St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 13: 5-9
Test yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don’t drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourself regular check-ups. You need firsthand evidence, not mere hearsay that Jesus Christ is in you. Test it out. If you fail the test, do something about it; I hope the test won’t show that we have failed. But if it comes to that we’d rather the test showed our failure than yours. We’re desperate for the truth to win out in you. We couldn’t possibly be otherwise.
We don’t just put up with our limitations; we celebrate them, and then go on to celebrate every strength, every triumph of the truth in you. We pray hard that it will all come together in your lives.
Here St Paul gives us some reasoning behind the idea of the Lenten promise. As Christians, we all know somewhere inside that we are on a journey of faith, that we should be practicing and getting better at. But with all the other demands on our lives, all the other distractions of the day it is difficult, firstly to make sure that we are adding quality to our prayer life, to our sense of community, to our love for our neighbour and secondly to notice that we have, to be aware of our growth, to recognise our movement toward the people we have the potential to be.
So, in modern day language, Lent gives us the opportunity for a little self-assessment and, of course with no-one else to judge us except ourselves there is more than one way to go about it.
You may decide to use a tried and tested formula – something you give up every year -
a promise you make knowing that you can do it; a promise to give up something that is really not that hard to do. That perhaps was quite important once, but not anymore.
Or is it a promise considered and made in sincerity. To use the Lenten journey to learn more about yourself, your resolve, your determination? Is it a genuine commitment to deny yourself something that is a part of your enjoyment of life, which really matters, that you honestly do not want to do without?
Paul’s letter gives the new Christians of Corinth guidance and encouragement in their newly found faith. But even if we consider ourselves life-long Christians, we can’t be complacent in our faith either. We should be challenging ourselves. We should be developing the will to become more than we are, to show Christ within us.
We should be directing our will towards those things that feed our spirit and away from those that do not. And sometimes, like it or not, our will, when it is in balance with God’s will, needs the authority to step in to move us away from what gives us pleasure, comfort and satisfaction. Because, all too easily, whatever gives us pleasure, comfort and satisfaction becomes a distraction, takes us away from our real selves, takes us away from our God selves.
We know what we should and should not do. We know what we said, we know what we promised. So what happens when we falter, when we have that bad day, when we just don’t want to…? Well, we need to know what that feels like too. We need to know the difference. It’s a learning journey and as the saying goes - the person who never made a mistake – never made anything.
After all I didn’t pass my driving test first time.
I didn’t even want to learn to drive; but I had got fed up waiting for buses and for lifts home. I was not a natural – badly co-ordinated, I could never remember my left from my right. The first time I took the test I was not ready. I was a bag of nerves, kangaroo gear changes, reversed around the corner and up onto the kerb. I was surprised I was allowed to drive back to the test centre.
Second time it was text book driving, perfect, the test inspector sitting quite relaxed in the passenger seat until a previously unknown route back to the test centre saw me drive across unmarked give way junction just missing being hit by a car. That time the instructor did drive me back!
Time to give up? Looking at the cost of lessons, listening to the comments about women drivers, my age, my lack of co-ordination and two failed tests.
But I was fed up waiting at bus-stops. Fed up getting wet, being late. I wanted the freedom that being able to drive would give me. I didn’t want to hear the comments.
So…after two months of more lessons and more practice… the third time.
And I thought I was doing ok until the three point turn, turned into a five-point turn – and when I felt the back wheel touch the kerb my heart sank. Not too happy with my performance I was ‘following the road’ as instructed when a little boy on a bike came out of a side road right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes. Everybody was fine but the inspector told me to drive back to the test centre. Still shaking and expecting the worst I drove back to find that I had passed. All that I had had left to do was the emergency stop and undoubtedly I had managed that. And I was told.
‘You didn’t get it all right, but you got it right when it mattered and the rest will come.’
Forty days may seem a long time to learn a lesson. But it’s a lesson for life, for life in the Spirit. It gives us time to make mistakes, to re-evaluate and make changes, to have another go – to know we have to ask for help from others, from God - to get better, to be better and to carry that forward.
Lent is not a circular bus ride – we don’t get off at the same stop we got on at - we shouldn’t to come out of it the same way we went in – it is a time of transformation, of conversion - Jesus did not return to being a carpenter, a workman. Because of his trials, he walked out of the desert with a new vocation, a new mission. If Christ is in us should we not try to do the same?
And, although we like to measure our success, it is not a test; God doesn’t have a clipboard and a tick list. His love for us is never dependent on us winning or losing; in fact God has never favoured the winners – He loves the losers and the try-ers. The journey is the thing; the steps taken towards and with the Lord even if they go off track a little.
Sometimes we won’t be ready and we’ll make a mess of it; sometimes we’ll be too ready, too over-confident and we’ll make a mess of it and sometimes we’ll make a mess of it and it will be the best thing we could have done!
So, as Paul says - celebrate when your promise is going well and even when it’s not – because God loves a Try-er.