Exodus 16:4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Watch what I will do. I will rain down bread from heaven for you, and the people will go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test whether they will follow my instructions or not.
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How many of you enjoy taking tests in school? Raise your hands. Most people don’t like taking tests, but they have many good purposes. They do help the teacher determine if they are being effective. But they also help those in the class build their knowledge and understanding. Think about it. What should you do when you know a test is coming? Study! And as you study you are either cementing in your mind things that you already learned, or learning knew things. Without the test that would likely not happen.
It was interesting to me to see how many times the Bible tells us that God was giving his people a test. Maybe the first instance that comes to mind is Abraham. The chapter that tells us about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac begins with the words, sometime later God tested Abraham.
When Israel arrives at Mt. Sinai and God appears on the mountain with thunder and lightning, fire, smoke and earthquake, Moses explains to the people “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
In Deuteronomy God tells his people that he may allow the predictions of a false prophet to seem to come true. If that happens, Moses says, The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.
In our gospel lesson we see Jesus testing the Syrophoenician woman. In her case it doesn’t seem that the test was to build her trust, but to get her to demonstrate her trust, her great faith, as an example for the disciples and for us.
In our Epistle lesson, Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that they will be tested, but he encourages them with the promise that their time of testing will be relatively short, and that those who are built up by the testing, who remain faithful until death, will not be hurt by the second death. They will receive the crown of life.
James, and Luther, remind us that there is a difference between testing and tempting. The difference is the goal, the reason. Temptation is always intended to lead us away from God and to get us to stop trusting him and his word. Temptation always comes either from Satan or from our own sinful nature. Testing is always intended to bring us closer to God, to build our trust in God and his word.
Consider how God tested Israel in regard to the sending of Manna.
Remember the context. The people have only been in the wilderness for about a month. During that time, they saw God divide the sea for them and destroy their enemies. They saw him make bitter water drinkable for them. They saw his constant presence in the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. But what did they do? They grumbled against Moses and Aaron because they didn’t have the kind of food they wanted. In fact, they embellished what they had in Egypt talking about eating around pots of meat and having as much as the wanted. That rarely, if ever happened. They were slaves in Egypt! And Moses reminded them that he was not the one who brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness. God is the one that did that. Their murmuring was really against God himself.
If you were Moses, what would you do if you were being unjustly blamed by the people God asked you to lead for not having the kind of food they wanted? I think most of us would turn in a letter of resignation on the spot.
If you were God, what would you do with a bunch of people that you had rescued from slavery with powerful signs and miracles who now seemed to be completely ungrateful, doubtful of your power, and questioning your motives?
God says, I will rain down bread from heaven for you. Wow! We would expect God to say, “I will rain down fire and brimstone and completely destroy you.” That’s what they deserved. That’s what we deserve.
How often aren’t we just like Israel. God has rained down on us more blessings than almost any people of any time on earth. Our transportation is better. Our housing is better. We have more leisure time. We have storage sheds. We have pantries, and cupboards, and freezers full of food. But we still, like Israel, grumble and complain. We think others have it better than we do. We look into the cupboard or the frig, see the food, and still complain that there is nothing to eat—Like Israel, there is food to eat, just not what we want.
What a gracious God we have that, in spite of our grumbling, our ungratefulness, our lack of trust, he still rains down bread for us instead of raining down the fire and brimstone we deserve. And you know why he can do that. It’s only because he rained down judgment, the judgment we deserve, on Jesus instead of on us.
What was it that God wanted to find out by testing Israel? Very much as it was in the case of Abraham, God’s question was, “Will you trust me to provide for you. Will you trust me to do what I said I would do, to bring you to the promised land? Will you trust my word, my instructions, above all things, more than the words of your friends and neighbors, more than your feelings, more than the desires of your sinful heart?”
This was the test. God would provide bread from heaven for them. When they saw it, they said, “manna”, “what is it?” No one had ever seen anything like it before. There was something very unusual about this bread from heaven. It came in the morning but didn’t last. It melted away in the sun. And God gave specific instructions with his test. “Go out in the morning and gather as much as you need for the day. Don’t gather more than you need and try to save it.”
You know what happens when you don’t read the instructions on a test. If the instructions say circle an answer and you underline the answer instead, even if your answer is correct, you may get it marked wrong because you didn’t follow the instructions. If the instructions say circle all the correct answers, if you skip over the “s” in answers and you only circle one answer when there is more than one correct answer listed, you get some marked wrong.
What happened to those who didn’t follow God’s instructions, who got greedy and listened to their sinful nature instead of to God? The extra they thought they had spoiled. It smelled awful, and was full of worms. But, when each gathered just what they needed for their family, those who gathered more did not have too much, and those who gathered less did not have too little.
God was teaching his people to trust him and to follow his instructions even when they might not seem to make sense. He was teaching them to trust him to provide what they needed, one day at a time. Did you ever notice that, sometimes the answers you get wrong on a test stick with you more than the ones you get right?
God’s test was designed to build trust. The people showed by their grumbling that they had doubts about God. They weren’t sure, even after all that they had seen, that God could provide for them in the wilderness. The disciples wondered how 5,000 could be fed in a remote place. Israel numbered probably 2 million! Even today we would wonder how anyone could feed so many. But God would make it obvious that he could and that he was in control. Not only did the manna come, just as he said it would, it didn’t come on the Sabbath. Any other day they tried to save extra it spoiled, but not on the Sabbath. On the day before the Sabbath, they could gather twice and much, enough for two days, and it wouldn’t spoil.
God was saying, “do you doubt me? Do you doubt that I can provide for so many people in a wilderness? At evening you will eat meat, and in the morning you will eat bread until you are full. Then you will know that I am the LORD you God.
God was saying, “Do you think I have forsaken you? Do you think I led you into the wilderness to die? Do you doubt my love for you and my power to provide for you? Here’s proof of the fact that I am YOUR God. I have not forsaken you. I am the LORD, the almighty God, the God who can and will always keep his promises because nothing is impossible for me, and I cannot lie.”
I think it’s safe to say that, like the believers in Smyrna, believers today are experiencing a time of testing. Through all the things that are going on in our world today God is testing us. He is asking us the same question he asked Abraham, and that he asked Israel. He is testing us to see whether we really do trust him, whether we will put him and his word first and follow his instructions even when they go against our sinful desires, our feelings, and what the majority in the world are saying.
Sometimes, like some in Israel, we fail the test. We fail to trust. We fail to follow the instruction of his word. But as we see that instead of raining down on us the judgment we deserve, he caused that judgment to fall on Jesus, and he continues to rain down blessings on us that we don’t deserve; as we learn from experience that he always does what he promises and his ways are always best; our love for him and our trust in him builds.
No one likes tests, but a skillful teacher uses them to help us build knowledge. No one likes tests, but God uses them to remind us that he really is the one and only true God. He really is in control. He really will provide for our needs one day at a time. He really is worthy of our trust. Testing builds trust.