But if it is wrong to put God to the test, why did one of the great heros among the ancient Hebrews do it several times and get praised for it?
Long years after Gideon’s tests, the writer of the Christian book of Hebrews has a list of the great ancient sheros and heros of the faith, and among the concluding words are these:
For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in God.” These are words sung originally by one of the psalmists leading ancient Temple worship or maybe sung by the whole community.
Now the clever and astute person who gave me this sermon topic, which will close out the current sermon series, caught onto something very important. Here one of the psalmists recommends “tasting” God, sampling God a little bit--yes, testing the divine waters, as it were; and yet there are multiple condemnations of testing God in any way including the powerful story from the life of Jesus with which we began today. So what’s it going to be? You really can’t have it both ways. It’s one thing to point out inconsistencies on the subject in Judeo-Christian scriptures; it’s entirely something else to live by one or the other. You definitely can’t live by both. You can’t taste and see if God is good and, at the same time, participate in the testing of God.
Well, here’s where I come out on this very thoughtful topic. There is no way to experience God or even to ponder God without some little taste tests. On a human plane, as a rule, it’s not a very good idea to marry someone you haven’t dated enough to know rather well. Spiritually speaking, you can never know what God is about without some of your own tasting efforts to see, know, sense, feel. Another way of saying this is that no one else can do your God work for you. No one else can think your God thoughts for you. Wherever you end up in terms of understanding AND relating to God--and I mean two separate realities--is yours to tend to.
Many parents want their children to have religious education and/or spiritual grounding. Many of those same parents believe there is something better than what they got, and if they can find that for their children, then all the better. These are good, strong, nurturing sentiments, and I commend them! However COMMA: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her order Perrier, as the old saying goes.
Another issue immediately raised by this taste-test juxtaposition is the necessity of knowing the difference between thoughts about God and experiences of God. Most of the time, they are not the same--at least not necessarily. In fact, someone’s thoughts about God or hopes about God may never correspond at all to that person’s actual experience of God.
An obvious, though sad, example would be the person who believes theoretically, without a doubt, that God is love. Yet, for some awful reason she or he has never felt that love. It may be entirely an emotional problem, but with her or his make up no love is felt.
It may also be this infernal effort to homogenize religious experience that’s been around almost as long as there’s been religious experience. Someone appears to be a leader for one reason or another, and others come to envy that leader’s experiences believing that their experiences or encounters aren’t valid until they are much more like the leader’s. Too many leaders like the fact that others look up to them and rate their encounters with God based on how closely they match up to the leader’s. That’s a real ego trip for some leaders, and it can also be a great tool for control.
You get a leader who claims great emotional uplift during prayer, tells stories of many intercessory prayers answered, and so on speaking to someone who tries so hard but never has such dramatic results; often the person who feels that she or he just can’t measure up gives up and says something like, “God must not want anything to do with me.”
A much healthier and truer way to experience God is to begin trying in small ways, but in your own way. If you can let go of the idea that God’s presence is limited to a religious building, or a religious service, or anything connected to the institutional religious entity, you are miles ahead.
If God is within each of us, as I believe to be the case, and if God is in every part of the created order in some kind of way, then all the wonders and joys and jolts of life have God in them in some kind of way. If I’m inspired by something beautiful--a photograph taken by Margaret Walker or Bill Westerhoff, a song sung by our choir, a piano or organ piece Melissa plays, vibrant fall leaves, a smile, an opera or symphony performance without overt religious themes or maybe lacking in religious themes altogether--God is in that beauty in some kind of way.
If the words of a friend or a counselor help me through a rough patch, even if no religious words are even spoken, God is in that connection in some kind of way. And I don’t mean that God gives the supportive person the words; I mean that the presence of God attends healing efforts and processes.
If we don’t teach our children and challenge each other to taste and see that God is good, many people will miss out on God because they will never have figured out where even to seek God. By all means, give God within you a taste!
As far as putting God to the test, that’s kind of a joke. I mean, the thought that God gets caught up in the tests people create for God is hilarious. You can test God all you want! God won’t be playing along. The test will merely be in your mind.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the tests people create for God fix things so that what we ask God to give us as a proof is something we want or something that benefits us. I’ve never heard anyone say or pray, “God, if you really want me to go to seminary, let me get a non-deadly round of the swine flu.” What I’m much more likely to hear is, “God if you want me to go seminary, get me a scholarship.” Who believes that God actually says, “OK,” to a challenge such as that? God says, “If you want to go to seminary, you should go. Pick out a good one, and don’t go into debt too much!”
Someone says, “God if you want me to join Silverside Church...” God interrupts her or him and says, “What do you mean IF?”
Elijah the great prophet that he was tried to engage God in a test, and after letting him get by with one test, Elijah whined and complained and criticized God, “If you’re the kind of God you ought to be you’d do this. You would have done that. You could be counted on to do the other. You would be big and loud and obvious, and you’d say a nice word about me from time to time!”
God said to Elijah, “Yeah. Yeah. Look, Elijah, trying to create a god in your own imagine has a name. It’s called idolatry. You didn’t make me the first time, and you’re not going to recreate me to suit you now. I’m not in on your silly test, but just for the record if you want to find me, check out the silence..” Amen.