Today I'd like to talk to you about something that's a little difficult. I'd like to talk to you about testing.
I want to begin in Ikea. Right away I know that some of you men think you know where I'm going with this. You think that I'm saying that going to Ikea is a test. Yes, it is a test. If you can go to Ikea with your wife and shop for an hour or so and not get in a fight, then I congratulate you. You have a very healthy marriage. You should actually consider leading a seminar on how to maintain a healthy marriage. I take my hat off to you.
But that's not quite what I want to talk about. In Ikea they have a chair. The chair is like a lot of Ikea stuff: layers of wood glued and pressed together. They want to show you how strong this chair is, so they have a testing machine that pushes a 220 pound weight on the seat, and a 70 pound weight on the back, 50,000 times.
Or take the CN Tower. Years ago my wife and I went to the restaurant up there for our anniversary. Afterwards we went to the observation deck. If you've been there, you know that they have a glass floor 1,100 feet off the ground. It was a bitterly cold night, and I swear that the floor creaked when I stepped on it. Granted, I had just finished eating dinner, but it wasn't the sound that I wanted to hear. I did some research and discovered that it's five times stronger than the required weight-bearing standard for commercial floors. If 14 large hippos could fit in the elevator and get up to the observation deck, the glass floor could withstand their weight. And yet it creaked when I stood on it. Go figure.
Every day of our lives we encounter roads and seats and bridges and floors that have been tested to bear a certain load. And we should be grateful that this is the case. I'd hate to find out the hard way that a bridge wasn't engineered to hold the weight of the car that I'm driving.
But this morning I want to talk to you about the spiritual weight load. How much are you engineered to carry? This is an important question, because you're going to be tested. I know, because we've been in a period of testing recently ourselves. Some of you have been too.
For some of you, the test is going to be like the Ikea chair. It's not going to be a heavy weight, but it's going to be a repetitive one. Push, push, push, 50,000 times. It's not the heaviness of the testing, it's the persistence of the test that is going to leave you feeling like it's been enough.
For others of you, it's going to be like the 14 large hippos jumping on a piece of glass. It's going to be the weight of the testing. I've been reading a book called Wednesdays were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, And God. It's about a two-year-old boy who came down with cancer. That's a heavy test. For some it's not the repetition; it's the weight of a trial like this that can overwhelm you.
So I'd like to look at a story in Scripture about testing today. It's found in Luke 22. Let me set the scene for you. It's the night before Jesus is taken to the cross. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed and arrested. This is an intense period of testing for both Jesus and the disciples. We know this, because Jesus begins and ends this passage by saying to his disciples, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Luke 22:40, 46). The word there is a word that's used for testing, for discovering the nature of someone or something. Jesus and the disciples are going through a severe period of testing together, and he emphasizes the need to pray during this period of severe trial.
This is a watershed moment. This is when we find out what Jesus and the disciples are made of. The consequences are huge at this moment. A lot is at stake. If Jesus doesn't pass this test, everything falls apart. What we're seeing in the garden is huge.
So here's the question. What do we learn about Jesus and about us when we enter a time of testing? Two things.
First: We learn that we can't pass the test.
In this passage we first learn something important about ourselves. This is very important information. This is make or break stuff here. It's critical to learn this, because if you don't you will live your entire life under an illusion. It's an illusion that has the power to crush and destroy you. So let's look at what we learn about ourselves in this passage.
Look at verses 39 and 40 with me:
And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Do you ever ask someone to do one relatively simple thing, realizing that it may be difficult to do more than that, but one should be manageable? Parents, do you ever ask your kids to clear the table when you go out? Then you come home and the table's full of dirty plates and food that you have to throw out. Or at work you delegate one thing to someone else while you cover the rest, and you come back and it's not done at all.
In this passage Jesus gives the disciples one thing to do, and it's not even that hard. They're under tremendous stress. Jesus has told them that he's going to be betrayed by one of them. He's turned to Peter and told him that he, Peter, is going to deny him. They know that tensions are swirling. And Jesus tells them that he wants them to do just one thing: to pray. It's not even that hard. He gives them an easy prayer too: Pray that they won't enter into temptation. Pray that they won't be tested. Jesus is essentially telling them, "Look, do just one thing. We're entering into the crucible of testing. Would you please pray that you will be spared from more testing. I have to go through this, but pray that you'll be spared." It's amazingly easy. It's like asking to be exempted from an exam at school. Jesus tells them to do one thing, and that's to pray that they get out of the time of testing.
But look what happens. Read verses 45 and 46:
And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Notice two things here. One, they flunk. Jesus gives them one thing to do, and they fail. This is the watershed moment, the climatic point in the Gospel of Luke so far, and they're asleep. Not their finest moment. Translation: they have revealed what they are able to handle under testing, and it's not very much.
But notice something else. Notice that they get off relatively unscathed. For one thing, Luke kind of gives them an excuse. He says they were "sleeping from sorrow." Luke seems almost sympathetic in reporting what happened. Even Jesus goes pretty easy on them. He gives them a mild rebuke, but he's much more restrained than I would be.
You see, Jesus and the disciples were entering the crucible of testing. They were about to discover what they're made of. And what we learn about the disciples is important, because what's true of the disciples is true of us as well. Here's what he learn: We don't stand up very well under testing. We generally fail the test. You push us 50,000 times, and we'll probably snap at some point. You put us under the weight of a huge test, and we probably won't do very well. Here's what we learn in this passage: We are incapable of passing the test on our own.
This is so important because, frankly, a lot of us are trying. And we're continually disappointed that we don't. I'm reading a book by Steve Brown these days. He tells the story about a man named Clarence who had a frog named Felix. Clarence worked at WalMart, but he had dreams of getting rich, so he decided he would teach Felix the frog to fly. Who wouldn't pay to see a flying frog?
The frog wasn't that excited. "I can't fly, you twit. I'm a frog, not a canary!"
Clarence wasn't impressed. "That negative attitude of yours could be a real problem. We're going to remain poor, and it will be your fault."
So they got to work. Clarence explained that their building had fifteen floors, and that each day Felix would jump out of a window, starting with the first floor and eventually getting to the top floor. After each jump, they would analyze what worked well and tweak the process in preparation for the next floor.
Felix tried his best, but things didn't go to well. THUD! He tried different strategies, and even tried a cape, but the result was the same. THUD! On the seventh day, the frog said, "You know you're killing me, don't you?" And that day Felix the frog took one final leap and went to the great lily pad in the sky.
Steve Brown, who tells this story, was once a pastor. After relating to the story, listen to what he said:
A number of years ago, I realized that I was, as it were, trying to teach frogs to fly. Frogs can't fly. Not only that, but they get angry when you try to teach them. The gullible ones will try, but they eventually get hurt so bad, even they quit trying. And let me tell you a secret: the really sad thing about being a "frog flying teacher" is that I can't fly either.
Do you hear that? Steve Brown is telling us the same thing that this passage is telling us. We cannot pass the test. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much effort we make, when tested, we are found wanting. Church is not a good person telling good people how to be good, as Mark Twain put it. Church this morning is a broken person person telling broken people that they're broken. We flunk the test! We get a glimpse of ourselves in this passage, and it's important for us to see this, because it will save us a lifetime of trying to fly out windows when we were never made to fly.
This passage reveals what happens to us when we're tested. We cannot pass the test.
But that's not the whole story. We've seen what's true of us: We can't pass the test. But then:
Second, see that Jesus was severely tested, and that that he passed the test.
Read verses 41-44 with me:
And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Do you realize the severity of the test that Jesus was going through? First, he was abandoned. His closest friends were standing apart from him asleep, and he was alone, completely alone, to face the greatest trial of his life.
Not only was he abandoned, but he realized what he was about to face. He prays about the cup of suffering that he was about to taste. The cup in Scripture is used to refer to God's wrath.
Jesus was facing something that nobody else in history has ever faced. From eternity he had enjoyed perfect communion with the Father, a relationship of absolute intimacy and love. But at the cross Jesus was for the first time cut off from his Father. At the cross Jesus would take on our sin and bear the wrath of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he experienced a bit of that and it put him into shock.
New Testament scholar Bill Lane writes, "Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered."
Centuries ago Jonathan Edwards said:
The thing that Christ's mind was so full of at that time was...the dread which his feeble human nature had of that dreadful cup, which was vastly more terrible than Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. He had then a near view of that furnace of wrath, into which he was to be cast; he was brought to the mouth of the furnace that he might look into it, and stand and view its raging flames, and see the glowings of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer. This was the thing that filled his soul with sorrow and darkness, this terrible sight as it were overwhelmed him...None of God's children ever had such a cup set before them, as this first being of every creature had.
In the Garden, Jesus had a foretaste of what it would be like to be abandoned by God, the relationship that was infinitely more intimate and valuable than any relationship we could lose. If Jesus hadn't have been abandoned by God like this, we would have to be. It was either him or us.
In the dark, when nobody else was looking, he experienced the abandonment of his friends, he also began also to experience the cup of God's abandonment of him, the full weight of the wrath of God that weighed upon him.
Notice how he struggled under that load. In fact, an angel was sent to strengthen him, but it only led to greater intensity and struggle in his prayer. This is the peak of Jesus' struggle. After this you never get any sense of internal struggle in Jesus as he's arrested and tried and as he goes to the cross. But here he struggles. He's tested, and the struggle is intense, far more intense than what the disciples went through.
And notice: Jesus passes the test. It's like the disciples go through a minor test and they fail. And Jesus goes through the most intense test that anyone in history has endured. It's so intense that even Jesus receives strengthening. But he passes the test. He asks if there is another way, but he submits to his Father's will and moves forward in obedience.
Here's what Luke is telling us: Where we fail, Jesus succeeds. Where we fail the test, Jesus passed. Despite the fact that Jesus is tested far more severely than the disciples, he passes the test, and the disciples don't.
But wait. There's one more thing we need to look at. Why does Jesus tell them to pray, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation"? This was bothering me as I thought about it this week. Jesus didn't tell them to pray that they would be able to stand up to the time of testing. He asked them to pray that they would escape the time of testing.
As I was wrestling through this, it finally came to me: Jesus knew that they couldn't pass the test. Jesus knew that they had no hope of standing up to the crucible of testing that he was going through. Jesus knew that he would be arrested, tried, and killed. This was his God-given vocation; this was what he was sent to do. He also knew that he would go alone into the hour and the power of darkness. He would go, but he would not take them down with him.
Then it hit me: Jesus knew that he was not only passing the test, but he was passing the test for them. You know that this passage is telling us? Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed. On the cross, Jesus bore the weight of our failure. On the cross, Jesus passed the test on our behalf. His obedience was credited to our account, so that we passed through Jesus even though we failed.
Do you know what that means? It means that we don't need to become flying frogs to please God. It means we acknowledge that we cannot withstand the test on our own strength. But it also means that we can have complete confidence in the one who has already passed the test for us. "The Bible's purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible's purpose is to show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome" (Tim Keller).
On the same day, Rebecca Pippert attended two very different events: a graduate-level psychology class at Harvard University and a Christian Bible study adjacent to Harvard. She offered the following observations on how the two groups addressed (or failed to address) their faults, problems, and sins:
First, the students [in the graduate-level psychology class] were extraordinarily open and candid about their problems. It wasn't uncommon to hear them say, "I'm angry," "I'm afraid," "I'm jealous" …. Their admission of their problems was the opposite of denial. Second, their openness about their problems was matched only by their uncertainty about where to find resources to overcome them. Having confessed, for example, their inability to forgive someone who had hurt them, [they had no idea how to] resolve the problem by forgiving and being kind and generous instead of petty and vindictive.
One day after the class, I dropped in on a Bible study group in Cambridge. [The contrast] was striking. No one spoke openly about his or her problems. There was a lot of talk about God's answers and promises, but very little about the participants and the problems they faced. The closest thing to an admission [of sin or a personal problem] was a reference to someone who was "struggling and needs prayer."
"The first group [the psychology class] seemed to have all the problems and no answers; the second group [the Bible study] had all the answers and no problems."
Do you know what really happens when we understand what Jesus has done for us? We can be like the first group and be completely honest about our problems. But we can also have confidence because we realize our confidence isn't in ourselves, but in Jesus who passed on our behalf.
A minister used to tell his people, "Cheer up, you're worse than you think." Think about it. He was telling them to cheer up despite the fact that they're failing the test, because they don't have to pass anymore. Jesus has passed.
I was at the gym on Friday, and I noticed that the guy beside me had a t-shirt on that said, "Ernst and Young. I passed!" It made me want to get a t-shirt that said, "Jesus and me. I failed!" But then I'd have to add that Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed.
Tim Keller often prays this prayer which captures it well: "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope." I invite you to come this morning in your failure, in your weakness, in your brokenness, and admit all of this in complete honesty, and then to revel in the fact that you're loved anyway because of what Jesus endured when he passed the test on your behalf.