“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”

David Balch—February 28, 2007
1st Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26.1-11
Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16
Romans 10.8b-13
Luke 4.1-13

John Donahue, Hearing the Word of God (2002) 39, reflecting on readings for Year C, observes,

the first two Sundays of Lent present the temptation and transfiguration of Jesus, which form a virtual epitome of the paschal mystery. Jesus, taking on human form, humbled himself even to death and was “tested” by his Father, yet this was a presage of his glorification.

Indeed, both in the gospel of Luke and in our Lenten readings, Jesus’ temptation early in the gospel is directly connected to Jesus’ passion at its climax. Luke writes the word “temptation,” “trial,” “test” (peirazo, peirasmos) eight times in the gospel, twice in the story read today:

[Jesus] was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil (4.2-3, NRSV)—and that When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (4.13)

This is actually the same word Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, which we will pray together in a moment:

And do not bring us into the time of trial.” (11.4)

Then again, as Luke narrates Jesus’ Last Supper, which we will also celebrate in a few moments, Luke writes the word again three times. In Luke Jesus presides at a Passover meal, and as they eat, we all remember the story, they fall into an argument about who is greatest (22.24-27), to which Jesus responds with these words:

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials (temptations).” (22.28)
“Simon! Simon! Listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers and sisters.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (22.31-34, NRSV modified, my emphasis)

Finally, they go out to the Mount of Olives—Mark and Matthew call the place “Gethsemane”:

When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (22.40)

A few moments later, Jesus himself prays two lines of the Lord’s Prayer:

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (22.42)

We know how the story develops: Jesus finds the disciples sleeping, which Luke generously explains was “because of grief”! (22.45) Then, the final use of this word in the gospel:

“Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (22.46)

This is the gospel! Both in the Lord’s Prayer, repeatedly at the Last Supper, and on the Mount of Olives, Jesus urges the disciples to pray that God not bring them/us into a time of testing, of trial. But at the same time, we read, Jesus tells Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat.” Is it “good news” that we are “those who stand by Jesus in his trials”?

Greg Schaefer and the Pastoral Team at PLTS regularly email us information regarding those in our community who request that we stand by them in their crises. As Jesus asked the disciples to stand by him on the Mount of Olives before and during his trials, his passion, so we have the opportunity of standing by others in our community who face crises. Yesterday, Herb Anderson cooked one of his justly renowned meals for Jack and Ruth Niemi. After a heart operation, Jack courageously resigned after being here only 18 months; together, he and Ruth face a new chapter in their lives. We will pray with Herb himself, as he anticipates a hip replacement operation on March 21. I think of Donna Duensing, who has asked us to pray with her as she takes care of her grand niece in Florida, so that her grand niece can visit her mother, Donna’s sister, who is in her last days. Lucia Poole asks us to pray with her and her son, as he goes through transitions.

When I was first ordained, the bishop in Dallas sent me as an interim pastor to Grace Lutheran in Abilene. I had done the academic track and was accustomed to reading books in my office, not to visiting critically ill patients in the hospital. Rather quickly, I discovered the importance of listening, well, first, of just being there, of showing up at the hospital or in members’ homes. As pastor I did not always know the right words, but I found that the pastor simply being there, of being with parishioners in their crises, listening, and assisting them in praying to God was often profoundly comforting.

One Lutheran couple was driving from Kansas to Padre Island in south Texas for some days of rest. He parked near a restaurant in Abilene, climbed out of the cab of their van, and was hit by a car, with the result that one of his legs was amputated. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a stranger in the town, he was in the hospital in Abilene for weeks, while his seemingly tireless wife supported him. I did not have magic words, but I could show up, listen, and pray with them, be with them in their crisis.

Every time we worship we pray, “Our Father, … do not bring us into the time of trial.” But as we read the Lenten gospel for today, we learn that Jesus himself was tempted, tried, that he asked the disciples to be with him in those trials. And we hear Jesus tell Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat.” In the life of Jesus, in my ministry, in yours, for members of the congregation, there are, there will be times of testing, crises. We pray earnestly, as Jesus taught us, that they might be a year, five years, twenty years in the future; but they will come. As disciples of Jesus, we do not have to try and avoid them; rather we have the company of Jesus and other disciples to go with us in and through those crises.

I encourage you to ask for company in your crises, as did Jesus. Every pastor I know well has strengths—and weaknesses. Several pastors I know are incredibly gifted at supporting others through their crises, but unable to ask for company in their own. One of the greatest dangers of being a pastor is isolation. Jesus asked for company in his trials; might we not do the same?

It is easier for me to look back on such tests in my own life than to look forward. As I look back on such times, actually they are some of my most important memories. When I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, we had to decide how to relate to black activists such as Angela Davis, who was on trial for murder, what to do and say in relation to their struggle for liberation. Astoundingly to me, two decades later, my daughter, Christina, took me for the first time with her to class at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and there was her teacher, Angela Davis!

The past decade of my teaching ministry was formed around supporting a gay colleague, Steve Sprinkle, whom the Dean had appointed as Director of Field Education at the divinity school. I look back on that time of testing and say it was fascinating to learn not only to TALK about theology but to DO it! My gay friend looks back on that decade in Fort Worth and calls it hell. It was his life, not mine, that was on the line. He spoke realistically about the possibility that a good, pious Christian might some day shoot him, as Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

In my ministry, such tests have formed around black activism in the United States, the ordination of women in our churches, and now around the ordination of gay and lesbian persons to the ministry. The content of tests changes. Tests, crises the church is experiencing now will probably not be the same as the tests you as pastors will face ten or twenty years from now.

One more point and I am finished. In the last decade of testing, I grew to dislike the word “liberal.” I knew many liberal Christians, who knew the right words, like Peter did. They had either learned the politically correct words as students in divinity school classrooms, or as professors, they taught the right words, had even published the right words. But many occasions arose that required more than words, or at least, words difficult to speak in the high priest’s courtyard. (Let me be clear: the high priests of whom I speak are Christians, not Jews.) My colleague was verbally attacked and slandered many times. Many, most I would say, of these liberal Christians disappeared into the woodwork; they did not show up. When their time in the wilderness, or on the Mount of Olives, or in the high priests’ courtyard arrived, they found it convenient to go somewhere else. Even if we fail, as we know, Jesus forgives (24.36) and transforms us, as was the case with Peter (Acts 1.13, 15; 2.14, a different sermon).

I do not know how you will follow your call to be a leader in the church, as female or male, straight, gay, or lesbian, non-white or white, with many of the world’s resources or few, with humor or without. I have often wished that God had given me more of a sense of humor. I do not have specific advice about when is the best time to speak, or how, or with what style. But when Jesus was tested, he spoke; he showed up, and spoke back to evil.

One does not live by bread alone. (4.4)
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God. (4.8)
Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (4.12)

Jesus showed up in the wilderness; he spoke the truth to evil. Let us pray to our Father/Mother, “do not bring us into the time of trial.” When we are all sifted like wheat, may God grant that we, like Jesus, learn how to ask others to accompany us in our crises, and that we do not deny our Lord, but as did Jesus, confess who he is and who we are as faithful disciples. May God give us faith and courage as we learn how to become “those who have stood by Jesus in trials.”