Thursday, March 21, 2019
March 24, Lent 3, Temptations #3: Suffering
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
In Charleston, South Carolina, at the Mother Emanuel AME church, nine people were killed.
In Cairo, Egypt, at the St. Peter Church, twenty-nine people were killed.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tree of Life Synagogue, eleven people were killed at prayer.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre, fifty people were killed at prayer.
In Jerusalem, in the Temple, how many Galileans were killed by Pontius Pilate while they were praying? Sacrificed to Rome while they sacrificed to God. So what if it was legal?
All of the victims were peacefully at prayer, in sanctuaries, spaces of safety and innocence. But they were guilty, in the judgment of their murderers, guilty of being black, guilty of being Christian, of being Jewish, of being Muslim, or of being Galilean patriots. Or revolutionaries. What are you guilty of being? Just guilty of being alive within a violent world? Is no one allowed to be innocent?
In the Gospel story they are saying this to Jesus in order to warn him off. They assume he wants to lead a revolution against the Romans, and they expect Pontius Pilate to slaughter him just like he slaughtered the last ones who tried it.
As usual, Jesus does not answer them directly, but he turns it back on them by bringing up another disaster, the collapse of that tower on eighteen victims. “God did not prevent it. God does not stop the world from being the world. Towers fall, on people. And Romans kill patriots, that’s what they do, and they’ll do it to you if you act like that (which will happen thirty years later). But all of that won’t turn me ’round from doing what I am doing!”
The threat of violence is a temptation. The threat of suffering is a temptation. Suffering itself is a temptation. If you think you might suffer you back off from what you ought to do, or you might do what you ought not do. And then when you suffer anyway you are tempted in a different way, you are tempted to want a reason for it, some cause and effect, some karma—is this payback, did I do something to deserve this?
Suffering is a teacher, but not always a good one, and you can learn the wrong lessons from your suffering and fail the test of your temptation. You get defensive and closed off. You limit your suffering by desiring less, hoping less, believing less, loving less. You figure the world is a hateful and dangerous place—so keep your guard up and get what you can. Defend your school with guns, lock your sanctuary door. That is one kind of humanity, the humanity that ran the Roman Empire in St. Luke’s day. It’s the humanity we are used to, and assumed by governments and nation-states. But the new humanity, of which Jesus is the firstborn, learns a different lesson from suffering.
You will hear Christians say that God does not let you suffer more than you can bear. But this is not true. I have pastored Christians whose suffering was too much for them and it broke them, and it was not their fault. I pastored someone who stays alive against his profound and lifelong inner suffering only because he believes that suicide is an even worse defeat. God certainly allows us to suffer more than we can bear. God does not stop the world from being the world.
But doesn’t St. Paul say that in our Epistle to the Corinthians? He writes that “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” But to interpret this as God not letting us suffer more than we can bear assumes that God sends us our suffering. But God does not send us our suffering. Suffering happens. God lets the world be the world. When you get sick, that is not God testing you. That is your having a physical body and sharing a world with viruses, or even sharing a world with people who have guns and use them. You can be a saint and have troubles, social and emotional, and likewise you can be a creep with a very nice charmed life.
God does test us, not by manipulating our circumstances, but simply by means of God’s Word. Here’s the Gospel, now respond to it—that’s your test. In seventy-odd years you will have to put your pencil down. It is a life-long test. God tests us by God’s Word, which is how God judges us.
God judges us exactly how God communicates with us, in God’s Word—God judges us simply by how we judge ourselves in responding to God’s Word, and God tests us simply by offering us the promises of God’s Word. How you do on the test is how you respond to God’s Word. There is no other testing that God gives you. And God always tells you exactly what is on the test.
Here’s the next point, that the testing is the same as “the way out” of our testing. If the test is the promises of God, those same promises are also the way out so that you may be able to endure it. Even if you fail to act upon God’s promises, God’s deepest promise is for those who fail. In fact, it’s not till you hit bottom that you finally realize all the promises. The test is the way out of the test.
God’s promises test us in our suffering no less than they test us in our prosperity and perceived success. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Prosperity and success can be a worse temptation than suffering. Just ask King Solomon, just ask King David, just ask Adam and Eve who were in paradise. But when we believe God’s Word and acknowledge our failure we are also comforted by God’s Word, and restored and revived and given hope to endure.
That does not mean passivity, which is a real temptation of suffering. That’s the problem of the fig tree in the parable. It holds itself in, it doesn’t produce, it’s passive. From suffering it’s natural to hold back and protect yourself. You hold your life in, preserve your energy, spare yourself the trials of love, and protect what’s yours. But finally it doesn’t help. You can’t prevent the accident, the tyrant will get you anyway, and you only make it worse by the implicit hostility of your self-defense.
You are not called to passivity, and in the case of violence you are called to more than thoughts and prayers. You can even be angry. The slaughter of Muslims and Jews and Christians at prayer is a genuine cause for anger. But not revenge, because anger is another faulty teacher, and it’s never the solution, only an indicator for purpose, and for action as a kind of witnessing. Your anger and your purpose must be always tested by the Gospel, and always end in acts of love.
Another temptation in suffering is doubt. Doubt has its place. It is natural. Reasonable doubt is the foundation of the scientific method and also of our justice system. So it is natural to doubt the promises of God, whether from prosperity or poverty, success or suffering. And that doubt can come from your own self-awareness. You see that in our first lesson, when Moses doubts that he can do what God has called him to. Moses says, “Who am I that I should go and do this?” He doubted.
God answers him and says, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you, that when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship me on this mountain.” That is remarkable, because it’s circular, because he will get his confirmation to do it only after he does it. So, your doubt will be answered only after you have acted against your doubt! If you don’t do it, you won’t know that you could do it! Sort of like our sanctuary restoration, we couldn’t know that God was with us until we did it and found out that God was with us. I think it must be true of everything God calls us to. The Gospel is always a test, both to try us and to get us through the trial.
That means the testing is an invitation. God’s promises, God’s Word, God’s information is an offering. The judgments of God are not punishments but challenges, and open-ended. Listen to the gardener in the parable: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” We could translate “manure” more accurately with a certain four-letter word. Let’s just say, “Manure happens.” God will not spare you from the manure that happens, God lets the world be the world. But the gardener digs around you and gives you space. For another year.
And in the strange and gracious calendar of the Bible, it’s always one more year, God always gives you one more year no matter how many years you have wasted, it’s always Today. God is always gracious. The invitation never fails no matter how often you refuse it. God is the lover who will not be spurned. God is not just a teacher but a lover. And not a lover who is always testing you, rather the steady promiser against whom you test yourself, and in the testing to learn how great this Love might be.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.