Sunday, 8 November 2009

Save Us From the Time of Trial

Preacher: Lesley

This is another in our series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer: Save us from the time of trial.

Of course many of us grew up saying 'and lead us not into temptation'. So are we talking about temptation or trial? The Latin version of the Bible – the Vulgate translated it as temptation, so that's what was put in the King James version, and therefore that was the version in the Book of Common Prayer, which has influenced English-speaking Protestants ever since.

I find it difficult to understand why 'Lead us not into temptation' became the standard translation because the passage from James which we just had read, that says God doesn't tempt anyone. So, modern translations of the Lord's Prayer talk about the time of trial.

Is it temptation or trial? Well, the answer is both, or either. The same Greek word is translated trial or temptation or test. In the passage from James that we heard, it's the same word for trials when it says 'Consider it joy when you face trials of any kind' and for temptation in verse 12, where it is translated, 'Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.' And it's the same word when the Gospels talk about the Pharisees testing Jesus. In Matthew or Luke, the Lord's prayer has the same phrase which we have translated as 'Save us from the time of trial'.

What is the time of trial? The New Testament does talk about a time of trial for the whole world. Revelation 3 says: Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about a coming time of suffering: “And if those days had not been cut short no-one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” However, there is no reason to think that in the Lord's prayer Jesus was talking about this apocalyptic event, especially when the other possible translations are about trials and temptations that happen to us a s individuals. The theologian Tom Wright simply puts it: 'Don't put us to the test'.

Having got that out of the way, it's worth looking at why the New Testament used the same word for temptation, test and trial. It's because in the thought of early Christians, these were all pretty much the same thing. It was all about how people cope with the circumstances of life. Do we do the right thing or fall into sin? Do we take a course of action that is helpful or gives ourselves and others problems and cuts us of from God? What we might call temptation – that is the longing for things or actions that we know to be wrong - is just one aspect of the trials that we might face in the Christian life. The common factor is that in dealing with the things that life throws at us, or our own longings or distortions of personality, there are opportunities to move towards the light or away from it, to grow in knowledge of ourselves and God or to pursue a path which is about stagnation and decay.

This is summed up in the idea, running all the way through the Bible, that human beings are subject to tests and trials that may be sent or allowed by God. Is God, then like some cruel sergeant-major who puts us through drills and disciplines to make us strong and fit for duty?

As I was writing this I was listening to the tennis star, Serena Williams. on the radio, talking about her autobiography. The interviewer asked why in her early years her father moved his family from Saginaw, Michigan to Compton, Los Angeles, a much tougher area, which he described as a ghetto. It is said that Richard, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, planned his daughters' careers before they were born. He has said that he chose to bring up the family in Compton so they could "see first hand how their lives might turn out if they did not work hard and get an education". Serena said that he wanted to toughen them up as he encouraged them to practice their tennis from the age of 3 on public courts that might be littered with broken glass or hypodermic needles.

How different this is from what so many parents do – struggling to move to more up-market areas where their children will get into schools that have better results and where they may be less likely to get into trouble as they're growing up. And what a gamble – Serena and her sister Venus have turned into tennis champions but their older sister Tunde, who stayed in Compton was shot dead, as A victim of gang violence aimed at her boyfriend.

Is that what God does with the people who seek to follow the Christian way? In some ways the answer is Yes. God doesn't take us out of the world and we suffer all the things that will impact on everyone else. In 1 Cor 10, Paul writes 'No testing has overtaken you that is common to everyone'. For some of us that will be worse than others, depending on the circumstances of our birth, the accidents of life and what we do with it. However, in a society in which most people are not seeking to follow Jesus, we may have more troubles than the majority of people in similar circumstances, because we may have a set of ethics which may not allow us to choose an easy life. But Paul goes on to say 'God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it'.

I must say that when I've been really up against it in the past, I've remembered that promise and I've thought 'oh Yeah' Where is my way of escape? I think about those who have been described as having lost their faith because of the circumstances they have faced. I'm talking about the kind of situation which we feel to be intolerable, often emotionally intolerable, in which the only way out seems to be to do something that we know to be wrong.

I do believe that God makes ways of escape that we refuse to see or imagine, sometimes because they all outside our pre-conceived ideas and habits of thought and practice. So there are some things we just do not do – such as my mother never leaving the house without doing the washing up, even if she was going to be late. I'm proud to say that is a rule that I have managed to un-learn – and I'm still always late! But you get the idea – there are things to which we would say 'I can't do that' when what we really mean is that 'I won't do that'. And often we won't do it because it violates our sense of who we are. It is frequently a matter of pride: I'm not the sort of person who goes out leaving the washing up; I'm not the sort of person who feeds convenience food to my children; I'm not the sort of person who goes bankrupt; I'm not the sort of person who does that kind of job or lives in an area like that etc, etc. So part of the test may be to address our preconceptions about who we are – that somehow we are different or better than other people. Some of these things are to do with our gender identity – what our society says we should be or do as men or women and i think because, social roles tend to be more flexible for women these days, this can be more difficult for men. Sometimes we confuse these rules that we have for ourselves, and which often we learnt from our parents' values, with God's values and God's rules. It is not a sin to go out without combing your hair, even though your Mum would have told you off about it. It's not a sin to do something stupid or embarrassing, even if you feel awful about it!

And related to this kind of refusal to take the way out that God offers, may be anger against God – a fury that we should find ourselves in these circumstances and that God could leave us in the situation or only offer solutions which are not acceptable to us. We are then in danger of adding deliberate rejection of God to taking the sinful way out.

Then there's the question of what being tested 'beyond our strength' means. What does the Bible says ‘that we would be able to endure’? It seems to me that God's idea of what we can bear may be different from ours. It's like the child who says 'I can't go to school in that old pair of trainers any more.' We know that what they are really saying is not that the shoes are letting in water but that the young person is unwilling to put up with the real or imagined contempt of fellow-students for the unfashionable footwear. Of course, our dilemmas are more serious than this aren't they?

To resist temptation we need to be aware of what we are saying to ourselves. One of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves is to keep saying 'I can't bear it.' because probably then we won't. It's almost as bad as saying to ourselves, or others, 'I don't see why I should' because that is to reject the love of God who has given us a reason in the saving life of Christ for following in his footprints.

It may be that for some people, taking the right decision will involve grief or serious depression, pain or even death. These are the routes which we say we cannot endure. And what we are told is not that we will escape these but that with God even these can be borne, despite what we may feel now. I must say that Veronica springs to mind here. She has been more or less depressed for many years, as most of us know. Being subject to depression myself, I'm sure that she has been tempted to drastically change her life in desperate ways which might have offered a hope of escaping the misery. She may often have thought she would be unable to bear the depression, because the nature of it is that when someone is really down there is the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim to see. I have seen Veronica faithfully bearing the depression year on year, even when God feels too distant to care. She may not see it that way and will be aware of her various lapses day to day, but the quality of her Christian journey is one of patient endurance, and I believe that this is possible only because God is there for her, partly through others round about her. I know that will embarrass her, but I want to continue by saying that her husband, Ed, has equal if not more patient endurance.

Sometimes the only way out in keeping with our ethics lies through pain and death, though few of us will be offered this choice. It may be more common in war. We have recalled that today is Remembrance Day. I was moved recently by a radio archive programme in which the former bishop of Edinburgh explored what happens to people's faith under the extreme situations that so many encounter as participants or victims of warfare. For some their faith was strengthened; for others it was destroyed. I suspect that there are many who refuse to engage with the spiritual aspects of what they endure. We can in no way condone or welcome or justify war but it is true that the challenge of war can bring out the extremes of heroism and selflessness or degradation and self-seeking that lurk within the human character. Some people have discovered themselves in the experience; others can only try to forget what they found out about their own depravity. The programme certainly made me think – what would I do in such a situation? I don't know and most of us don't know how we would stand up if our life were in the balance. Maybe, we can enjoy the benefits of peace because God is answering our prayer - “Save us from the time of trial.”

What we do know is that Jesus faced this trial – to choose to go to Jerusalem and to face suffering and death or to betray his mission and escape the torture. We know that he set his face like a flint and faced his destiny, that he wept tears like blood as he struggled with what was required of him. He passed the test. He was tortured to death rather than give in to the temptation to run away. And we see the result. In his death and resurrection we find a promise of eternal life. So some of us, who may be called by God to risk death rather than doing wrong, can know that for us, death itself can be a way out.

Trials and tests can come from many sources. It may be that the behaviour of others is what we find really trying. We have to cope both with what they do and our own reactions to it. The answer is not to become a permanent hermit. Although from the 3rd century or so this became a lifestyle which was honoured as being a highly spiritual way of devoting the self to communing with God, in some ways it is a cop-out. Yes the desert fathers had to endure loneliness and privation, but they didn't have to cope with screaming kids, a demanding boss, a dissatisfied wife, a baby that woke them at 4 in the morning, a church that was in conflict or friends who rang at inconvenient hours to talk about their boyfriends. Jesus showed us that there was value in being alone with God and that it could be a time of real spiritual growth, but even he only stayed in the wilderness for 40 days. Community, family, society are key elements in shaping us into the sort of people who God wants us to be.

One of the ways in which God makes us fit for the Kingdom of God is to be part of the people of God. In other words believers are supposed to be in churches, which may well be something of a trial to us. There are people who say that they believe in God but they can’t stand the church. Yet that is part of God’s refinement of us. How are we going to stand these people in heaven if we can’t stand them on earth?

Circumstances can be another great source of trial to us – illness, poverty, bereavement, disaster and loss can all test our faith. The question is how we respond to these. Do we blame God, wonder what we've done to deserve it?

Our reading points out that one of the chief sources of pain, grief and trial is ourselves. In fact, in every trial, it is ourselves that is the problem – and our responses to the things that happen to us. How much easier to talk about being tempted by the Devil – to put it outside ourselves and blame someone else. So right at the beginning of the Bible, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. But Satan wasn’t always the evil one. He started as the simple literary device we find in the book of Job of explaining circumstances as being brought about by the adversary, who is a servant of God who is like the Council for the prosecution in court to test people and to enable humans to become what they ought to be. As things progressed in the story of God’s people it wasn’t far from there to Satan developing into an evil one and then the quintessence of evil who is engaged in tempting people on his own account and for the defeat of God. So sin becomes more the Devil’s fault for tempting us, than our own – just as Adam said that Eve tempted him and Eve blamed the serpent.

There is another source of trial which is recognised by many who have tried to come near to God. That is the perception of the absence of God. It is the feeling that our prayers just bounce off the ceiling and God does not care. This dark night of the soul has been the experience of great mystics and ordinary believers. It’s worth mentioning that it is only a trial to those who love God and seek to walk in God's way and hope to enjoy the loving divine presence. Anyone else would not care and those who persevere through this painful time will find that their devotion is rewarded.

Like sin, the word 'temptation' has gone out of fashion and so has 'sanctification' but that is what we are talking about here. Yoder insists that there are not 2 things in Christian salvation – first of all being saved by Jesus death and then being made holy. Unlike evangelicals and Catholics, Mennonites have never made any great distinction between these two but see it all part of the believer's closer and closer walk with God. And I think that for many of us, that corresponds with our experience. Yet it is still worth thinking about the process by which we become fit for eternal life. We may be forgiven, but how do we stand up in the presence of God with our selfishness and greed? Sanctification is the process of making us more like Jesus, more a member of the household of God and less at home in this world. It is not an easy process, yet it is essential or else a loving God would not allow us to go through it. John Donne remarked that no-one has enough affliction who is not changed and refined by it.

That’s a miserable way to finish this sermon and so I want to read you a bit from the writing of E Stanley Jones. He was a missionary to India in the 30s and originated the phrase ‘the Nazareth Manifesto’ to describe Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. Some of his books are in the Mennonite Centre library. One of these is ‘Victorious Living’. He wrote:

“Victorious living does not mean freedom from temptation. Nor does it mean freedom from mistakes. We are personalities in the making, limited and grappling with things too high for us. Obviously we, at our very best, will make many mistakes. But these mistakes need not be sins. Our actions are the results of our intentions and our intelligence. Our intention may be very good but because our intelligence is limited the action may turn out to be a mistake – a mistake, but not necessarily a sin. For sin comes out of a wrong intention. Therefore the action carries a sense of incompleteness and of frustration , but not of guilt…

Nor does it mean that we may not occasionally lapse into a wrong act, which may be called a sin. At that point we may have lost a skirmish, but it doesn’t mean we may not still win the battle. We may even lose a battle and still win the war. One of the differences between a sheep and a swine is that when a sheep falls into a mudhole it bleats to get out, while the swine loves it and wallows in it.”

So though we may be subject to trial and temptation we can choose to be swine or to be sheep. It all depends on what our attitude is and which direction we are going.

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