Today is Valentine’s Day, formerly known as the feast of St. Valentine. The internets have been flooded with Valentine memes over the last few days – those silly pictures with a witty phrase. People more clever than I have turned everything from dictators to sci-fi characters into kitschy fake Valentine cards. One of my favorites is the picture of the aforementioned saint with the caption, “Rose are red, Violets are blue. I was beaten with clubs and buried in darkness [there’s actually more to the legend than that] and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.”
Now, as for me and my beloved, we have never really celebrated this holiday – by mutual agreement. Primarily that’s because flowers that will soon die and trinkets that will never be worn are not the way we express our appreciation for one another. Expressions of love that are mass marketed, conveniently packaged, and socially expected just aren’t our thing. Love cannot be captured in a holiday. It cannot be purchased in a store. Love cannot be tested by its service to us. Yet love that is true and real will put us to the test.
I’m not just talking about romantic love. I’m talking about the love we read about a couple of weeks ago in Paul’s letter to Corinth. I’m talking about a love that is the greater over and above faith and hope. Love that is true is not to be tested, but it will test you.
I say that love must not be tested because testing it is to open the door to temptation. Oh how we love temptation, though. We sing about it. I bet you could each think of at least three songs right now about the positive effects of temptation. We create marketing demographics around it. We use temptation to justify our weaknesses and to elevate our worst behaviors. “I couldn’t help myself.” we say. “The temptation was just too great.” And everyone nods slyly, knowing that weakness has become the convenient justification for self-destructive habits.
Yet Paul speaks about justification of another kind – not as a means to get our way, but as a means to be accepted by God. He told the church in Rome that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus is what will justify them before God. Why? How?
Essentially he is saying that belief in the power of God to raise Jesus means believing in the power of God to save you. Whether it’s because we expect ourselves to be capable and find that we are not or because we have heard the gospel of ridicule too many times, all of us find ourselves – at some point – in need of salvation. All of us find ourselves in a position of limitation. Words fail us in the face of tragedy. Our politics ensnare us and we forget how to be a community or how to recognize our connection to others and how important it is to be compassionate.
Yet there is this hope found deep within our belief in God’s power to redeem. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus means believing in God’s power over death and suffering and human attempts to limit the hand of God. And our confession seals the deal. Our confession of a God whose grace and mercy and kindness belittles the grave and restores those who suffer is the answer to the test of love.
For love cannot be put to the test, but love will test you. Why is that – you may ask. Does God want it to be this way? My son and I were having a discussion about this question after the Ash Wednesday service. I was worried that it was too heavily focused on the terribleness of our sin, and he asked, “Did God make us this way on purpose?”
Ah, theodicy – the problem of sin and evil and a just God! Well, near as I can tell, we are made as limited creatures. Our limited time and knowledge leave us longing for more, and our experience of God’s love lets us know that there is more to life – more than we can know. It affirms that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
And so it was with Jesus in the time when love tested him. One of the first things I noticed about this passage is that the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where he would be tempted by the devil. And what does Jesus do during this time of full humanity? He makes himself vulnerable. He fasts. And so the first temptation hits where he is most vulnerable.
Is it not the same for you and me? Our strongest temptations hit us where we are most vulnerable. Yet Jesus created the open space for the attack. His vulnerability put him in a position to be able to confess that his true need would only be met by faith in God. And then the devil tried to take that away. “Look, I’ll set you up over everything that you can see. Just put your faith in me.”
It seems a silly proposition, but it makes me think. How do we seek authority? How do we claim our position and how often do we position ourselves to have authority? Where do we give our true and absolute devotion in terms of our time, our resources, and our attention? That’s not a plug for attending church programs (although that would be a start). It’s a question of worship. Who, what, and how do we truly worship? What is the center of value that organizes every action, every relationship, and every material possession? Do you have one center of value, or are there others?
Jesus states his position loud and clear – worship the Lord your God. And so the devil moves to the final test. “Fine.” he says. “If this God is a God – and if this God loves you – make God prove it.” I like to think that Jesus has a wry smile on this one. I like to think that he knows that he’s won. I like to think of him saying something like, “You can’t test love. Love is its own proof. You cannot force love to act. Love will not reach out and grab me. Love is already holding me. And love is even holding you.”
And so it is with you and with me. We are held by a love that will put us to the test. We are held by a love that allows – and even leads – us to be tempted. Let us, in this season of Lent, consider how we might become more vulnerable to the love that holds us. Let us consider how we might become more attentive to the love that truly sustains us. Let us let go of our desire to control so that we can truly worship God. Let us remember not to put God to the test, but instead to see our trials as an opportunity to confess our belief. And we believe in a love that is stronger than death. We believe in a God who will yet take our limited faith and transform it again and again into just actions and right practices.
But first, we must be put to the test. We must become vulnerable to love, and we must confess with the actions of our days that which we believe. May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.