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Sun, Mar 24, 2019

Tested Beyond Your Strength

Duration:21 mins

Our second reading for this morning comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verses 1-13. As we hear these words, we need to recognize that Paul is the midst of a four-chapter argument with the Corinthians about whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols. This is a very particular concern about faithfulness, gifts of the Spirit, and the practice of faith in a pagan world. Yet, through this particular concern, God still speaks to us today, so let us hear this Word of God.

1 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen

Perhaps it was in the most difficult time in your life or in the life of someone you love; maybe it was when tragedies seemed to pile up in ways that overwhelmed you; perhaps it was after one more diagnosis when you just needed a break; but someone, no doubt trying to be kind and helpful, said, “God doesn't give us more than we can handle,” and they might have even referenced our scripture text for today.

Now in my sermons I usually like to let a significant point linger or develop until the final paragraph or two. But this morning I want to give you part of the punch line right up front. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” is not what Paul is talking about in this text and even more, it is not the gospel. It is the kind of statement that should be discarded from our vocabulary just like, “God helps those who help themselves.”

I do recognize and appreciate that those who say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” are trying to be kind, encouraging, and even helpful. They appreciate that you or I feel overwhelmed. They do not know how to help but want to say something. This seems like it might be true, but let’s think for a minute: what are the implications of, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle?”

First – it says that you can do nothing to change your situation. God gave it to you. It is what it is. It is bad and there is no hope for it to be different. So, you might as well stop complaining.

Is that really what we want to be telling someone with a cancer diagnosis? A woman in an abusive relationship? The parent whose child is addicted to drugs? Someone who struggles to make their mortgage payment? The elderly neighbor who has to choose between the price of medicine and healthy food?

God doesn’t give you more than you can handle; it is what it is; life just stinks; so, you might as well suck it up and stop complaining.

But my friends, in Christ there is always hope.

In addition to the underlying hopelessness of our well-meaning cliché, there is even something more troubling. If God does not give us more than we can handle and you and I are feeling overwhelmed or troubled ... then there must be something wrong with us. The implication is that you and I are, or at least should be, strong enough to handle whatever comes our way. We can do it all by ourselves. In the face of whatever diagnosis, tragedy, or challenge we face, even as they pile up on top of each other, our response should be, “I’ve got this.” After all God won’t give me more than I can handle, right?

That is such a 21st century American response, but it is not a gospel response. We have a cult of individualism and celebrity in our culture that tells us it is all about me. I did not get to watch the game on Friday night, but I understand that CBS has hired a specific cameraman and crew to do nothing but video Duke University basketball freshman Zion Williamson. They started at practice and continued in the game Friday night. The camera was just dedicated to him. They did not want to miss a single thing that this one young man did on the basketball court.

No matter how good a player Williamson might be, and while I am not a Duke fan, I will admit he is a pretty good player; but no matter how good he is, if he was required to play any college basketball team in the country all by himself Duke would lose. Every time. He would be overwhelmed. No matter what ESPN or CBS might think about him, Zion Williamson cannot do it all himself. To think he could, would be Martin Luther’s definition of sin: a life curved in on itself. We have made the individual into what Paul actually was talking about in our text for today - an idol.

Remember that Paul is writing to the Corinthians about whether or not Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Some of the Corinthians believe that their faith has given them some kind of special knowledge so that they can avoid idolatry. They’ve got this. They can eat whatever they want. They can handle whatever idol they encounter. They can meet whatever challenge with their own strength. Sounds like people have been saying, “God won’t give us anything we can’t handle” for centuries.

But as Paul reminds the Corinthians and I want to tell you today, “I’ve got this,” is not the good news of the gospel.

To support his argument, Paul starts telling family stories about the people of Israel during their Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. We do not have time to explore all of Paul’s references, but I think it is clear that these are not shining moments in Israel’s history. Time and time again during the Exodus, despite seeing the amazing work of God – like parting the Red Sea and the people with bread from heaven in the wilderness every day, God’s people keep choosing to follow after idols instead of trusting the living God who has delivered them.

The Corinthians face the same problem. As Paul says, “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” The Corinthians know the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection yet they keep falling away. They put their trust in themselves, in their special knowledge, in their own strength. It is a failure every time. They don’t have this!

But in this moment of recognition that the Corinthians do not in fact have this idol thing under control, this is when Paul shares the good news of the gospel. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Notice that Paul does not say, “God will not give us more than we can handle.” Instead he says, “God is faithful.” Instead of “suck it up, you have this” - God is faithful. If there is anyone we can rely upon in a moment of testing it is God.

And that leads us to the second thing Paul says. Not talking about every calamity that might befall us in life, but about the test or the temptation to put our trust in idols, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength … he will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We all face the temptation to put our trust in ourselves, to think that “I’ve got this,” or “Cesar’s got this,” or “My bank account’s got this,” or “My doctor’s got this.” The temptation is great, just like it was for the Israelites in the desert; just like it was for the Corinthians in a pagan culture; but we have the strength – it might be the only strength we have - to keep our eyes on the Lord. Because God is faithful, we might endure through any attempt to draw our allegiance away from the Lord because ultimately an idol only has the power that we give it.

That is a very specific kind of strength and a very specific kind of testing. But with “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” we have taken Paul’s particular concern in the middle of a section of a letter about whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols and have turned it into a universal cliché that makes our own strength a hopeless idol.

Still the question remains about how we might best respond in those moments in all of our lives and in the lives of those we love when calamity, tragedy, illness, and death seem to mount in overwhelming ways. Is there any gospel that we might proclaim?

My friends, if we are honest, we begin by admitting that we do not have this. No one has this. When we think we do, it is as if we are one player trying to defeat an entire basketball team all by ourselves. We are putting our trust in an idol of our own making.

Yet, while we do not have this, God does. Any strength, any endurance comes not from us, but from the Lord. That is the gospel we can proclaim.

One who proclaimed that gospel so well was my cousin Kristie. Some of you may remember stories I have shared about her, although it has been several years. Kristie was a woman of deep faith, quick wit, occasionally bossy, but always honest and truthful. She wrote first an email and then an online blog about her journey with God through her initial treatment for breast cancer at age 27. She started writing again beginning in May 2010 when her cancer returned. Last Sunday, March 17th, was the fourth anniversary of her death.

On February 12, 2015, Kristie shared a long blog post with the news that she was finished with chemo and had become a Hospice patient. It was a hard post for her to write and a hard one for us to read. None of us could say, “I’ve got this,” that day.

And yet, Kristie closed her post with these words:

At the same time this journey is incredibly disconcerting, it is - as plainly as I can state it - also filled with a richness that is deep and real and important.

That's God.
Only God.
Because it certainly isn't me.
And to even remotely pretend it's me is just foolishness. Or insanity. Or a downright lie.

You can't possibly have a positive enough attitude or a strength of personality to experience this depth of joy when your body is failing fast. When your lungs aren't working right. When your vision is messed up. When your liver is expanding at a rapid rate. When your bones are hurting and when you have medications lining your counter to help ease that, or alleviate this, or slow that. When you look at your kiddos who are still so needing of a mom.

Oh no; it's not because of me.
It's all because of God.

Because He is present and He promises to make a difference.
He promises to infuse His hope into the darkest of situations, in the bleakest of circumstances.

He makes promises and, much to my delight, He continues to deliver on them.
I haven't tapped Him out.
Even now.
When we're at this new place.
When the turn in the race has been quick and sharp and the finish line is almost visible.

Kristie always claimed that she was just an ordinary girl with a really big God. God has this. We do not. God is faithful. Our strength and endurance and hope and joy and any companions we receive to help us carry the burden along the way are all a gift from Him.

And on the days when we are overwhelmed with tragedy and illness and even death, we just might remind each other that our God has a habit of bringing light to the darkness and raising the dead.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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