Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2013, 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C
Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength…”
– 1 Corinthians 10:13a
It happens on a Saturday morning several times a year, in just about every high school across the country. It’s not a school day, but students show up anyway: bright and early. They carry with them a few essential items of equipment: a few high-energy snacks; a bottle of water; a calculator; several sharpened, number 2 pencils; and a special admission ticket for which they have paid $50.
From that description — unless it’s been a very long time since you were in high school — you can guess what I’m talking about, what it is that summons dozens of high-school juniors and seniors to return to their school on a Saturday morning. They’ve come, of course, to take the SAT exam, the infamous Scholastic Aptitude Test. Or maybe, for those who live in the midwest, it’s the SAT’s competitor, the ACT.
It’s the last thing most of those students want to be doing, early on a Saturday morning: puzzling their way through geometry problems; answering those woolly reading-comprehension questions; and let us not forget the analogies (something is to something as another thing is to something else). I heard somewhere that the SAT people are scaling back on those. If that’s true, today’s students ought to thank their lucky stars. Those were the worst!
Those students roll out of bed on a Saturday and spend three hours filling in those little circles with a number 2 pencil for one reason only: because they want to get into college.
Some enter more willingly into the testing-room than others. The ones who have the absolute worst time of it are the students who suffer from the dreaded psychological disorder known as “test anxiety.”
Everybody’s nervous about taking a test, especially a momentous, possibly life-changing test like the SAT: but some are more nervous than others. Those suffering from true test anxiety may be so wrought up over the experience before it even begins that they have a hard time completing the exam at all — even if they know the material.
In almost every instance of the SAT being administered, one student (if not more) will stand up in the minutes just prior to the exam, or maybe just after it starts, drop the blank answer sheet on the proctor’s desk, and unceremoniously flee the room. Like as not, test anxiety is the culprit!
The passage we read today from 1 Corinthians is about a different type of test anxiety. It has nothing to do with school — unless the school you’re talking about is “the school of life.”
Not every test we take in life involves filling in circles with a number 2 pencil. There are other, more demanding examinations, like the one Paul’s thinking of as he writes the words: “God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength…”
The Greek word for “test,” here, has another possible translation. It’s the word “temptation”: God will not let you be tempted beyond your strength.
Temptation is where the rubber meets the road in the life of faith. We all know it’s one thing to study the faith, to understand the theological concepts that arise from the scriptures and our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. It’s quite another thing to take that faith of ours out beyond the walls of the church, to take it on the road, to bear it with us into the worlds of business or industry or education or homemaking — or wherever it is that you and I are called upon to make hard, ethical decisions nearly every day of our lives.
Do we serve God and neighbor, or ourselves? Do we chase after the activities that bring fleeting pleasure, or do we hold out for those that promise deep and abiding joy? Do we take the low road to self-gratification, or the high road to glorifying God?
Talk about a test! All of life is a test, in that sense of the word. And life surely does have a way of generating its own sort of test anxiety.
Let’s take a look at what advice Paul gives on dealing with it.
His first instruction is: “So if you think that you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” That may sound ominous, but it’s really an expression of concern by an experienced pastor, one who’s witnessed too many sad examples of promising Christian believers sliding back into sin.
There’s even something reassuring about that. You see, it’s a common reaction of people undergoing serious testing or temptation to imagine they’re the only person in the world having this particular struggle. They tend to look at those around them and imagine nobody else is going through anything remotely similar. They feel ashamed that they’re so weak as to have those troubling thoughts and fantasies no one else seems to be having.
“So if you think that you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” It’s Paul’s way of saying, “You’re not alone. Plenty of others struggle with the very same things you do.”
The apostle goes on, then, to say: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” You think you’re alone in the great SAT testing-center of life, standing there with your number 2 pencils and your granola bars? Look around! There’s a whole roomful of people, struggling with the very same worries and anxieties as you. They say “misery loves company,” but it’s more than that. To be human is to be tested, day by day, in every way.
There was something in that Corinthian church — located as it was in one of the great commercial centers of the ancient world, seemingly at the crossroads of everything that was good or bad about the human condition — that led those Corinthian Christians to sing with particular gusto: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”
“I’ve got news for you,” counters Paul. “Plenty of others have seen your sort of trouble, and then some. So let’s just call off the pity party. Deal with it!”
And here’s how. “God is faithful.”
God is faithful? Well, of course God’s faithful! That goes without saying. It’s my own faithfulness I’m worried about — whether or not I can carry out, in my life, what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Yet, it really does make a difference to you and to me if God can be counted upon to be faithful — faithful to us. A great deal of our disobedience in this life — as is true of all disobedient children, in the end — grows out of a sense of worry that God won’t stick it out with us to the very end. Yet, as the 1 Letter of John teaches: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
At the end of the day, it’s not our own obedience to the way of Christ that will make the difference for us — much as we hate to admit it. Try as we may, we’re all going to fail at this discipleship thing, in one way or another. It’s only God’s faithfulness, God’s free gift of grace and forgiveness, that will save us in the end.
“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” Anybody who’s serious about fishing knows that the line you wrap around the reel on your fishing pole is already tested to withstand a certain weight. When you buy a spool of fishing line, the word “test” is even in the name: “ten-pound test line,” for example. The manufacturer makes sure you can dangle a weight of a certain amount from the end of that fishing line without breaking it.
Whatever test they conduct in the laboratory, of course, is an artificial measure, because nobody dangles a ten-pound weight from the end of a fishing line. The fishing tackle, even with the lead sinker, weighs far less than that. Not even when you add the weight of the fish to the tackle do you come anywhere close to the ten-pound test.
That’s because there’s another factor you have to allow for. When you set the hook and start to reel the fish in, the pole bends over and the line is strained, and it’s not just the fish or the tackle that does that, but the fight in the fish. As the fish engages in its desperate battle to stay in the water, it exerts a certain poundage on the line, as well. If the hook stays set, and if the sum of all those factors doesn’t exceed ten pounds, it’s going to be fish filet for dinner. But if the fish can marshal the strength to go significantly over ten pounds of pull, the line will break — and the only fish that’ll make it into your frying-pan is the one you’ll buy, wrapped in plastic, down at the supermarket.
God won’t test you beyond your strength, Paul assures the Corinthians — and us. There are all sorts of unpredictable factors out there — wind and wave and the fight in the fish, and it may take every bit of strength we can muster to haul it into the boat — but the assurance we have from our faith is that the line is strong enough to hold. It’s been tested, you see. It’s been tested and not found wanting.
Now, here’s the thing. The testing of the line is not anything we’re responsible for. It’s not part of the preparation, for any fisherman I’ve ever known, to take that line and hang weights from it, and make sure it really can hold as much as it says on the label. There’s an element of trust there. There’s an element of — dare we say it? — faith. Faith in the manufacturer.
Faith in the people in white lab coats down at the testing laboratory. Faith that the fishing line will deliver as promised.
When you and I turn to the scriptures and read promises like this one from 1 Corinthians 10, it’s like reading the label on the fishing-line spool. The reason we know God won’t test us beyond our strength is because we have faith in those promises. We know what it says, and we know that every time we’ve taken that fishing line out in the past, it’s done what it’s supposed to. The equipment we’ve been issued is more than adequate.
Now, I’m going to change the metaphor — which is my prerogative as the preacher. Forget the fishing line. The final part of the verse goes like this: “…with the testing God will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
God will provide the way out.
Now, imagine that, instead of going on a fishing trip, you’re on a long hike through the country. You find yourself walking through a narrow canyon, with high stone walls rising up on either side.
You realize, then, that you’re not alone. Something else is sharing the canyon with you. Some beast of prey, big enough and strong enough and hungry enough to attack you: let’s say, a tiger. The beast is slowly stalking you from behind: no escape by turning around and going back. You look at the road ahead of you, and you realize you could run away: but it would be pointless, because the fearsome and beautiful cat would just put on a burst of speed and bring you down.
Just when all seems hopeless, you look to the side and see a narrow crevice in the rock wall, and a path leading upwards from it. The opening is just narrow enough for you to squeeze through, but too small for a tiger.
You do just that — and the minute you start up the path out of the narrow valley, you heave a sigh of relief. Because God has pointed you to an unexpected escape, a way out you never knew existed.
My friends, there are times in life when our strength, our perseverance, our cunning, are not enough. We acknowledge our limitations. We’re in unfamiliar country. We admit we can’t make it on our own. In such a desperate time, what can we do but trust wholly in the Lord? We trust in the Lord not only to give us the strength we need, but also to show us the way out: which, as Paul makes it clear, is not some miraculous removal of all difficulty, but the endurance to see things through.
God’s testing of us, in times of trouble, is not some way of drawing something out of us, as the College Board draws a numerical score out of all the high-schoolers who sit down and take the exam. It’s more like testing the fishing line, so we know it will hold. It’s more like showing us the secret way out of the canyon, just at the moment we need it. God’s response still requires us to step up and do our part: to haul on the fishing line, to climb the steep mountain path. Yet, as we do so, we know something is different, something has changed. No longer is the journey ours alone. We have a faithful guide who will see us through.
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.