Sunday, September 18, 2011

Passing the Test

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 6:25-34

Because I was a marginal student and world-class underachiever in high school, there was one phrase that caused me more anxiety than anything else I can remember: "there will be a test". I tried to convince my teachers and my mom I was just not a good "test taker" and part of me probably wanted to believe that, but it was not the problem. It rarely is. The truth is before I finally came around to appreciating the importance and value of education, I was never really prepared for the tests because I didn't do the work; I just crammed the night before. Because I was never prepared, then, my doom was right before me each time a teacher said, "Take out a clean sheet of paper, and put your books under your desk." Life as I knew it was about to come to an end. I didn't fail the tests, mind you, or I would probably still be in high school! I simply had to work harder at the tests because I didn't do the necessary prep work.

A simple definition of "test" goes much deeper than just trying to discover whether a student has prepared or what the student knows. The textbook definition goes like this: A procedure for critical evaluation; a means of determining the presence, quality, or truth of something (Yahoo dictionary). It must be noted, then, that tests serve other purposes than to simply find out whether or not one adequately prepared, and in the case of medical tests we do not simply want to know "what's there". Each test is a means not of evaluating the past but preparing for the future, "evaluating" the next step, where we go from that point, and whether or not we are even ready to move forward.

The Exodus story is generally understood to be the "manna" story that speaks to the benevolence of the Holy God in His provisions for the people of Israel. They are in the middle of nowhere and going "only Lord knows where", and they have no means to provide for themselves. They are at the mercy of the elements, the wilderness, and one another; and as the story is written, they seem to be ready and willing to be back and at the mercy of their Egyptian taskmasters. At least there they didn't have to worry about where their next meal would come from or where they would lay their heads for sleep.

Notice, however, that the Lord seems to want more from this than to simply make Israel aware of His presence. "I will test them", the Lord says, "whether they will follow My instruction or not" (Exodus 16:4b). Then we are treated with the Lord's intent to provide twice as much manna "on the sixth day" so Israel will be provided for during the seventh day, the Sabbath, so they can avoid gathering and preparing, working, thus not profaning the sacred day of Sabbath.

So is the Lord simply testing Israel's will to obey, or is there something more? Considering where we are in the Exodus story - prior to the revelation of the Law which does not come until chapter 20 - it might be easier to believe there has to be more than just a test of willful obedience. They cannot be tested for what they know about the Law - IF - the Exodus is written chronologically. It would hardly be fair to test them on the Law concerning the Sabbath if they have not yet been made aware of - AND - properly instructed in that Law. There can be no "critical evaluation" of ignorance since there is theoretically nothing to evaluate, but there can be testing as a means of "evaluation" to determine whether or not Israel is ready to move into the next phase of the journey. In fact there must be.

The test as a means of preparation and evaluation can be no less so for the Christian. Though I cannot say this occurred to me before, it will now be pretty hard to imagine Jesus did not have the Exodus in mind as He was teaching this lesson about dependence and focus and trust. It is hard now to consider that we are not also tested along our own "wilderness journey" just as Israel was being so tested. It is hard now to think that wherever we are at any given stage in our own lives, that the Lord is not also preparing us for something greater and trying to determine whether we are adequately prepared for the next step - or if we must stay where we are a little longer.

The "prayer of Jabez" (1 Chronicles 4:10) has been a popular "prosperity Gospel" scripture passage by which otherwise unsuspecting - and unprepared - "sheeple" are shown as "proof" that the Lord grants riches and wealth ('enlarged territory') if we just ask. I've actually heard TV preachers suggest the reason people live in poverty is because a) they've never really asked, b) they didn't ask "correctly" (like they didn't send money to the TV preacher as a sign of faith), or c) implied they were somehow not as 'favored' as, say, a TV preacher who wears custom-tailored suits and drives luxury cars. Obviously those who live in poverty, according to these criteria, are simply not "believing", "practicing" Christians ... not really. They are only "cultural" Christians ... in name only.

That may be an unfair statement, but it strikes at the heart of what the spiritual journey is about. The Lord needs to know whether we can be trusted to move to the next stage, and whether we can be trusted with "enlarged" territory - or additional responsibility - and it has everything to do with whether or not we have been adequately prepared. I find nothing in Scripture to suggest there is anything "magical" about such a transformation.

The Lord's will be done, of course, but we must be equally willful to engage in the learning process and transformation. If we are not adequately prepared or if we see the Gospel only in terms of how we are personally affected or enriched, chances are we are not going to be entrusted with much more until we are prepared to move forward. Moving us too quickly to the deep end of the pool would mean our utter destruction rather than our edification. It is not unlike college entrance exams that determine whether a prospective student has been adequately prepared for college-level work, or if remedial instruction might be more beneficial. We might wish to graduate sooner and remedial work will only delay the goal we have established for ourselves, but throwing a student into a class for which he or she has not been adequately prepared is a recipe for failure. How well we are prepared, then, will determine our next steps, and I will dare say that if the Lord withholds from us our personal wishes or desires because He knows we are not ready - and the Lord would know better than we! - there can be no greater love than denial ... for our own good until we are ready ... because only the Lord knows what is ahead.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." This is an important concept in the "critical evaluation" of where we are and where we will go from this point. It speaks well of the Wesleyan concept of "justification" - when we become aware of the Lord's grace in our lives - as the next step toward "sanctification" - the "path" toward spiritual perfection ... rather than the "spot" or a magical, mystical "event". It is a process that requires active engagement and participation ... just like any other relationship we may enjoy; and "faith" is the key, the ability and the willingness to trust.

Those who spend their days "worrying" about food and clothing and shelter or jobs and money or just about anything else under the sun are being completely "human". Worrying is what we do best ... in the absence of faith, and we should not overlook Jesus' indictment: "You of little faith" (vs 30). But we must also not confuse "worry" with "planning". Planning requires knowledge of what is; worry involves what might (or might not) be. There is a profound difference between knowledge and faith. Jesus says if we "worry", we are attempting to go it alone ... we lack sufficient faith because we are worrying about the outcome (tomorrow) while in the midst of the test itself.

May the Lord grant us sufficient faith to endure the day that is upon us. May we endure the day with sufficient gratitude to know that even as we may feel we are being "tested" beyond our capacity to endure, we are actually being PREPARED for tomorrow. By His Grace. By His Mercy. For the sake of the Kingdom which is to come.

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