Church of the Incarnation
Lent 3: Suffering is Common to All; but it does not have to define who we are
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
How have you been tested in your life? I know some of you or those you love have been diagnosed with cancers, or Alzheimer’s, with arthritis or wicked back or stomach pain. I know some of you have lost your partners, your friends, your brothers and sisters, sometimes to long term sickness, sometimes it happened very suddenly. I know some of you have grappled with a struggle to figure out personal relationships, not just at a surface level, but deep below, struggling with insecurity, loss, fear of getting close, fear of being vulnerable, lack of self-worth, or a kind of indifference that sometimes grows out of the pain of failed or complicated relationships from the past. We have likely all gone through some sort of struggle and wondered: why me, why this. And we’ve wondered, how can I deal with this? How can I go on? What will I do with …?
I remember once talking about things I was struggling with with someone whom I respected very much and he said to me our very words from 1st Corinthians today: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” At first this made me pretty angry. I thought, you’re diminishing my own suffering. You’re not taking me seriously. You’re giving me no space to feel anything. You want me to just get over it, as if ‘everyone struggles so suck it up, be stoic, and get on with things. And yet part of my anger had to do with the fact that what this person said to me was true: and I called to mind the stories of friends who had been sexually abused or physically abused as children, friends who live in a corrupt nation where they can barely scrape together what is necessary to feed themselves, friends who lost children, friends who lost parents, friends who died, in their 20s, of cancer. I had friends who lost jobs, who felt squashed by their workloads, not sufficient for their families, who worry endlessly about how their kids will turn out. While my generation might curate their live to look perfect on social media – while under the surface trouble is all around them – your generation curated your lives by not talking about your pain, your suffering, your fears and anxieties. Particularly the men of your generation; told not to share, not to feel, because to do so would be weakness. So we have all in some way spent time covering up, hiding, masking, and distracting, from our own struggles.
Into this God says something very key to us that we too often forget living in a world where we have spent so much time and effort curating our lives and distracting ourselves from real struggle. ‘Testing is common to everyone.’ In the passage from Corinthians, Paul had been telling of Israel’s test in the desert. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, just as we are freed from the slavery to sin, Israel is taken out into the desert and there find themselves all tested by elements common to all of them: the need for food, for water, the danger of their physical environment, the difficulty of dealing with sick, ailing people in the desert, the danger of temptation to turn away from the freedom they’d received and the new life they had in the desert, to slavery in Egypt.
Likewise Jesus, whom Paul echoes is saying in our Gospel lesson today that danger is always present to us, that having been freed from slavery to sin, the things that we encounter in this world that test us – need for food, for shelter, for water, for community, for safety, for treatment for conditions, for basic love and relationship – can become a snare for us where instead of trusting in God when things fall apart with family, with friends, with our health, with our loved one’s health, with our careers, with our personal lives, we imagine these things to have power over us; a power that God cannot or will not help us with. And thinking God weak, or willing to abandon us, we can end up placing our hope in the figurative golden calves of so many things: possessions, a sense of personal justice, vengeance, our self-righteous anger, our ability to control, scold or mold another in our likeness. We can in fact turn away from God in despair – just as the Israelites did in the desert – God why would you free us from Egypt, from sin, only to lead us out into the desert where we hunger, thirst, get sick, where our relationships go bad and we hurt and maim each other, each one of us bitten by figuratively poisonous serpents, who are in fact, us. I guess I’ll have to fix everything myself.
Paul and Jesus warn us of the temptation to do that in our readings this morning. In the midst of our darkest moments of this life where we are all tested: “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.” Turn back to God. Do not hide yourself away, do not bury yourselves in your own ways and measurements of value and worth. Turn back to me. We know from our reading from Corinthians that God provided both bread and water for the Israelites: the bread of heaven, manna; water from a rock, that rock being the foundation of all life, Jesus Christ himself.
From where did that water and bread come to the Israelites, and where does it come for us? What more could water from the rock in the desert mean than the water that poured out of Christ’s own side when he was stabbed upon the Cross, Paul says in Corinthians. This is the water, the Christ, the bodily substance, by whom we have life. God is faithful, he will not let us be tested beyond our own strength. He provided a way out in the desert by remaining ever faithful to his promises to reconcile us to his Father. He provided a way out by not leaving us to death, but reconciling us to eternal life in himself. He provides a way out by showing, in the desert – remember our reading from Lent 1 – that he has overcome Satan, sin and the temptation to turn away from God in the greatest trials of life. Jesus opens the way for you and for me as we walk in the desert that is life. We are often parched, hungry, fearful about our capacity to survive, confused about our meaning and purpose, saddened by losses of our loved ones, by our own decline, by changes and disappointments we couldn’t have anticipated, or that we knew and always dreaded. Testing will happen to all of us, but God in Christ through his Spirit has given us a way out, so that in Jesus Christ, as he is in our bodies and minds, we have the assurance, the love, the physical presence, and therefore the hope to endure and persevere in our respective deserts of life. Does this ring true for you? If so, I urge you to give to God the things that keep you from opening yourself to him. If not, I urge you to pray for God’s presence with you. Are you willing to take up that Cross this week? AMEN.