On Being Put to the Test

Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 22:1-14, Matthew 10:40-42

Anyone who has ever listened to radio has heard the test of the Emergency Broadcast System in which the announcer says, “This is a test. This is only a test. If this were the real thing you would have been given instructions to do this or that … ” Any number of people have indicated that this is an excellent definition of life: a test, only a test. If it were not a test, you would have been given better instructions.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a member of our congregation while I was working out in the back yard. She shared some concern she was experiencing and then asked, “Do you believe that God tests us?” I told her it was interesting she should ask, being that was the topic of this Sunday’s sermon. I told her we were going to take a look at the story from the 22nd chapter of Genesis, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, truly one of the most troubling stories of the Bible.

Our Old Testament text for this morning begins with these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” The story of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac is demanding. I know of some preachers who will not touch it. Interestingly enough, in looking back over my preaching record, I discovered I have dealt with this text only two times. I suspect my reason has more to do with being a father than anything else. I cannot conceive of a God who would demand such a thing as a father sacrificing his son. In spite of that, however, I feel there is value in our taking a look at this old story.

The text was penned by Moses some 1200 years before Christ. Let me take a few moments and go back to reconstruct the story. God had been testing Abraham for a long time. It began in Ur of the Chaldeans, located in what is now modern Iraq. God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you the father of a great nation … ” (Genesis 12:1-2). Abraham did what God commanded. He left one of the most prosperous, thriving cities in the ancient world and started wandering through what we now call the Fertile Crescent. For all his many blessings, Abraham lacked the one blessing he would need in order to fulfill the promise to be the founder and father of a great nation, namely, a son. Imagine the joy that came to Abraham and Sarah at the birth of Isaac. Can you also imagine the crushing blow that came to Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac? I can see Abraham and his son climbing the mountain, with Abraham taking one torturous step after another, knowing that the wood they carried would be the very wood used to take the life of his son.

What kind of God is this, anyway? I’m back to the question asked by the member of our congregation, “Does God test us?” Two questions come to my mind: First, why does God put us to the test? If we take time to look at this story, we will discover it is not as much about testing people as it is about faith and trusting in God’s wonderful promises. Why does God permit testing of our faith? Because such tests stretch our faith to its outer limits.

Second, where does this story of Abraham intersect with my life and yours? The answer to that question came to me at 10:20 last night. Sometime during the day, we had a power outage at the parsonage. It was a strange kind of outage in that we had some lights in the kitchen and I had lights and power in my study, which is the way it should be. The rest of the house, however, was in total darkness. We had been invited to attend a birthday party for one of our members. I knew we could not stay late because I do have to get up early for the Sunday morning broadcast. I also knew I needed some time to print my sermon, which was in the computer, and print some other materials I would be using for the broadcast.

Everything was going fine until 10:20 p.m., when all the power went out. I was downstairs foraging for food at the time, and thought about my computer. Groping through the darkness, I raced to my study and was greatly relieved to see the glow of my laptop, indicating that I had not lost anything. But how was I to print? I quickly looked over at the church and saw total darkness there as well. Where would I go? How would I be able to get the material I needed for this morning?

Great panic came over me when I looked down into the lower right-hand corner of the monitor, and realized I had just a few minutes left on my battery. This was not good. If I left the computer on and the battery were to be drained, there would be a good chance I would lose everything. I am not proficient enough with my computer to know how to fax something in order to save it.

At that moment, a great calm came over me. I said to myself, “Rod, you are 62 years old and you have been in the ministry for over 40 years. Even if you are not able to get the sermon printed out from the computer, you probably would be able to preach something on Sunday morning. If nothing else, you could whistle Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.” I could tell stories told to me by members of the congregation. Well, probably not, for most of the stories people tell me, I can’t use from the pulpit. The point is, a calm came over me, and because of that, I decided to go to bed, and I slept like a baby. I was abruptly awakened by the shining light coming out of our bathroom, indicating the power had been returned, and I would indeed be able to print my sermon for this morning. Why does God permit testing of our faith? Because such tests stretch our faith to its limits. Where does this story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac intersect with our daily living? Just about every place where we feel we are being tested.

Let me suggest what testing can do for us.

Testing Stretches Our Faith When We Come Face To Face With Our Own Hurts

I am not an art critic, nor do I know very much about art, other than I have my likes and dislikes. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch has always held a certain fascination for me. For years I have seen reproductions of that great painting, but I shall always remember the time I had an opportunity to see the original in the Reichsmuseum in Amsterdam. I truly believe the reason this painting holds so much power for me is the story behind the painting.

In the first part of his career, Rembrandt was recognized as one of Holland’s best artists. He painted some splendid pictures. His reputation soared and he became prosperous as well as popular. Then tragedy struck. In 1642, his wife Saskia died suddenly. Her death was devastating to Rembrandt. For a long time he refused to pick up a paint brush. A group of persons in the community kept asking him to paint a group portrait and he finally consented. The result is the magnificent picture you and I see today with its mysterious interplay of light and shadow.

Though no one knows for certain, some art critics believe this interplay reflects what was going on in Rembrandt’s life; a struggle between despair and hope. On a portrait he painted of himself at about the same time, he inscribed the words, “When I am weak, I am strong.”

Why does God put us to the test? Because such testing stretches our faith when we come face to face with our own hurts.

Testing Stretches Our Faith When What Seems Most Permanent To Us Is Threatened.

One of my favorite hymns is Praise My Soul the King of Heaven, partly due to the story behind the hymn. Before World War II, one of the bastions of the British Empire was the city of Singapore. Its residents believed the city was impregnable because there were deadly gun emplacements on the beaches that faced out to the sea, and any invading army would be annihilated on the beaches.

The Japanese, however, attacked Singapore from the rear. They came through the jungles of Malaysia and took the city through its backdoor. All the defenses on the beaches pointed to the sea, so they were useless; the city fell in a matter of a few days.

The day after the surrender, a worship service was held in the Anglican cathedral and it opened with the hymn, Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven. Listen to the second stanza:

Praise the Lord for grace and favor to all people in distress; praise God, still the same as ever, slow to chide, and swift to bless. Alleluia! Alleluia! Glorious now God’s faithfulness.

That had to be a faith-stretching experience for the worshipers huddled in the church, frightened and afraid. What irony! Here they were praising God even when their world was coming apart at the seams.

Where does this story intersect with our lives? Any time we have an “Abraham experience” like the one described in Genesis. Abraham had it all together. He was rich. God had promised he would be the father of a great nation. Isaac, the long-awaited son, the apple of his eye, was growing up to be a fine son. Abraham was sitting on top of the world … and then it fell apart when he heard those frightening words, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love … and offer him … as a burnt offering …” (Genesis 22:2)

Those words became a faith-stretching experience. Suddenly Abraham learned what it meant to live in absolute trust and obedience to God.

Testing Stretches Our Faith When We Learn To Trust Beyond Our Own Limited Horizons

Abraham was able to see beyond the crisis he was facing. There is something here for us to learn. Eugene Stockwell, one of the great missionaries of the United Methodist Church, tells of a missionary who was working in South America as a teacher. He and his family lived in a comfortable two-story house on the grounds of the school where he taught. One night the house caught on fire. The family managed to escape, but soon discovered their son was not with them.

The missionary saw his son standing at the window of the second story, terrified, with flames and billowing smoke all around him. The father shouted, “Son, jump! I am here and I will catch you!” The son shouted back that he was fearful to jump because he could not see his father. The father shouted back, “Son, jump! You can’t see me, but I can see you.” The boy did jump, his father caught him, and he escaped the fire. It is clear that faith means trusting God to provide. It also means our faith that God will provide will be tested.

Bill Russell, pastor of a large church, shared an experience he had that helps us to understand something about this theological truth. He was asked to teach in a class on preaching at a pastor’s school. The clergy were asked to bring a cassette tape of one of their sermons. Each minister would play a portion of the tape for the rest of the group to hear. One of the pastors present was Wayne Joslin, a rural pastor who was not a particularly good preacher.

It was finally his turn to play a portion of his recorded sermon. He began by telling of how he and his wife always wanted children, but the first child they had died at seven weeks. Later a second child was born, however, they noticed something was wrong. After a series of tests, it was confirmed that the child had a rare disease that would leave her confined to a wheelchair. The five minutes were up, which was the length of time given to each one of the ministers. However, no one moved to turn the recorder off. He went on in his sermon to explain the birth of another child who in time was diagnosed with the disease. Now, the Joslins had two children in wheelchairs. In his sermon, he explained that their children were the joys of their life.

When the little girl was twelve, she became ill. They took her to the hospital and were assured that she would recover, but complications developed and she died suddenly. When their son was eighteen he developed pneumonia and was placed on a respirator. However, he also died. There in the midst of all that grief and pain, everyone in the room heard Wayne say in his sermon how God had been faithful to them, and because of that, Wayne was able to keep on preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Someone in the group turned the tape recorder off. Bill Russell stepped outside the room to regain his composure.

My friends, God does permit every test, but it would appear God has a loving purpose in every test, and that is to strengthen our faith so we can trust beyond our own limited horizons.

The third stanza of Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven, states it well:

Father-like, God tends and spares us; well our feeble frame God knows; mother-like, God gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes. Alleluia! Alleluia! Widely yet God’s mercy flows.