In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter ten, St. Paul writes: “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.” (I Cor. 10:13)
Commenting on this verse, one of my seminary teachers once observed: “Scripture says that God ‘will not let you be tested beyond your strength,’ but that doesn’t mean that God won’t let you be tested right up to the point when your strength is about to give out.”
Think about that with me.
God won’t allow us to be tested beyond our point of endurance….but we may be tested right up to our point of endurance.
….which is to say, God may allow things to get pretty bad with us. God may permit us to face heartache right up to the point that we cry out: “How long, O Lord?” God may let things get so out of hand in our lives…that we feel driven to despair.
And then God will meet us, right on the edge of what we can handle….and God will hold out his hand and help us move ahead--often in the most unanticipated of ways.
That seems to be a pattern in each of our scripture readings this morning.
In our First Lesson from I Kings 17, the prophet Elijah, on the run from wicked King Ahab, trying to survive in a time of drought….is led to the home of a widow in the Gentile territory of Zarephath. And it happens twice in this story---God allows things to get bad to the point of despair….but then God intervenes. The jar of flour and the jug of oil is replenished, the widow’s only son is brought back from death by the man of God.
Right up to the precipice—two times no less! And God reaches out to rescue.
In our second lesson, we’re reminded about the desperate situation of the first Christians--slaughtered for their faith in Jesus the Messiah of Israel. Where would it all end? It ended in God’s astonishing call to Saul the chief persecutor, to become Paul the chief missionary to the Gentile world. Right up to the edge of the cliff—God turns things around in a way no one could have anticipated!
And it happens in this gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 7, as well. Once more, we see before us a scene of unspeakable heartache: a widow’s only son has died….a mother’s last shred of earthly security—snatched away. The wailing of the mourners fills the village of Nain as the young man’s body is borne out to the same graveyard where his father’s bones already are buried. How much more desperate and gut-wrenching a scene could anyone imagine than this?
But right there, once again, in the dark valley of death, God acts. Jesus and his disciples encounter the funeral procession. Jesus the Man of God defiles himself by touching the stretcher that bears the dead son’s body. Jesus speaks to the young man as if for him—for Jesus!—death holds no power….
…..and the young man is restored, he opens his mouth to speak, to re-establish connection with his community…so that all the mourners—in a mixture of fear and joy—suddenly recognize that “God has visited his people” (RSV) once more.
God has visited his people.
It’s a kind of mantra. We hear it throughout the scriptures, time and again, God visits….God shows up….God rescues us from the jaws of death….just in the nick of time, just when all looked lost, just when we thought we were goners.
But why does God do it that way?
Why does God allow us to be tested right up to the edge of our power to endure? What is God up to, in these stories of people at the precipice? What can we take away from such texts, for our own lives of faith and discipleship?
1. The first thing that seems apparent in these stories is that God seems to have no interest in eradicating evil, at least for the time being. That is: God doesn’t remove us from a world in which we sin, encounter suffering, feel desperate, and die.
All of those things—“sin, death and the power of the devil” (as Luther liked to call them)—play some role in our coming to faith and our being sustained in faith. Life in this world is hard, and that hardness somehow connects to how God “visits us,” walks with us—through (not around!) the tough stuff, promising all the while to “provide [a] way out” (I Cor. 10:13) so that we might endure.
2. Which leads me to the second thing that seems apparent in these stories. God may not be interested in eradicating evil….but God certainly loves to defeat evil, forgive sin, upend death. And I wonder if that is why God allows those “awful awfuls” to persist, for a while longer, in our lives here on earth.
God allows us to be tested by these unpleasant things. God permits us to walk in harm’s way. God lets us sin and live with the consequences of our sin. God even makes room for death to keep intruding into our lives here on earth.
And why? To help us remember who we are not! So that we might learn our limitations. So that we might know what we can’t do on our own—we can’t stop sinning, we can’t dodge every bullet, we can’t stave off death on our own. We are finite, “bounded,” limited beings.
Which is to say: we are not God.
But we do belong to God—and that makes all the difference. So God doesn’t eradicate sin, death and the power of the devil…..but God surely defeats all those grim realities, again and again.
• God hasn’t yet made us perfect, sinless creatures…..because God wants us to experience the relief of having our sins forgiven as only God can forgive.
• God hasn’t yet finally “defanged the devil,” who still prowls around like a hungry lion, but God surely keeps vanquishing the devil, and showing the devil who’s Boss.
• And God hasn’t yet abolished death. Even the two widows’ sons in our scripture lessons had to die again, just as we all shall die. But death will not have the final word with us. In the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we have God’s dependable “down payment” on the resurrection that awaits us all.
But in order to be resurrected, you do have to be dead first!
And God knows just what to do with dead things. God’s solution isn’t to eradicate death—to remove death from the equation. God’s solution is to raise the dead, starting with the crucified Jesus.
So God raises up two widows’ sons in these stories….returning them to their bereft mothers.
And God raises up Saul the violent persecutor….so that he might become useful in God’s service, as Paul the one-who-was-sent to the Gentiles, to bring them into the sphere of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.
And so also, God raises up you and me, when we are dead in our sin, dead in our dread of the evil that surrounds us, and when we are finally dead in our graves….God will raise us up once again, so that we might serve him forever.
3. And that brings us to the third reason why God allows us to be tested, right up to our point of endurance. God wants to fashion us into new beings who will be of service to God and to our fellow creatures.
God allows us to taste the bitterness that life can dish out, so that we might know the needs of our sisters and brothers, so that we might be turned “inside out,” and so that we might rise to serve our fellow travelers through this world.
There is, as always, a call to service and an invitation into God’s mission tucked away in these stories. Elijah and Jesus didn’t just want two widows to be happy again; they wanted them to have sons alive and able to serve.
God didn’t just want Saul to lay off on persecuting the early Christians. God wanted an apostle like no other to step forth, into the pagan world of the Roman Empire, to announce the good news that Jesus—not Caesar—is Lord over all.
And so also, God raises us up, not to make us “fat and sassy” but to free us for God’s royal service….as disciples who know that evil exists to be defeated, that sin persists to be forgiven, and that death lingers on only to be upended by the Resurrection that burst forth from Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday.
Lawrence Robert Wohlrabe was born in Mankato, MN. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul. Luther Seminary awarded him a Doctor of Ministry degree with distinction.
Ordained in 1981, he served parishes in Willmar, MN; St. James, MN; and Moorhead, MN. He was also on the staff of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and the SW MN Synod ELCA, Redwood Falls, MN. Larry was elected bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod on June 10, 2007. He was re-elected bishop of the synod, to a second 6-year term on June 7, 2013.
Larry's wife, Joy, is retired after working many years as a hospital and hospice social worker. They have two young adult children, Erik and Kristen (married to Aaron) and two grandchildren, Olivia and Micah. Note: the views expressed here are Bishop Wohlrabe's views--not those of the NW MN Synod.