When God Puts Us to the Test

Sermon delivered on Trinity 16A, Sunday, September 27, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-17; 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

In one way or another all our passages this morning remind us, uncomfortably so for many of us, that God puts us to the test on occasion. What’s that all about? Toward what end? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Before we look at why God tests us on occasion, we need to place the question within the context of the overall biblical narrative of God’s rescue plan for us and God’s creation so that we don’t arrive at some screwy or misguided conclusions like we usually do whenever Fathers Sang or Madanu preach. We recall that the overarching story of Scripture is about how God is busy rescuing his creatures and world from our slavery to the power of Sin that results in Death and the corrupting spread of Evil. This story, beginning with God’s call to Abraham and ending with Jesus Christ, also tells us much about the nature and character of God our Father who has acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to himself, doing so even while we were still God’s enemies (2 Cor 5.19; Rom 5.6-10). What kind of God would act that way? Short answer: a God of perfect love and justice, a God who calls his wayward people to himself through the self-giving love and death of his Son to rescue us both from our slavery to Sin and from ourselves. God did and does this primarily through human agency because as our founding documents (Genesis) make clear, God created humans in his image to be his wise stewards and rulers over God’s good creation. Before the Fall, before our first ancestors decided to try to be God’s equals, this arrangement worked swimmingly well. God lived with Adam and Eve in paradise causing them to enjoy perfect physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being. Because God makes us for himself, we suffer terribly and ultimately die when our sins cause us to be separated and alienated from God. We’ve all been to this dance. We all have experienced anxiety, loneliness, isolation, alienation, hostility, and fear in our lives and these are but a handful of manifestations that happen when we are unreconciled to God. To put it bluntly, our sin makes us sick and ultimately kills us. That is not what God wants or intends for us and we have nobody but ourselves to blame for our predicament. 

But as Genesis also makes clear, from the time of our Fall and the rupture of our perfect relationship with God our Father, God has been at work drawing us back to himself and making himself and his character known to us. From the heavenly ladder and ascending/descending angels in Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28.10-16) to God’s promise to be with us (Emmanuel) in Christ’s birth announcement (Mt. 1.21-23) as well as in the Great Commission (I will be with you always even to the end of the age, Mt. 28.20) to the glorious promise of new creation in Rev. 21.1-7, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God is with those whom he calls to bless and provide for them. This is the biblical context that we must keep clearly in mind as we ask why God tests us. The short answer here is to see if we really trust God’s goodness and promises contained in the overarching story of Scripture, i.e., have we ceased striving to be God’s equals? This is of course more for our benefit than God’s. God knows our hearts and all that we do (cf. Ps 139). We often act dazed and confused about such matters and often don’t know how genuine our faith, hope, and love are until they are tested. As with all things in life, clarity is always our friend because it helps us see with what we are dealing. We need to trust God if we ever hope to live our lives without fear and hopelessness, i.e., we need to know that God is trustworthy so that we can live as fully human beings.

The question for God’s people, then, is pretty straightforward: Do we trust that God is good to his promise to provide for us and to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death? Or to use OT parlance, do we believe the Lord with us or not? Each of our lessons this morning provide a case study of sorts to help us answer that question. We start with our OT lesson (and our accompanying psalm lesson that exhorts us to learn that God is trustworthy and teach our children that truth). In it, we see God leading his people in the wilderness after he has rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. God had promised his people to bring them to the land he promised their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but first God had to free them from their slavery to the Egyptians (we read that story several weeks back). For Israel, the Exodus was and is the defining moment where God acted decisively on his promise to save Israel from her enemies. We (hopefully) know the story. God called Moses to lead God’s people out of Egypt and then rescued them from the pursuing Egyptian forces by parting the waters of the Red Sea, bringing Israel through those dark and menacing waters and drowning the Egyptians who pursued them. Once through that first impossible obstacle, God then led his people through the next major obstacle—the wilderness, guiding them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Now I am not the brightest star in the sky, but I would think that had I lived in that generation and experienced God’s mighty act of power in both the Passover, where God killed all the firstborn Egyptian males, thereby compelling Pharaoh to let God’s people Israel leave, and then experienced God’s rescue through the Red Sea, that I might be convinced God had the power to rescue me from any situation. After all, I had seen God’s power first-hand and that was proof God was good to his word to rescue my people and me from our slavery. So why would I worry about God providing for us as we wandered through this foreboding wilderness with its lack of food and water? Hadn’t God shown us enough for us to trust God? 

Apparently not because in our story today we see the people grumbling against both Moses and God, clearly showing their lack of trust in both. Why did we follow you out here, dude? Did God bring us out of Egypt to kill us? We’d be better off in our slavery back in Egypt. At least there we had enough to eat and drink. Ah, the human condition in all its glory! Charming. Clearly God’s people did not trust God to provide for them in their current situation, stark and foreboding as it was, despite the fact they had seen God do even mightier things in the Passover and at the Red Sea. And Moses was no better. Of course he would have been concerned for his life; his stoning was a real possibility! But this is the same Moses who had seen God call him kicking and screaming to be Israel’s leader and mighty prophet, equipping Moses along the way to grow into God’s call to him. Surely Moses knew God had the power to deliver on his promises to take care of his people. But there he was complaining and grumbling to God right along with God’s people!

The logic of the story set where it is in Exodus also suggests that God had brought his people to this point to test them. Did they believe in God’s goodness, love, and power to provide for them or not? God knew they didn’t trust him, but surely many of the people there didn’t know that because their faith hadn’t been tested in the context of the wilderness. It’s a sad story with a happy ending because God provided once again for his people. Water gushed from a rock and God’s people found the drink they needed to survive and continue their journey to the Promised Land, but not before they had grumbled to God, effectively accusing God of not being with them or caring about them or being able to provide for them. Sound familiar (if it doesn’t you might want to look in the mirror!)?

And what did God do? Did God give up on them? Did he leave them to their own devices? Did he destroy his rebellious and unbelieving people? Of course not! That is not who God is. Instead, God provided for his people and invited them to use this episode to bring about repentance and instill a greater trust of him in them. But the people of God were apparently slow learners. It seems the sins of pride and presumption found in Adam and Eve about which I spoke two weeks ago run deep in all of us. Before we stop and sneer at the ancient Israelites’ lack of faith in God’s goodness and provision as they wandered through the wilderness, we should stop and do a self-check as we wander through our own wilderness. 

What wilderness, you ask? We don’t live in the wilderness. We live in metro Columbus. Well, we may not live in a physical wilderness but we certainly wander in a spiritual one these days. Who among us won’t be elated to see 2020 with its pandemic and social unrest and increasing bitterness and rancor give way to a new year? We watch increasingly godless, lawless forces intent on destroying our nation burn down our cities and we wonder where our political leaders are in the midst of it all. We live in fear of getting the “Rona” and it isolates us and makes us more afraid and crazier than we already are. We see nothing but strident partisanship and rancor among our so-called leaders and wonder if there are any statesmen or women left. Closer to home, some of us have lost jobs during the pandemic and have a legitimate concern about financial collapse. We learned this past week that Westerville has rejected our occupancy permit app. Then there have been a spate of serious illnesses in our parish family. We pray fervently and nothing seems to happen. Where is God in all this, we cry out in anger, fear, and desperation? This morning some of you will come up for healing prayer and anointing and then go away, apparently not having your prayers answered (although some of you will experience answered prayers). What are we to do with that? Yesterday I spoke with a woman whose faith is greater than anyone I have personally known. She loves the Lord passionately and unconditionally, yet there she is in a hospital, apparently slowly dying a painful death from cancer. I’ve prayed hours for her and in every way I know how. I’m at the point where I don’t how to pray for her or what to pray for; I can only groan, trusting that the Holy Spirit is present in my groans and is praying for her in and through them as promised (Rm 8.26-27). Why won’t God answer? Does he not care? Is he powerless to answer? This is the stuff we read about in today’s OT lesson, my beloved, and experience in our lives more often than we would like. 

Yet it is the consistent testimony of Scripture, the Word of God, and the lives of the saints that the Father does know our worries and fears and that God does have the power to act on our behalf. But do we believe that? How many of us believe the lyrics of the song, Great Is Thy Faithfulness? Do we really believe God’s mercies are new every morning, lyrics that are based on Lam 3.16 that the prophet Jeremiah uttered as he surveyed the unthinkable: a desolate Jerusalem, the very home of God, burnt to the ground by God’s enemies and God’s people taken into exile. Do we have that kind of faith to sing that song during the times we walk through the dark valleys of life? The Father’s trustworthiness is there to be had every day if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, your presence here among us this morning being proof positive that God is gracious to us every day. It is to the glory of God and further proof that God’s promises are trustworthy and true that so many of us do believe God really is present in his world providing for us every moment, despite our being worn down on occasion by the circumstances and situations of life and the human condition. That is our challenge, my beloved, and that is why God tests us. He wants to show us he is dependable and trustworthy so that we can continue to grow in our trust in God, even when everything swirling around us suggests that God and his mercy and provisions are nowhere to be found.

Turning to our epistle lesson, we see St. Paul asking something similar to the church at Philippi. Do you trust Christ enough to let him change the way you treat your fellow family members in Christ he asks? For those of us who call ourselves Christian, the challenge to trust God can be even greater than for God’s people Israel. While we can recall the Passover and Exodus to remind us about the power and ability of God to rescue and provide, our foundational salvation event is Christ’s death and resurrection. It is harder for us fallen humans who strive and grasp to be God’s equals to see God’s power in the cross. But that’s exactly what St. Paul and the rest of the NT writers proclaim! On the cross we see the power of God to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death, the cross being the very instrument of shame and human degradation. It’s hard to see God’s power in a naked and pierced man dying a godforsaken death as a condemned criminal. But that is the surprising power and promise of God made known to us, a promise vindicated by God’s mighty act of power when he raised Christ from the dead to signal the abolition of death one day. It is a hope and promise we must live with because it is yet to be completely fulfilled. We don’t have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight that makes even the dullest of us look brilliant. No, we are in the wilderness right now and so we must walk in faith, trusting in the promise and power of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The extent we believe in the power and promise of Christ’s saving death and resurrection is the extent we will continue to believe in God’s ability to provide for us and rescue us from all that corrupts, dehumanizes, demeans, and demoralizes us.  

The fact that God became human to rescue us from the darkest power of all—Death, despite our ongoing rebellion against God, despite our insistence on kicking God upstairs so we don’t have to bother with him in the living of our days (because of course we think we know better than God), is compelling evidence that God does love us and is providing for us. He’s given us his Holy Spirit to heal and change us for crying out loud! What more do we need? Whatever it is we think we need, we likely won’t get if it goes against what God the Father knows we need to develop a healthy love and trust in his power. And so, as St. Paul reminds us in epistle lesson, our trust starts with how we treat our families. We are to work out our faith in fear and trembling because we know that, “…God is working in [us], giving [us] the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Phil 2.12-13). What on earth is St. Paul saying? Is he telling us our salvation from God’s wrath is accomplished by following the rules Scripture and the Church have set over the years? Uh, nope.

As v.13 makes clear, St. Paul is talking about the power of God working in his people. As St. Paul reminds us elsewhere, Christ has died for us to rescue us from the ravages of Sin and Death, and here he calls us to believe our story, a belief based on the bodily resurrection of Christ. We call this belief “faith” and faith always manifests itself in obedience. In the context of the letter, St. Paul is reminding God’s people in Christ to embrace our salvation won for us by God himself in and through Christ. God calls us to work with him to bring his healing love to the world around us, starting with our own families and the family of God, the Church, the context St. Paul addresses here. We are to imitate Christ in his self-giving love and treat each other accordingly because to do that is to imitate God the Father himself. When we live this way we demonstrate our belief and trust in God’s promise that he has rescued us from Sin and Death in and through Christ. 

St. Paul is not talking about being a doormat for people. To the contrary, he is urging us to accept our dignity as those who are loved by Christ and rescued from Sin and Death in and through his self-giving death and God’s mighty act of resurrection. We each have different situations and folks to deal with in our lives and we each have to figure out what that looks like as we act together as the people of God. St. Paul immediately reminds us we don’t have to do any of this on our own. The Christian Faith is not another form of failed human self-help. As we have just seen, God has given us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, to heal and restore God’s image in us one minute at a time. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t see much spiritual growth in our lives but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. We don’t see ourselves aging everyday or our hair growing. But if we look at pictures from ten years ago or decide we need a haircut, we are reminded that change has indeed taken place despite our inability to perceive it at the moment. The Holy Spirit working in us is like that. Sometimes he produces spectacular results. Most of the time, however, he works in us quietly, gradually healing and restoring us to God the Father. Regardless of speed or outcome, the point is that we are called to live as people of God by the power of God, not our own, and we are called to trust in that power always. We can see that trust in the lives of saints, both living and dead, and we are called to trust their experience and testimony, along with our own, to trust in God’s ability to provide for us, an ability that stems from God’s great love for us. That’s the test we face, my beloved. We see the power of God. We have the testimony from God himself that he is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, you and me in all our unloveliness, so that we will not die an eternal death. That’s why we need to know our story. That’s why we need to encourage and exhort one another. That’s why we need to put the needs of others ahead of our own—not because they are superior to us or their needs are more deserving than ours—but because doing so imitates the self-giving love of God made known in our crucified Savior. That’s why we sometimes have to correct each other, not out of a haughty sense of pride or presumption, but out of a deep love for those whom God loves more deeply than we can ever imagine. That’s what working out our salvation in fear and trembling looks like on the ground. We know we are loved by God and have been rescued from Sin and Death by him. Now we are called to live out that trust obediently, imitating our crucified Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the challenge and the promise. It can get discouraging that we keep making the same mistakes over and over, trusting in anything and anyone but God our Father (we see the same rebellious distrust in our gospel lesson but I do not have time to interpret that for you this morning). Yet we also know that despite our unbelief, despite our waywardness and rebellion, God keeps pursuing us relentlessly because he loves us and wants us to live forever in his promised new world. Let us pray to the Father for the grace to believe his promises and know his character made known supremely in Jesus Christ our Lord, and revealed to us new each morning by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. And yes, my beloved, let us live out our faith (trust) together as the Father calls us to do. To do so, however imperfectly, means we have passed the test. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.