Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Text: 1 Corinthians 10:13
Every test that you have experienced is the kind that normally comes to people. But 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.

When bad things happen

Last week I saw a teenager wearing a T-shirt day at the shopping centre with just one word on it - the word ‘why’.

Some years ago I took the funeral of a young teenager who had been tragically killed in a car smash. As I entered the funeral chapel, I was struck by the large number of young people present all of whom were wearing black. Boys and girls alike formed this mass of black that filled the chapel. Afterward, standing around outside, the young people said it in many different ways but each question and shake of the head, every long draw on a cigarette (or whatever it as they were smoking), every tear asked the question ‘why’. The lad killed was well liked, he enjoyed riding motor bikes, he played football, he liked to party – he had his whole life ahead of him, so why did this happen to such a great guy? I don’t think many of those at the funeral were Christians and so this atmosphere of gloom hung over the young mourners. A key moment at the graveside after the committal was when a teenage girl asked the group, "I wonder who of us will be next?"

At some time we all ask the question ‘why’.
Things don’t go the way we want them to;
we don’t get a job we apply for;
we become sick;
a relationship fails – nothing seems to turn out right.
We struggle with a particular temptation in our lives but we can’t let it go.
We love and trust our God, we pray frequently and earnestly and yet these things happen to us and our friends.
There are times when we really feel alone and no one seems to care. We have a burden and it looks like we are left to carry it alone. As we look ahead we see no light, only the question why blocks our path.

On one occasion some people came to Jesus and ask him the question, ‘Why does it seem that good people suffer?’ They come with two instances. ‘How about those Galileans, whom Pilate put to the sword, their throats slit right in the holiest place of all - the very temple of God? Why did they deserve such a fate?’

You might say that this tragedy is representative of so many tragedies that are caused by people. The Romans were tyrants; the Galileans were killed by a government that was oppressive and cruel. But the question still remains - why do so many good people, like the worshippers in the temple, get caught up in such tragedies? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The second instance reported to Jesus concerns the collapse of the tower at Siloam. Eighteen people were killed when it seems this tower toppled. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That happens in so many other disasters, fire, earthquake, a storm or a freaky accident - people get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can probably think of occasions when you have asked this same question. A situation I can think of is that of the son of a dairy farmer who rode off on his motor bike to bring in the cows. He never came back. He was struck by a freaky inexplicable bolt of lightning that came from nowhere. The question was raised again – why did this happen? People going about their own business are suddenly struck down. Why do bad things like this happen to good people?

Back in Jesus’ time it was presumed that when this kind of thing happened it meant that the individual involved or even a member of his/her family had done something terribly wrong. This was God's punishment.

Jesus says this to those who had come to him with the news of these tragedies, ‘Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed!’

Bad things don’t just happen to good people. Bad and good things happen to both good and bad people.

On one occasion Jesus says, ‘God makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil’ (Matt 5:45). There is no hint here that the people up north who have faced cyclones and been flooded or those facing extreme drought have been particularly evil people so are getting what they deserve and that the people along the coast have been exceptionally committed Christian people and so have been blessed with adequate rain.

The apostle Paul has something to say about this at the end of today’s second reading. He says, ‘Every test that you have experienced is the kind that normally comes to people’. For some this might be encouraging knowing that what has happened to you happens to people all round the world. There is some comfort in knowing that you aren’t the only one suffering; there are others who can relate to what is happening in your life.

For others these words are cold comfort indeed. Say you’re particularly troubled by a problem. You think it over, you commit it to God in prayer, you toss and turn within yourself, and finally you let tell someone else. Calmly and coolly the reply comes back, "Don’t worry. You’re not the only one!" That sort of advice doesn’t really help at all. That’s not all that comforting. To know that others are suffering just as I am doesn’t offer one bit of comfort whatsoever. My situation is very real to me and I want some answers, some real help, some real assurance. I want to know why God has let this happen to me. I want to know why a life was cut short, or why a disease has ravaged the body of a good friend, or why I have to deal with so many bad things happening to me one after another.

We need to look more closely at what Paul is saying and see that he is offering more than cold comfort. Not only can we receive comfort when we realise that God knows what it’s like to suffer, but he will not let us be tested by more than we can take – he will help us overcome suffering.
He may knock us to the ground, but he will never crush us.
He may allow every kind of evil to come to us like it did to Job, but our life still belongs to him.
It may seem that there is nowhere to turn, no answer, no solution, but God’s promise is that in everything that comes to us, he also provides a way through, a way out, he will help us overcome it.
When our question ‘why’ is shrouded in grief, pain, doubt, anguish, anger and fear, this is when God's power and comfort are the strongest.

Wasn’t that Paul’s own experience? Remember how he had some kind of personal trouble or affliction and he prayed many times that it would go away. He uses the word ‘torment’ to describe what he was experiencing and he pleaded, begged God to take it away. It was no small matter. I’m sure he asked the question ‘why’ as well. After all, how much better would he be able to carry on his mission work if he wasn’t plagued with this ‘thorn in the flesh’ as he called it.

Paul wasn’t given a miraculous answer to his prayer. His problem didn’t go away. Instead he received this assurance from God. ‘My grace is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.’ When Paul was at his lowest and weakest, that’s when he experienced again the love and the power of God to get him through his difficulty and come out the other side the victor.

I think that we Christians sometimes expect that God will make life easy for us. We give him our lives, so we think that he owes it to us to look after us. And what we fail to realise is that there are times when we need to accept difficult times, allow them to knock us around, believing that God is working to lift us up.

We can think of Jesus himself. The Bible says that he was tested in every way. Satan came to Jesus and offered him the whole world, "Why should you keep walking the road you’re walking? You know as well as I do where it’s leading. You will hang on the cross and die. Worship me and I’ll give you the whole world!" That was a real test. Jesus could’ve taken the easy way, but he resisted.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus realised that he was facing an important decision. If he stayed in the Garden there would be no turning back. He’d have to go through the whole thing. He prayed, "God, does it have to be this way? Isn’t there an easier way? But he put it all into his Father’s hands and prayed, ‘Not what I want, but what you want!’

Today's text from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians speaks to us this morning to reassure us and give us confidence.
If right now you are going through a testing time, remember these words, At the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it’.
If in the future you are brought face to face with a searching ‘why’, realise that your faith may be at the crossroads - will you be strengthened or break?
Rely on God’s promise and trust him that he will see you through every problem. Face every problem with the confidence that the Holy Spirit in you will help you to overcome it. No problem is too great for you when God is on your side. As Paul said, ‘We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. … If God is on our side, can anyone be against us?’ (Rom 8:28, 31). When you are confronted by a ‘why’ remember that God is there for you, ready to strengthen you. He will provide for you a way out.

I read the story about a young couple who had set the date for their wedding. As they were driving home, their car was forced off the road and crashed into a light pole and the young man was killed instantly. The girl was heart-broken. Inside was only emptiness and pain. All she could do was ask ‘why!’ She knew the verses that I have referred to this morning, especially the one that says that ‘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’ but at that moment this just didn’t seem real. The whole situation seemed so pointless, so cruel, so devastating. She was angry with God; was inconsolable. It took a while but finally she was able to put into practice what she believed in her head. Even though this was a tragic loss, God was still there for her and would work with her to get her through. Finally she could pray, "Lord, I don’t understand, it still hurts a lot, but I know that I can trust you."

How do we know that we can trust God when everything seems so terrible? Look at the cross and the figure on it. There on the cross God's love is demonstrated so clearly. Jesus gave his life out of love for us. This love can be trusted. He died for us so why would he abandon us now when we are calling out ‘why’ to him. God's promise is certain because it is based on his unshakeable love for us – he will not let you be tested beyond what you can endure – he knows better than you what your breaking point is – and he will provide you with a way through.

Hold on to that promise. Believe it! Put it to work in your life and see how true it is.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
11th March 2007

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