Sermon Seeds: Take Every Test
Sunday, March 6, 2022
First Sunday in Lent | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Violet)
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
Take Every Test
Mender of Broken Walls (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Tests. Tests assess our knowledge, abilities, perspectives, and understandings. They identify our attitudes and aptitudes. Tests are used to make comparisons among groups of people or to recognize trends and commonalities. We take tests in school in order to demonstrate retention of memorized material or understanding of complex and connected ideas. Some tests illustrate areas that need additional focus and specialized attention while other tests are designed as a means of barrier building, weeding out, and restricting access. Even those silly little tests we find on social media serve a purpose–they attempt to tell us something about ourselves that may surprise us or confirm what we already know, accept, and believe about our identity.
Don’t most tests fall into that purpose in some way? They confirm or surprise. We may meet expectations–our own as well as others–or confound them. Our results may be dramatically better or worse than anticipated. In either case, tests provide a measurement, subjective or objective, of some aspect of our lives. Even spiritual tests do that.
In my memory of this text, I thought that Jesus had spent forty days in isolation, fasting, and prayer that was then followed by a brief period of temptation. The temptation came, in my recollection, after Jesus had been physically weakened but spiritually strengthened. As I revisited the text, however, I realized my memory had failed me. The temptation, a particular kind of test, took place for the entire forty days. What I took to be a tangential response was actually the main thing.
Who knows if Jesus planned to be in the wilderness for that long? Maybe, he intended to journey to a particular destination and got trapped into a spiritual traffic jam in an abbreviated version of the Exodus narrative. The people liberated from Egypt were waylaid for forty years on their journey to the Promised Land after a relatively easy crossing of the Red Sea, but there was purpose behind the delays and roadblocks they encountered. Surely, there must have been purpose behind this moment in the early days of Jesus’ ministry.
Remember that Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River. There’s something significant about entering the water. Baptism signifies and symbolizes a type of crossing over, transitioning from one state into another. These transitions are important:
A rite of passage [is] understood as a formal process rooted in tradition, which marks the transition of an individual or group from one cultural) determined state or station m life to another Such a rite often involves, to one degree or another, a separation from the old, a liminal or in between stage, and a reincorporation into a new state or station.Teresa Reeve
We get glimpses into the Exodus journey and the Old Testament passage this week provides instruction for the transition from their journey into their new life. That instruction calls upon them to act and remember. It prepares them for the tests that are to come.
We don’t always have the luxury of knowing that we will be tested. In academic environments, we may receive a syllabus that outlines what evaluations we should expect and when. Particularly generous educators will inform their students of the contents of the test. There’s a different type of preparation involved when you know what to study for and when you don’t. Frankly, just knowing that you will be tested may alter your entire approach to a given subject. The testing exists as a means of teaching; more than that, the results of the testing reflects on the instructor as much as the student.
I am acquainted with lots of educators and most bemoan the rise in standardized testing in primary and secondary education. More and more institutions of higher learning are deemphasizing standardized admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT in evaluating applicants. The deficiencies and biases of these forms of evaluation in capturing the academic potential of individual students has been demonstrated.
Several years ago, I volunteered at a local elementary school. I tutored fourth and fifth graders in math. When that particular school began to prepare their students for the state-developed test that determined, despite all other evidence, whether a student would transition to the next grade level and whether the school would be rated favorably as an educational institution, they suspended tutoring. Imagine that. I was working with students who needed additional help to grasp foundational concepts in a foundational subject. Yet, they stopped that assistance in order to give more time to prepare for a test developed from a distance.
When an educator administers a test to their student, they know where that student began and what progress has been made. They are able to use the results to modify their approach to teaching and it benefits both teacher and student. When tests are administered without relationship, the results serve to divide and to judge.
Some posit that Exodus took such a long time not because of the physical distance that needed to be covered, but because of the spiritual development that needed to take place. Testing happened in the desert.
Testing happened in the wilderness. We only see a small portion of the exchanges between Jesus and the devil. We witness Jesus ending the debate with his adversary. We can’t even be sure that the forty days of temptation reflected the same type of dialogue. Maybe the temptation with words and visions happened all along or maybe served as a last ditch effort to influence Jesus. Maybe Jesus did not intend to fast when he journeyed to the wilderness; that may have been a response to temptation. Jesus, after all, would probably have understood that the most effective response to a challenge is not to avoid it or lessen it but to lean into it.
What exposes our weaknesses in the short term makes us stronger in the long term when we confront them and address them. Isn’t that what the tests are about? Test taking can be stressful in and of itself. Few of us like to be judged and I don’t know that I know anyone who likes to fail. We may grow to appreciate the possibilities that our failures open for us, but the experience of failing can be devastating, demoralizing, and depressing. But failure is essential to life.
A seed has to crack in order for the life inside it to emerge. Small dreams give way for larger visions. The trial of the Exodus journey leads to the bounty of the Promised Land. The horror of the cross is instrumental for the victory of the resurrection.
Tests illuminate failings, but tests and failure are temporary. They are meant to be taken and overcome. With so many communities attempting to ban knowledge, either through the teaching of certain subjects or exposure to books, we see a society failing a fundamental test. Of course, this is only one aspect of it. There has been a widespread failing to demonstrate a commitment to the pursuit of truth. It’s more than just the deliberate dissemination of lies and false information. It’s also limiting the development of critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization–like so many of those standardized tests we encounter. It’s the propaganda eschewed by governments and media outlets like we see in the justification of Russia’s invasion of the democratic and sovereign nation of Ukraine.
It can also be the extraction of scripture passages from their context to prove a point that very well may be counter to what the biblical witness actually illustrates. The devil, after all, knows scripture too.
In the gospel passage, Jesus answers every test that the enemy presents with a scriptural response. There’s power in the word, especially when spoken by the Word. But, the power comes not as a talisman or magic wand. It’s in the truth found in the stories of a people who wrestled with God and with one another. There’s power in the witness of a God who abides with a people who often turn from the Holy One. There’s power in the testing and retesting of a relationship that spans time and distance, highs and lows, connection and disconnection.
Jesus doesn’t pull a few lines of scripture to make a point. Jesus pulls a line to connect to those stories and to the meaning they hold in the lives of the beloved–all of God’s created. Then, Jesus finishes it by stating, “‘It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” That’s interesting because when we read Malachi 3, God says, “Test me…” It’s possible that Malachi 3 presents a unique exception, but I think the opposite might be true.
This may be a particular warning to a particular foe. We see Jesus respond affirmatively to tests, requests for healing, theological questioning, even documenting the scars from the passion. Even in this encounter, the Divine One is being tested and takes every test. Jesus, to use a colloquial phrase, crushes it.
As we begin this Lenten season, we reflect on a time that will, for a time, appear to be a failure. These questions and challenges will be amplified by a trial in which Jesus will mostly be silent in front of his accusers. He will be weakened, physically deprived, and isolated. It will seem that the final test will be too much. It will appear that death will have rendered the final result.
But, remember Jesus warned not to test him.
Jesus is ready for the test. Jesus prepared for the test. Jesus has the answer and is, in truth, the answer to the test. He will not fail.
Jesus will crush it.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks
For further reflection:
“It takes the lessons to learn and grow. It takes the growth to pass the tests.” ― Emilyann Allen
“You love tests?” “Well, yeah. There are questions and answers. True or false, multiple choice, essay. What’s not to love?” ― Nora Roberts
“You cannot build a dream on a foundation of sand. To weather the test of storms, it must be cemented in the heart with uncompromising conviction.” ― T.F. Hodge
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to identify brief passages of scripture or affirmations they may use as a response to the temptations they face.
Reeve, Teresa L. “Rite from the Very Beginning: Rites of Passage in Luke 1-4 and Their Function in the Narrative of Luke-Acts.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 49, no. 2 (Aut 2011): 243–59.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
26 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
But what does it say?
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 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. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9 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, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.