LENT #1: Entering the Desert of Testing

1st Sunday of Lent (C) – March 6, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-15; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Test, not Temptation

So here as we begin this Lenten season, there is something I need to admit to you all. And I know you will probably look at me differently. Some of you might even judge me. But here goes: I’m a nerd. And don’t get it wrong, I’m not a dweeb, and I’m not a geek. I’m a nerd. For example, for as long as I can remember, I have loved taking tests. You’ve been going to class, you’ve been studying and studying, and then test day comes—that was the best! Here is this perfect opportunity to prove how I had done the work, how I knew the material; prove my character as the truly studious one. Now, I’m aware how much of a loser I sound like right now. But just being honest.

The point is this: I loved tests in school because a test was a way to prove the truth about myself, to prove my character, to show that I was a good student.

The story of humanity, especially the story of humanity as recounted in Scripture, is a story of testing. Adam and Eve are tested in the garden; Abraham is tested by God to sacrifice his beloved son; Moses is tested by God; Israel is tested by God in the wilderness; and famously even Jesus is tested (this Gospel we have today).

But what some of you are probably thinking is, “Uh, Fr. Michael…it says tempted. Jesus went out into the desert and to be tempted.” And this is where that first little bit about me being a nerd comes back into play. The Gospel wasn’t written in English, it was written in Greek. And the Greek word we translate as “tempt” is peirazo—yeah, huge nerd. And yes, you could use the word “tempt,” but there is one problem: “tempt” has connotations of doing evil. No one has ever told me, “Father, I was tempted to donate $100,000 to the parish today…but don’t you worry, I rejected that temptation!” No, “tempt” always has connotations of, “I was tempted to do this bad thing. I was tempted to steal that cookie.”  OK. But that leads you into one very specific way of thinking about what is going on when someone experiences peirazo.

The other way to translate it and to think about it is a test. And what is a test? Again, think about school: here is this test that reveals who knows the material that was covered and who doesn’t. So: a test is a set of difficult circumstances that reveal the truth of who you are. Are you the one that studied or played video games all night? Make sense?

Lent: A Test to Reveal Who We Truly Are

Ok, so then ask: Why would God want to test us? Why would God allow us to endure times of testing? Is He just trying to send us to hell? Just making us suffer? No, obviously not. A time of testing reveals WHO WE ARE. Think of school: a test reveals who has studied. Think of sports: a test reveals who has more talent, has prepared more, who is the better team. In other words, tests reveal WHO WE ARE. God doesn’t test us because He is trying to figure out who we are—He’s not dumb, He knows. A test allows US to recognize who we are. Why? Because usually we have a very lofty understanding of who we are. “I’m a good person! I’m no Mother Theresa. But I’m a good person.” This is how we think. But perhaps we’re overestimating ourselves. A test can humble us, help us recognize who we truly are, and who God is to us (actually). It’s easy to say, “I believe in God.” It’s harder to live that.

For example, a good student that flunks a test uses the test to recognize their weaknesses, and study those areas they aren’t sure about. A good athlete or team that loses a game use that loss to shore up their weaknesses. For students and athletes, the failure and and humility and disillusionment that comes with a failed test is an incredible gift. These tests can point out weaknesses and problems you were blind to, and admit,  “Yeah, I am not as smart as I thought I was. Yeah, our team has weaknesses.”

For us in this time of testing that we call Lent—in this time of testing, we begin to recognize all of the different ways that the person we truly are isn’t always the person we tell ourselves we are. Let me say that again: in Lent, in this time of testing, the Lord is inviting us to recognize all of the different ways that the person we truly are isn’t always the person we think we are. We are not as self-controlled as we think (because giving up social media is hard). We are not as prayerful as we thought (because I still haven’t said an extra hail Mary each day). We are not as generous as we thoughts (bc I’m already justifying why I can’t give any money). In other words: maybe we are not the perfect Christians we thought we were.

Lent is a time of recognizing that the person we truly are isn’t always the person we think we are. And that the person we’re called to be (Christ himself)—we often don’t embody him at all.

Experience of Testing: The Desert Crisis

And that’s why in scripture, the place of testing is often in a desert, in the wilderness. Israel is led out So what is the experience in life that tests who we are? When do we see, in normal, everyday life, this kind of test? We see it in moments of hardship, in moments of crisis. And that’s why in scripture, the place of testing is often in a desert, in the wilderness. Israel is led out into the desert to be tested. Jesus is led out into the wilderness. The desert symbolizes a place where you are no longer in control, a place where you are immediately in crisis mode—all your normal comforts, self-medication, all of it is gone. And when you are not in control of all of your surroundings, when there is a crisis, your true character is revealed. It’s easy to be a “good person” when things are good. But in a crisis? Not so much.

There is an episode of the Twilight Zone—hopefully some of you know what that show is—but there is an episode called “The Shelter.” And “The Shelter”—again, Twilight Zone was made during the ’60s, everyone is worried about nuclear missals coming from the Soviet Union—“The Shelter” is this episode about this pleasant little family, and their pleasant little neighbors (I think this was filmed in Sterling). And as they’re eating dinner, the radio comes on, emergency broadcast, and it’s the government warning everyone that there is an unidentified object headed for the United States; “Everyone go to your shelters!”

And that’s when everything goes crazy. All of the neighbors start breaking things, stealing food. And as the threat looms larger, neighbors turn on one another, they start saying what they really think, threatening one another. One of the families had built a bomb shelter in their basement—and the people even break into this family’s shelter to take it from them.

But then the radio comes back on and says, “It’s just a satellite. False alarm.” So then everyone quickly starts to back-pedal. They start apologizing, saying they didn’t really mean all those terrible things they just said. They apologize for threatening this man and his family, for taking over his shelter.

But it’s like no, it’s too late, we all found out who you truly are. The truth about people, the truth of their character was revealed. A “crisis doesn’t change people: it amplifies who they already are.” “The desert” we are invited into during Lent—it’s a kind of crisis. And the crisis, the desert, doesn’t change us, it’s not meant to change us, it simply amplifies who we truly are, it amplifies those parts of us that we can usually keep hidden from others—and hidden from ourselves.

We can easily say, “I believe in God the Father the almighty” every Sunday. But do you really? Do you really believe he is your father, almighty in power? If crisis hit your family, you, your job—would your faith in God as almighty father stay? Or would that be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

I think the Pandemic was a visceral example of this for us. One person was reflecting on that year and said,  “Adversity [crisis, the desert] seems to bring out, not necessarily the worst in people, but who people truly are. In my months working in retail during the pandemic, I’ve noticed my cranky customers get even meaner. I’ve noticed my pleasant customers have gotten more friendly, understanding and compassionate towards our challenges. The generous ones have been leaving bigger tips than before this whole thing started.” The crisis, the desert of the pan. didn’t change people: it amplified who they already were.

Who Are We?

Lent is a time of testing, a time to intentionally enter into the desert with Jesus for forty days, to place ourselves in a little crisis, to place ourselves in the desert—and to recognize who we truly are. 

And the question is: are you, is your identity, is who you are, like Christ: 1) a child of God, dependent on the Father for all things, confident in His power? Or are you in cahoots with the plan of the Enemy himself: 2) your own man/woman, one who relies entirely on yourself, rejects dependence on God, and has decided (for all intents and purposes) to go it alone? Yeah, you go to Mass—but day to day, to go it alone.

In our little deserts, in Lent, in this time of testing, the Lord is inviting us to recognize all of the different ways that the person we truly are isn’t always the person we think we are.

99% of the time we live as if God doesn’t exist, as if the Father does not really provide for us. We believe he exists, we believe all that stuff, if we’re asked. But when that is put to the test, we can easily see that we live our life as if God does’t exist or care about us. We try to be a good person, but when push comes to shove, when the chips are on the table, we turn to ourself—and God is just an idea.

The good news is that even when we realize all of the ways we have failed the test, like a good student or athlete we see this as a great gift, this humbling moment is a great gift. Because when we recognize the ways we have failed, and when we remember that the Father seeks to restore us and not condemn us, we are also taking the first step toward allowing the Lord to powerfully transform our lives. This is what Lent is all about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s