“Renewing Your Spirit”

February 17, 2013


Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Luke 4:1‑13

The human body is an amazing piece of work. It constantly repairs and rebuilds itself.

Cut your finger—it will heal.

Pull out a hair—it will grow back, at least on some heads.

Break a bone—it can be set and will mend.

New cells are being created all the time.

Certainly we know decay. Ash Wednesday reminded us: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”—in case we needed reminding. We know decay, but the human body, all on its own renews itself each day.

Our spirits are different.

Our spirits can grow weary.

We go through times of trial.

We face evil in the world, evil in ourselves.

The weary soul knows fatigue, a nagging guilt, a sense of right things left undone while the wrong is done. The weary soul shows itself in a face that seems to have forgotten how to smile, in a tense body, in tears. And one day it occurs to you: “I saw a person just like that today, when I looked in the mirror.”

You see, unlike the human body, the human spirit seems to require an intentional effort in order to find the renewal that it needs. The wounded soul does not heal in the same way as the cut finger. The Spirit of God will heal and empower our weary spirits. But we must participate in that spiritual regeneration.

The gift of a period of time like Lent is that we offered several weeks to look intentionally at our lives. We are offered God's renewal of our own weary spirits, our weary congregation. We are invited to discover God's life giving love active in our midst. We are invited in these days to consider our own living and dying so that we might better announce to others the new life offered in the resurrection that we announce at Easter.

This morning I want to look specifically at the possibilities for renewal offered by testing and trial.

To be alive is to face times of trial.

Walter Levine was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and given three days to live. Through self-determination, the support and love of his family and friends, and through prayer, he fought the cancer and won. Now, that, of course, is not the outcome that everyone has, even with love and prayer.

Reflecting on his experience, Levine says, “God is a forgiving merciful God, but life isn’t merciful. In life you’re put through tests.”

Commitment to God’s way doesn’t exempt us from times of trial. You know that. You know people who seek to live lives of faith who face chronic pain, family problems, unemployment.  You've experienced these or other problems yourself.

When we are hit with difficult times it’s easy to ask “What's wrong with me?” “What have I done wrong to deserve this?” These are old questions, as old as the friends of Job, who were certain that he had sinned terribly and in so doing had evoked the wrath of God upon him.

When facing difficult times, maybe we should ask instead: “What am I doing that is right?”

Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus, “led by the Holy Spirit,” had a devilish time of testing in the wilderness. Certainly, this is a note of caution for all who seek a renewed spiritual life.  A concern for “spirituality” as we discover it in the Bible does not exempt us from testing but rather seems to inaugurate such times.

Which is really what we might expect. A commitment to a specific course of action, a decision for one way of life will put you in conflict with other possible actions. The person who has found peace with God comes into conflict with the violence of the world—and perhaps just as much, the person who has made peace with the world comes into conflict with God. The person whom God justifies comes into conflict with the injustice of the world and protests against it. The person whose soul is nourished by God sees the hunger rampant in the world.

Recall your own times of testing and trial. At the heart of each trial is the struggle to remain a faithful creature under the rule of God.

Faithful or not, however, each of us will experience times when our commitments are tested. To be alive is to face times of trial.

The testing of Jesus informs our own times of trial. Jesus was tempted, after all, not to do something harmful, but something that would benefit himself, something that would benefit others. Real temptation always seems to offer some good for us or for others.

Turning stones into bread would be good. It would feed Jesus, hungry in the wilderness; it would feed the hungry masses. In a world that is still hungry what could be better?

Jesus was tempted to seize power for himself. Most people know how familiar that temptation sounds—to get power over others, to control them for your own ends, "for their own good" we tell ourselves.  Would it be so wrong if Jesus were to gain power and use it "for our good?"

Probably so.

Finally comes the suggestion that Jesus throw himself off the temple and let God catch him. He could demonstrate to all the people that the laws of nature can be broken for him. Imagine those who would rush to follow after such a display.

Real temptation is an offer to rise, not to fall. We're not tempted by the ugly or by the base. We are tempted by all that is fine and beautiful and noble.

The serpent in the garden offers a nice deal. “You will be like God.” The tempter in the wilderness tests Jesus with “If you are the son of God.” Voices whisper to us about the wonderful things we could do if we would just set aside the fact that we are creatures and be more like the gods we think we are. Temptation is still very real in the world.

Temptation plays to strength, not weakness. We are tempted to do what is in our power—the greater our strength, the greater the temptation. It always holds out some good. But it is the small print at the bottom of temptation that brings ruin.

Through times of trial we define who we are. The devil again: “If you are the son of God.” These tests will show just what kind of son Jesus is—one who goes his way or one who is faithful. Scripture provides way through these tests. Three times Jesus is tempted. Three times he replies: "It is written . . ." This is not an empty quoting of scripture as though certain words have some magical power.

Rather, Jesus shows his grounding in his community of faith, his history, an understanding of his destiny. It is the living Word of God that makes a difference, not words on paper.

So it was that the Hebrew people would recite their history as a people of God. A history of strength and also a history of trial as slaves in Egypt, of testing in the wilderness before coming to the land God would give them.

We are renewed by God’s word as we are able to hear it today. We are grounded in our tradition. This is a place to work from, not to be stuck in. And so we are shaped by our faithful responses.

Temptation. Trial. Testing. We often think of them as negative. Instead, they are opportunities to grow up and mature in faith.  Temptation is a relatively neutral event—an experience that can be either positive or negative depending on how we react to it.  After all, in many ways, it is not what happens to us that matters as much as how we choose to react to the event.

We are renewed by making choices because each choice defines who we are and who we will be. Through times of trial we give shape to people we are.

We will continue to encounter evil in our lives. Call it what you will. In us and among us and around us there is a strong opposition to love, health, wholeness, and peace.

Each encounter with this opposition will be a test, a trial.

Our victories over sin, over temptation, our coming through times of trial are never final. We learn from the story of Jesus in the wilderness that evil will wait for an opportune time. But this is not reason for despair.

For, if our victories are only provisional, the victory of Christ is final and certain. By faithfulness, even to the cross, Jesus Christ has overcome death. God has raised him so that we may know new life, and find renewal for our spirits in Christ.

This then, is the good news. We are never alone when we face times of trial. We are never alone when we face temptation, when we feel tested. In Jesus Christ, God knows the testing we encounter and has already walked where we walk. And this God is ready to offer forgiveness even when we give in, even when we choose—as we do—evil over good, the ways of death over the ways of life.

Through testing, trials and temptations, we always have the opportunity to renew our weary and weak spirits.

Through testing, trials, and temptation we are alive to God—and God is made known to us.