Updated: Jan 29, 2021
(Note: This bus stop has given up internal pictures for Lent.)
We are now 19 days into our 40-day wilderness trek, on this third Sunday in Lent.
Do you feel tested yet? Have you held fast to your commitments of sacrifice?
I had planned to give up sweets, but soon I found myself at my deceased mother-in-law’s funeral and people were giving condolences food – including sweets. I figured it would be too rude to refuse, so I ate a couple of slices of Sara Lee Cherry Cheesecake. Limiting my sweets is my new commitment.
In that sense, I was tested and quickly gave up my commitment.
Still, is Lent about giving up something trivial? Or, is it about giving up much more?
If you read the lesson from Exodus in the right light, you can see how easy it was for Moses to be “turned aside,” because he saw a “great sight” in a bush on fire.
Why wasn’t the shrub turning to ash?
You see, Moses was working when he was distracted. He was tending his father-in-law’s flock.
His father-in-law was Jethro, who is identified as the priest of Midian. So, we imagine Moses (an ex-royal figure of Egypt) was walking hoofed animals around, in order to earn his keep in Midian. However, because God began speaking to Moses, perhaps Moses was shepherding people … some who were devotees of Jethro’s?
After all, Moses had led the flock beyond the wilderness, where one would think there would be poor grazing. Why would he take sheep to the western side of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God?
Perhaps, this shows Moses in a priestly light? To have him on a mission for Midianite worshipers, as an assistant priest to Jethro, that would justify his seeing a great sight and hearing the Lord’s voice.
So, that would mean Moses had a holy responsibility to watch after the flock, regardless of what species it was … and flock watching is tiresome work.
We all know how monotonous work can get. Making sure animals or people are still alive is often as exciting as watching paint dry. One can easily get distracted when work is a little boring.
For example, we all love an exciting show on TV to keep us distracted, to keep us panting with expectation and wonder, to keep us titillated and amused. “Just let me see how this show ends … then I’ll do something worthwhile,” we say when responsibility calls.
We are constantly looking around to see if there is something nearby that can peak our interest, simply because mundane life is largely dull.
When we read, “There the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush,” the Hebrew-Aramaic translated as “angel of the Lord” is “malak Yahweh.”
The word “malak” also means “messenger, ambassador, or envoy,” such that an “angel” was sent to Moses with something to say. But, the angel did not speak. Therefore, the message was simply the sight of “a flame of fire.”
That “message” then prompted Moses to say, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
Think of what Moses said and think of how a child, who has been told, “If you say a bad word, then you will go to Hell,” says a bad word as an involuntary action, and panics after saying it, waiting to go to Hell.
“Wait a minute,” the child says to itself. “Nothing bad happened to me; so I need to think about this that I have been told to believe.”
It becomes important to see this “angel of the Lord” as comparable to Satan, who also appeared to Jesus when he was being tested in the wilderness. Satan was then the bearer of a “message,” one of great promise … IF … Jesus were to “turn aside” from the testing of his faith and follow Satan.
The Hebrew word that is translated to mean “turn aside” is “’ā·su·rāh-,” from the root “sur.” This root word has many translation possibilities, including “depart, abolish, avoid, cut off, and remove,” but it is often used to denote a time of ending – “to come to an end.”
Thus, Moses was in the process of having his spirituality tested – as a priest-in-training for Jethro – when a distraction caused him to say, “I must end my meditations and prayers, in order to investigate an anomaly.”
Satan is therefore an “angel” who was created by the Lord, one who has fallen, but still serves Yahweh as a messenger that says, “Look here! Another miserable human being of so-called faith has stopped his journey of testing – a failure of Spirit.” Still, Yahweh allowed Satan to test Moses, because the burning bush reflected the god of Midian, not the One God.
In the case of Moses, as soon as he had turned aside, the One God called out, “Moses, Moses!”
Rather than reading verse 4 as saying “God called from out of the bush,” the same words should be seen as saying, “God call from the midst [of Moses],” overturning Moses’ distraction towards the “bush.”
The key here, as in other places where God’s faithful heard the voice of God calling, is Moses immediately responded, saying “Here I am.”
This is the same as Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, when Jesus commanded, “Get behind me Satan.” Still, Jesus followed that command with the words, “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:10)
“’Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” That is how Luke summed it up, (Luke 4:12) and what Matthew said Jesus responded to the second temptation of Satan. (Matthew 4:7)
Can you imagine God calling out, “Jesus, Jesus!” Can you hear Jesus silently responding, “Here I am!” Can you see how the commands made by Jesus to Satan were encouraged by the Lord?
All of us human beings are too weak to survive the wilderness without being fooled and distracted. We must have faith that our pea-brains will be aided by God.
When you can understand this one basic principle – You cannot survive in a righteous state in an unrighteous world without God’s help – then you can understand how Paul would remind the Corinthians, “God was not pleased with most of [the Israelite ancestors], and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
Most of them were distracted by a burning fire within themselves. That flame of fire showed no visible signs of outer damage, but raged internally as selfish desires.
They heard the voice of Satan, rather than the voice of God. They heard, “Why doesn’t Moses turn those stones into nice risen loaves of bread for us all.”
Satan’s message questioned, “Aren’t you just sick of manna … every day … for forty years? Why isn’t Moses using his staff to prepare a feast for the people of God? Maybe Moses is eating luscious loaves of bread inside the tent of meeting?”
The Israelites probably heard the voice of Satan tempt them with, “Why are you out in this wilderness being tested, when you could be back in Egypt living the high life?”
Are we not just like that … hearing the excuses for going against the plan … rather than being afraid one of our parents will see us breaking a rule and shout out our names?
Paul said those who fell to the temptations while being tested in the wilderness are examples of what would happen then to new Christians.
The same examples apply today, especially given the warnings of Paul, “Do not become idolaters;” and “We must not indulge in sexual immorality.”
Raise your hand if you can name any of the past winners of American Idol, the Bachelor, Survivor, or America’s Got Talent.
<look for raised hands>
Raise your hand if you can name the “stars” that judge or host on those shows, season in and season out.
<look for raised hands>
Raise your hand if you have ever watched a soap opera (daytime or nighttime) that has featured characters that flirt, have unmarried sex, marry, have affairs, divorce, remarry, have more affairs, re-divorce, have children with many partners, marry some long-lost sibling, then get divorced … on and on and on … as if everything seen – so often on those shows – represented normal life.
<look for raised hands>
Do you think Paul intended for us to read his words, “We must not put Christ to the test,” as if we could just as easily be “destroyed by serpents”?
Paul wrote, “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Can you see how that says, “If you think you have enough faith to be tested in the wilderness AND THE STRENGTH NOT TO TURN AWAY from that faith, then the only way you can be assured of not falling is to hear God call out you name, so that you immediately respond, “Here I am Lord!”
We are not called to be Christians alone.
In these 19 days of Lent so far, has you name been called?
Have you been tempted to desire evil?
Have you tried to put the Lord your God to the test, as if a Christian requires no test, because Jesus passed all those tests so we could do as we please?
In the Gospel reading from Luke, we read of some history that was not recorded by Josephus: Galileans were killed in the Temple of Jerusalem and a tower at Siloam collapsed, killing eighteen people.
I believe the Galileans were incited to protest by some act instigated by Pilate, with orders given to kill anyone who protested. The Galileans were pilgrims during a Holy Feast visit, and probably were not the only Jews killed in that action.
I believe the tower of Siloam, which was south of Jerusalem, was a strategic vantage point and not a tourist attraction. So, most likely the majority of the eighteen who were killed were Roman soldiers. As such, that could be seen by Jews as the revenge of God.
Jesus, then, was asked about the vengeance of God and his response was, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as did [the pilgrims and soldiers].”
The old Jewish joke: “You knee? My back!” (where selfish focus is the only way known) can be retold as a serious, “If you think you have problems now, with God having chosen you, try getting God mad at you for not giving thanks for having problems!”
That “message” comes from the true “angel of the Lord,” who is not a distraction, but a call that has YOUR name on his lips.
In my case, Jesus calls, “Robert, Robert! Repent and do not turn away from God. Complete the test in the God-forsaken wilderness. Do not be led astray by your emotions – those that cause you to lust; those that cause you to fear; those that cause you to hate; those that cause you to delight in your self-importance; those that cause you to feel it is within your power to call for God’s judgment upon others, or God’s favoritism to you.”
Jesus tells me, “Listen to Paul, who wrote: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure [the testing].”’
We cannot fall to the illusion that our egos are large enough to deny Satan, pretending we can will ourselves to not be distracted by great sights.
Listen to the parable told by Jesus to those who sought to control God, so their concept of justice could be meted out. It was about a fruitless fig tree.
A fig tree – like any plant designed by God that produces fruit, so that human beings can gain sustenance – must be more than just a pretty plant. It has a specific purpose. There are flowers and non-fruit-bearing plants that fill that niche of pleasing presence.
A fig tree without any figs – especially one barren for three years – was seen as wasting the soil it was grown into. The landowner (think Satan here) realized fruit trees are necessary for life, so fruitless trees need to be cut down, so ones bearing fruit can take their places.
Still, it is important to understand a fig tree … versus another kind of fruit tree. While being a fruit tree that is common in the Mideast, realize that this is written about what fig tree growers can expect:
“New fig trees can take anywhere from three to five years before bearing fruit after planting. The rooting process takes a full growing season; when propagating figs from cuttings, fruit production can be four to six years out. Fig trees start by producing slowly with just a few fruits during the first years.”
This is where the gardener was the one going to the landowner, talking sense rather than emotion. He was saying, “I will put the necessary care into the fig tree, so have patience and wait another year before expecting results.” (Can you hear the whisper, “Get behind me Satan?”)
As a parable told in response to those who sought Jesus’ approval for hating the Roman soldiers, those who did Pilate’s evil bidding, Jesus had just said, “Evil is as evil does! Live by the sword and die by the sword. Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
You cannot be distracted and turned aside and go destroying that which still has potential to be fruitful.
You have to repent for the existence of evil in the world, BECAUSE all you do to counter evil by doing good, there is always still more evil presence. The Earth is Satan’s domain … he is the landowner … but Christians are the gardeners of that land.
So, Jesus said, “Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Let the breath out slowly.”
Jesus was the gardener who would care for the vineyard of Judea and Galilee for one more year. Then, miraculously, eleven new figs appeared on that fig tree. That was the beginning of many years of fruitfulness.
We too must do as Jesus did. To get to that point of being a skilled gardener, we have to learn to love God and bring God into our hearts. That happens when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, which leads us to be tested in the wilderness.
We must prove our faith through patience … trust … obedience … and a love of God that makes us always listening for when our name will be called. We will always be tested by distractions, and we will often be distracted.
But we are also tested to heed the call and be turned back to God’s voice, when we are turned aside.
Our Lent is when we have yet to produce one little fig, as a fig tree in the vineyard of Christ.
We are expected to bear lots of fruit, but God knows it takes time. Christ knows it takes care and love.
Who here among us is a gardener of your brother’s or your sister’s roots? Who digs around one’s faith to find potential problems in the soil that could prevent a natural growth in faith? Who puts nutrients into the groundwork from which faith takes root?
Paul and the other Apostles wrote letters of encouragement.
The saying goes, “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” We have to have those who have survived the wilderness, who have passed the tests of God, so they can tend the garden patiently.
The flock needs good shepherds; but the sheep need to grow into rams, those who can then tend their own flocks.
Moses was called to serve the One God back in Egypt, not a Midian god in Arabia.
Then Moses would lead a human flock all around the wilderness for forty more years.
That lesson says Lent is not a temporary testing.
“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”
“Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory.”
 Website Home Guides, article “How Old Before a Tree Grown From a Fig Cutting Produces?”, author: Eulalia Palomo, http://homeguides.sfgate.com/old-before-tree-grown-fig-cutting-produces-55862.html
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