SJF • Lent 1c • Tobias Haller BSGLent is now upon us, that season of the church year in which it is customary to take up some form of spiritual discipline, to prepare for the great celebration of Easter. While it is traditional to keep the Lenten fast as a time to curb our vices, I’d like to invite all of us to celebrate our strengths as well, to undertake a discipline of virtue. As well as giving up something that’s bad for us, or something bad we do — and we shouldn’t have to wait for a special time of year to do that! — let’s take up and exercise something good we could do more of. I mentioned one such practice last week: the daily reading of a portion of Scripture — and if you do not already have that discipline as part of your Christian journey you might take it up this Lent — and never set it down!
Jesus answered him, It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.+
I also spoke last week of the great enduring virtue of Love — how we can scarcely hope to do without it. Today, I would like to explore another of the three great virtues: Faith. This virtue lies close to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a child of God, and a bearer of the good news. On this first Sunday in Lent, then, let’s take a look at faith, or more precisely, faithfulness — which is faith in action.
To start with, faith is not just about believing some fact, but about trusting a person. Surely we all know the difference. If you have faith in someone, you will trust what they tell you; and if you don’t have faith in someone, you’ll find yourself having to check everything they say. When we say, “We believe in one God” we just don’t mean, “We believe God exists.” It is not God’s mere existence we proclaim, but, as the Creed continues to point out, what God has done, in the creation and redemption of the world. When we say we believe in God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are placing our trust, as Christians, in the one God who is supremely trustworthy: God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, and the one on whom our faith is founded, and who is completely faithful: Jesus Christ the Son of God and our Lord. He, we are assured, was faithful unto death, even death on the cross. God doesn’t change — God’s love is steadfast and constant; the sort of faithfulness you can trust in. As that wonderful hymn verse says, “Who trusts in God’s unchanging live builds on a rock that nought can move.” That rock doesn’t move — and if you take your stand upon it, neither will you. We as Christians take our stand upon that Rock — and that Rock is Christ. Surely such a faithful Savior is worthy of our faith, and we are promised that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shallbe saved.” Our faith is based on what we see when we look back at what Jesus has done for us, and what he will continue to do: for he is faithful.
So faith has two faces: giving thanks for what has gone before, and trusting in what will come after. Unlike that warning you see on investment prospectuses (or is it prospecti?), “past performance is no guarantee of future performance” — here we are not relying on the performance of the stock market, but on the one who is the source of our being and doing: on God himself, who created, redeemed and sanctifies us. That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is secure.
A few weeks ago we heard Jeremiah’s description of those “who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord”; they are like trees planted by streams of water — in contrast to those like sorry shrubs in the desert, who trust in mere mortals. And faithfulness is the fruit that trusting trees bear — fruit that is borne because those trees are planted by the unfailing stream, and send their roots down deep, to draw on that well of faithfulness of God, who provides all that is needed.
This fruitfulness of faithfulness is described in our reading from Deuteronomy today — quite literally! The children of Israel have been delivered out of Egypt, brought through forty long years in the desert, and they are about to enter the promised land. They have received bread from heaven, and water from the rock — given food and drink all their weary way, by the God who is faithful and true. But before they enter into the promised land, while still on the borders — still collecting manna, still drinking the water God provides — Moses gives them a way to remember all that God has done for them once the manna ceases, and they drink from the springs of Israel.
And what a simple liturgy it is! To take some fruit, the first of the harvest, and to stand before God, and to remember: to remember your roots, your ancestors — that wandering Aramean Abraham, who left his home to wander afar in a faith based on God’s promise and covenant — to recall the hardships and travels, the desert years, the ups and downs, the manna and the water; and above all, to remember God’s mercy and promise — God’s faithfulness — and to give thanks for all that God has done. That’s where human faithfulness comes in, the response that grows out of faith in God.
This is what God asks of the people he has rescued and redeemed: that they remember... remember God, and give thanks. And we do well to remember too: Hasn’t God brought you out of many a scrape? God will be with you through this one, too. Never stop giving thanks; never lose faith. For God is faithful, too.
Our faith, as I said, is largely faith in God’s faithfulness: our faith in God’s future performance is based on the hard evidence of past performance coupled with faith in God’s steadfastness. And this is how our faithfulness of thanksgiving for the past turns towards faithfulness of trust in the future.
Today’s Gospel shows us this kind of faith that looks back to remember and ahead in trust. Notice how each of the devil’s temptations is an attack on Jesus’ own faith and trust in God his heavenly Father. And notice too how each one of Jesus’ responses to the devil always points back to God, always returns the focus to God, in whom Jesus trusts as a son trusts his loving father, and from whom the crafty devil is trying to distract him — as the devil has always done.
And I’d like to look at that little dialogue today, fleshing it out just a bit to see if we can imagine what was going on in the Devil’s mind, and in our Lord’s, based on the few words recorded by the evangelist. Through this, I hope we can better understand the faithfulness of Jesus in the face of the devil’s temptation.
In this expanded dialogue, the devil begins, “You must be awfully hungry, after forty days without food. You know, God gave your ancestors bread in the desert when they wandered back in Moses’ day — not just for forty days but forty years! Why, if your Father could give the people bread from heaven in the desert, why doesn’t he give some to you? I’m sure he would if you asked. Or you might create some yourself; I mean, here we are out in the desert, and if you are the son of God, why, you should be able to make manna come from heaven, too, or even make this stone into a loaf of bread!”
But Jesus responds, “God did not just give the people bread in the desert; for one cannot live on bread alone. God also gave his people the Law and the Covenant, life-giving words from his very own mouth. I will not forsake the latter in order to take a shortcut to the former. The time will come when I will provide bread in the wilderness. I will feed thousands with that bread. But more than that I will give myself as bread from heaven for the whole world, feeding more than thousands upon thousands in fulfillment of that Law and Covenant, bread which you neither know nor never will taste.”
Then the devil shifts to the a mountain top view. “Look at all this, all this glory and authority. All this might, majesty, power and dominion. It all belongs to me, and I will give it to you if you will forsake God and worship me.” But Jesus responds, “I will worship God alone, serving only him. You think the authority of the nations is yours to give to whom you will, but those who sell their souls and profane their faith by worshiping you have lost what truly matters. For what does it profit one to gain the whole world at the loss of one’s soul. I will not forsake the living God to worship one of his creatures. I will not serve you — the fallen angel who refused to serve your maker! I will not sell myself to gain the world, but I will give myself for the sake of that world, to save it; because for this I was born.”
Then the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem to the top of the Temple. “It’s awfully high up here. Do you really think you could survive if you jumped? Do you really have faith that God will send his angels to bear you up? Do you really believe all that stuff in the psalms? Prove it! David died — the one who thought he was God’s anointed — do you really think God will save you from the Pit any more than he did you ancestor? Prove it! Show me your faith, if you are the Son of God.”
And Jesus answers this, the hardest temptation, “No. I will not put God to the test. That would be the death of faith, because testing is the opposite of trusting. I know that God will lift me up, and highly exalt me, lift me from a place from which no one has ever returned, no not even David, from death itself. God will break down your doors — they will be opened that the King of glory may come in to raise me up. I will not put God to the test; but I will put my trust in him.” And so the defeated devil leaves him, to bide his time. The devil might test, but Jesus will trust.
That, beloved, is the key to faith: the trust that we place in one who is trustworthy: and who is more trustworthy than God?
There is a scene in Pilgrim’s Progress that sums up this faithfulness. Pilgrim has put his faith in God; and God has told him to stay on the road, to persevere in his pilgrimage, and promised that he will reach the Celestial City. But as he comes to the top of a hill and looks down the road ahead, he sees two lions on either side of the road. He moves on down the road, repeating to himself, “God said, Stay on the road; so stay on the road,” even as he wonders what might happen to him. God has brought him safe thus far, so he trusts God will continue to protect him. So he stays on the road, and as he approaches the lions, he sees that they are not on the road, but beside it; and what is more, they are chained, so that they cannot even reach the road. And so he passes between them, close enough to feel the breeze their paws make as they claw out towards him but only fan the air, and he passes unharmed, and continues on his way to the Celestial City.
Faith has two faces: the first looks to the past and says, Remember and give thanks, the second looks to the future and says, Trust. Can we do that together this Lent? Can we search our hearts and remember God’s goodness with thanks, and trust in God with a faith as firm as Jesus’ own faith in his heavenly Father?
From what captivity have we been delivered?
Through what deserts have we been brought?
With what food have we been fed?
Between what lions do we now walk?
Let us remember; let us give thanks; and let us trust; in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. +