DT 26: 4-10
PS 91: 1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15
ROM 10: 8-13
A colleague of mine runs an annual program called “Atheism for Lent”; not exactly what one would expect of a minister running a church-based program! His point is not that people literally “give up God for Lent,” but that they allow the most important critiques of religion to “test” our faith, burning away impurities and leaving behind a more serious and mature faith, like refining ore to get down to a pure sample of metal.
It is no coincidence that during the 40 days of Lent we read about Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the desert; this scene comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism, at which he hears the words, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased (LK 3:22). Whatever Jesus might or might not have known about himself by that point in his life, that sort of moment demands some unpacking. Hence, the testing in the desert – less “temptations” than tests, in the sense of proving the solidity of his understanding of God and his commitment to that God.
Twice the tempter begins his test by saying, “IF you are the Son of God…”; that does not sound to me like doubt about WHETHER Jesus is the Son of God, but what it means for him to BE the Son of God, and indirectly what it means for God to be God. After a long fast, the temptation is to make stones into bread, because ‘if you are the Son of God, you should not be hungry.’ The implication of Jesus’ response is, ‘I AM the Son of God, but that does not mean I will always be well-fed and taken care of.’ Similarly, the third test is for Jesus to rely on angels to save him from bodily harm, because ‘if you are the Son of God,’ you should be invulnerable. Again, the implication of Jesus’ response is, “I AM the Son of God, but that does not mean that I will always be safe.”
From a certain angle, the tempter’s tests make sense: if God is the all-powerful King, and Jesus is the son of that God, Jesus should live like royalty. But what if Jesus is the Son of a different kind of God? If Jesus is vulnerable, able to suffer, moved by the pain of others, but God is all-powerful and above suffering, then Jesus is not actually what God is like, which would be pretty misleading. What if God is less properly understood in terms of power and invulnerability and better understood in terms of solidarity with the marginalized?
We all want safety, security, to be well-fed and properly thanked for our efforts; there is nothing magical about any of that. But any number of examples throughout our history, right to the present moment, demonstrate the riskiness of being a part of God’s family. Of course we too often collude with the powers that be, make God look like just a bigger and stronger version of the powers that be, imagine God on our side destroying our enemies or at least clearing our path. That is the tempter’s vision of God, and it is indeed tempting – so much so that I imagine most of us have given in often enough to the impulse to favor security over sacrifices.
One way we might imagine Jesus’ relationship to God is that Jesus does not go scrambling towards what we WANT God to be like, a God of security and power. Jesus acknowledges his limitedness and vulnerability in the context of his proclamation of the reign of God, whereas we so often expect our religion and our world to provide us all the things that Jesus clearly did not expect: absolute certainty, security, popularity, success.
This season, as we consider what we give up each Lent, consider the value of giving up God-images which no longer bring life in favor of more mature and serious models of relating to the God who calls us to justice.