Passing the Test

1 Corinthians 10:13

13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Dear Friends in Christ,

In my introduction this morning I’d like to take you older folks (and I do include myself in that category) back to your days in English class and see how well you remember some of the terms that you would have learned back then.  For example, do you remember what homonyms are? (2 words that sound alike – bear/bare; peace/piece)  How about synonyms?  (words that mean the same thing – beautiful: attractive, pretty, lovely, stunning)  And what about antonyms? (words that are opposites of one another – good/bad; painful/pleasant; fast/slow)

Now let’s try one more.  What is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?  If you remember from your days in English class, both are types of comparison, the only difference really being that a simile makes use of the word “like” or “as” in the comparison.  For example, remember the simile made famous by Muhammed Ali who often times said that in the boxing ring he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

And as far as metaphors are concerned, James, the half-brother of Jesus employs a very interesting metaphor to describe our lives on this earth.  In chapter 4, verse 14 of his New Testament epistle he says: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  That metaphor speaks of the brevity, the uncertainty, the unpredictability of life, something that we’ve seen plenty of evidence of in our community and area over the past few years.

Well, how would you answer that question that James puts forth in that verse when he says: “What is your life?”  What metaphor would you use to describe your life?  Here are a few that I came across as I was working on this sermon.  Some have very appropriately described their life as a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs and twists and turns.  Others have referred to their life as a puzzle, a journey, a circus.  One metaphor a person used stated that “life is a ten-speed bicycle with gears we never use.”  And another said that “life is a game of cards: You have to play the hand you are dealt.”

Well, this morning, using God’s instructions on how to live a good news life in a bad news world, which is the theme of the sermon series I’m currently preaching, I want to lay before you one life metaphor that I think you’ll all be able to relate to.  I would suggest to you that life is a test.  This is something that becomes abundantly evident as we peruse the pages of Holy Scripture and we see so many of God’s faithful people undergoing tests of their faith, their obedience, their character and integrity.  In fact, words like trials, temptations, refining, and testing show up more than 200 times in the Bible.

The first test occurred with Adam and Eve when God placed them in that beautiful garden of paradise where they had everything they could have possibly wanted or needed.  And in that garden he placed before them one test of obedience.  It was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And the test was simple.  God said: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”  Of course, we know the rest of the story as Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent and Adam succumbed to the offer of his wife to eat of the forbidden fruit.  And thus the world was introduced to the first test failure it had ever seen and it hasn’t been the same since.

Thankfully, though, not all the people in the Bible failed the tests God gave them.  Who among us can ever forget that incredible test of faith God placed before Abraham?  For years he and his wife Sarah had longed to have a child of their own.  And when God finally granted them that privilege in their old age, he came back to Abraham some years later and spoke these words that must have stopped him dead in his tracks.  He said: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

I don’t know about you, my friends, but I’m sure thankful God has never placed that severe of a test before me because I’m not sure if I could pass it.  In fact, some of you have heard me say this before, but heaven forbid that we should ever have a fire here on Sunday morning because if we did, as much as I care about each and every one of you, I’m sorry, but I can pretty well guarantee you that I’m going to be looking for my wife and my daughters and my grandchildren first to make sure they get out of here safely, just as I’m sure all of you would do as well.

Amazingly, though, Abraham passed his test of faith.  Genesis 22:9-10 says: “When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.”  And you know the rest of the story, how God intervened and stopped Abraham and then commended him with these words: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Well, while God’s tests are sometimes very specific and direct like the ones we’ve just mentioned, I believe that they are also always present.  In other words, we’re constantly being tested.  And those tests come in so many different forms.  We’re tested in how we respond to people who irritate us as well as to people who praise us for what we do.  We’re tested in how we react to problems, to conflict, to illness, to disappointment, to traffic, to the weather.  We’re tested in how we manage our time, our talents, and our treasures.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I think of all those tests, it brings 2 thoughts to my mind.  First and foremost, I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve failed those tests, the times I’ve hurt my wife through some inconsiderate remark I sent her way or the times I’ve spoken harshly to my children or grandchildren whom I just told you I love so dearly.  The times I’ve accepted words of praise from people and allowed my head to swell rather than my heart to be humbled.  The times I’ve grown angry or impatient with God for not meeting my time schedule or answering my prayers the way I wanted them to be answered.  I could go on and on, as I’m sure all of you could, relating the multiple times I have failed the tests God has placed before me.

All of which is why we should be ever so thankful to him that he has provided the means whereby all those failures can be forgiven.  And not just forgiven, but also forgotten by him.  For although we may have trouble letting go of those failures, God doesn’t.  We heard this before in our Old Testament reading in Jeremiah 31:34 where in his amazing grace God says: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  That has got to be one of the most incredible, mind-boggling passages in the entire Bible.  For elsewhere we discover that God is an omniscient Being.  That means he’s all-knowing.  And yet by his own choice he has a poor memory – in fact no memory at all – when it comes to the sins that we’ve committed, confessed, and repented of.  For as John tells us in the 1st chapter of his 1st epistle: “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” – not just some sin, not just most sin, but all sin.

What a comfort it is to know then that though my failures may disappoint God, they never distance me from God.  He is always quick to forgive, ready to restore, and eager to receive a failure like me back into his fold again, just as the father did with the Prodigal Son whom we heard about before in our Gospel reading.

But there’s a 2nd thought that comes to my mind when I understand that all of life is a test.  For if that is the case, then there is nothing insignificant that happens in my life.  Even the smallest incidents have significance because regardless of whether I pass or fail the tests that God brings my way, he is using them to refine me, to shape me, to mold me into the kind of person he wants me to be.

The prophet Jeremiah understood this after God instructed him one day to pay a visit to the local potter.  This was the guy in town who specialized in making clay pots.  As Jeremiah observed this man skillfully carrying out his trade, God spoke to him and said: “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”  What a neat simile God employs there, especially when you consider what a potter does with a lump of clay.  He first of all beats it and pounds it to get all of the air bubbles out of it and to soften it so that it can be shaped more easily.  Then he puts it on his spinning wheel and begins to fashion it into the shape he wants to give it.  Then he places it into a kiln in order to fire it and harden it.  And once it has cooled he begins the process of painting this rather drab looking piece of pottery and transforming it into a beautiful bowl or vase or pot.

Does that sound familiar to you, my friends?  Have you ever felt like the hand of the Lord was just pounding away on you or that he had you on his spinning wheel, going round and round?  Have you ever felt as though you’d just been thrust into a fiery kiln as you felt the heat of temptation or sorrow or failure or discouragement?  When you do feel those ways, please keep in mind that your heavenly Potter has not abandoned you.  He has not forgotten you.  But instead he is refining you, shaping you, fashioning you into something that you could not become without that particular test in your life.  And while I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy or fun going through those tests, I believe most if not all of you will agree with me when I say that it is during those times of our lives that we grow the most spiritually speaking.  It is during those times that our character is developed and we discover what we are really capable of handling with God’s help.  It is during those times that God proves to us just how awesome and wonderful he really is.  For as I’ve said so many times before, when we reach that point where we find that God is all we have, we soon discover that God is all we need.

And one more thing before I close.  Those tests in life that we’ve been talking about today?  He wants you to pass them.  He’s not like some professors that I had during my college and seminary years who seemed to take a great deal of devilish delight in giving us tests that were almost impossible to pass.  Listen once again to this wonderful promise that God extends to us through the Apostle Paul in our text for today: “God keeps his promise, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; at the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out.”

Aren’t you glad we have a God like that?  In fact, when you think about it, he’s such an incredible God that he took the ultimate test for us, the entry exam for heaven.  That examination required a perfect score and since God knew we couldn’t produce anything close to that, he did it for us through his Son Jesus Christ.  And now, wonder of all wonders, he offers that perfect score – the perfect righteousness of Jesus – to all who will receive him as Savior and Lord.  Oh how I pray that all of you will take that step of faith, if you haven’t done so already, so that through Jesus the entry exam to heaven will be one test that you pass with flying colors.