Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
When I was in the dentist’s office recently, I overheard a conversation in the room next to me.
“I’m going to have to remove the tooth and do some other work,” the dentist said. “It’s going to take a while. But otherwise, I can’t be sure we’re going to be able to treat the infection. I’m afraid things could get a lot worse.”
“Do what you have to do,” this patient said somewhat woefully. “But with all this equipment you’ve got here, I still feel like I’m putting my life in your hands, instead of just this one tooth.”
They both chuckled and then the hygienist came in to get the patient set up for what sounded like a procedure I was glad I wasn’t having done myself.
Whether we’re referring to a temporarily painful dental procedure or hearing about a new experimental treatment that might or might not keep us alive, whether we’re relying on a friend to get us out of a jam or hanging on for dear life waiting for a rescue vehicle to get to us, we say “my life is in your hands” to symbolize an absolute trust we’re placing in the other person. We are trusting that he isn’t going to place us in deliberate danger or cause us undue pain. We are trusting that she is going to do what is best for us. When we put our life in someone else’s hands, we are saying that we’re willing to yield to this person’s decisions for us.
This week’s passages are about yielding to God, offering everything we have and are to God’s care. We often think about placing a specific concern, a situation, or a problem into God’s hands for Him to heal or guide or discern. Not that this is bad, but sometimes in our minds we separate out what we want to give to God and what we want to keep for ourselves. In other words, we are in control of where in our lives we want God’s influence and where we want to be self-sufficient. We decide what we will place in God’s hands and what we will keep hugged tightly to us.
In our Exodus passage, we meet the Israelites in the midst of their forty-year trek in the wilderness. They literally have placed their lives in the care of Moses, who is operating at God’s command. They have gladly left behind centuries of slavery, but now they’re having second thoughts about this whole “in God we trust” affirmation they made chapters ago. After all, they went from slavery to a...desert? What kind of promised land is this? When they couldn’t see any available water, they began grumbling among themselves, questioning if maybe this was a ploy after all and God had actually brought them out here to die. They began questioning.
Now, chapters earlier they had witnessed the frogs and gnats and hail and locusts and the other plagues, we well as the Passover. They saw those who were pursuing them swallowed up by that same Red Sea that moments ago had been parted for their safe crossing. They had seen the manna fall from heaven to sustain them daily. They saw the Lord go before them in a pillar of cloud and fire. There was more than enough “evidence” to show that when they put their lives in God’s hands and he led them out of Egypt that He would provide for them.
But now they were becoming anxious, which often happens when we as human beings are not in control of a situation. Their imaginations began to run wild. Of course they were tired, and thirsty, and hungry, as anyone would be at the end of a day of journeying. But they exaggerated the misery of those temporary states until they were convinced that God was going to let them die.
So, the people began putting their own parameters on what “providing for us” meant. They put God to the test by demanding water right then and there. They wanted a 24/7 Superstore God whose sole purpose was to satisfy their needs, and the people of course would have the final say in what they needed. God would now be more like a butler, and if they didn’t like what he handed them they would send him back to the kitchen for something else. The Israelites adopted the following “if-then” mindset: If they liked what God was offering them and He provided for them in a way they found satisfactory, then they would follow. If they didn’t like what He offered, then they would dig their heels in...and grumble that obviously He didn’t care and had abandoned them.
Just as young children often assume that a parent’s “no” is the equivalent of “I don’t love you,” God’s children sometimes assume the same thing. We equate happiness and satisfaction with love. If someone truly loved us, then obviously they would give us whatever pleased us. George Buttrick said it best: “God does not promise to give people what they want, but he does promise to satisfy abundantly those who trist in him” (George Buttrick et al., The Interpreter’s Bible, [New York: Abingdon Press, 1952], p 957). The Israelites were asked to trust and obey, and they said “yes,” and then added, “well, as long as you....” They began to desire to control the events around them, to become self-sufficient and self-reliant, needing “nothing from nobody.”
When we fast forward to the New Testament, we meet people who are also are in the self-sufficiency trap. In Romans 2:8, Paul lashes out at those who are self-seeking and self-centered and who claim that they are “self-made” men and women. They are building up themselves and have forgotten the One who created them. This is the beginning of a long discussion—or perhaps monologue—about boasting.
Boasting has a negative connotation in our culture—it brings to mind pompous people who sing their own praises about much money they make or how successful they are, or a parent who won’t stop bragging about his or her children. No doubt the same was true back in the first century. Paul had been chastising those who were boasting in the law or in themselves. But he gave them three reasons to boast, as alternatives to puffing themselves up.
The first was to boast in the “hope of sharing the glory of Christ”. This isn’t the kind of hope we often think of—I hope I get that car for graduation, I hope I get that big bonus, I hope we get to go to Disneyland this summer. Those are wishes that may or may not come true, depending on the generosity of the giver. This kind of hope is certain. This is the hope that is knowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and will return again.
We also are told to boast in our sufferings. It does NOT say to boast about how sick we are, how much pain we’re in, or even how much we’ve sacrificed for Christ. That is one way to “boast” in our sufferings that brings us glory. Instead, we have faith that though we suffer, that produces character, and endurance, and hope. We were never promised a pain-free, sickness-free, annoyance-free life. We were promised abundant life.
At the end of the passage, we hear that we also may boast in God through Jesus Christ. We may “boast” or uplift the fact that Jesus came to do something amazing—die for the forgiveness of our sins. Today we accept that so easily because we’ve been hearing it in one way or another our entire lives. And therefore, we’ve let it become a watered-down thought in our head.
On this our third week of Lent, these passages can be a gentle—or perhaps not so gentle—reminder of who is really in charge and who deserves the recognition. We have become such an individualistic society and have become self-sufficient. We don’t need anything from anybody. We will make our own miracles. We will boast about our successes and others will boast about us. We are in charge.
And we’ve tricked ourselves in believing that this is even possible in our relationship with God. We may chuckle at the idea of water from a rock, but don’t we demand things from God that are just as silly? If we want something and don’t get it, don’t we automatically assume that either God doesn’t exist or He doesn’t love us or else He’d do what we want? These passages remind us that our life is in God’s hands and not our own.
Here is one of Paul’s great lyrical passages in which he almost sings the intimate joy of his confidence in God. Trusting faith has done what the labor to produce the works of the law could never do: it has given us peace with God. Before Jesus came, no one could ever be really close to God.
Some, indeed, have seen him not as the supreme good but as the supreme evil. Swinburne wrote in ‘Anactoria’:
His hidden face and iron feet,
Hath not man known and felt them in their way
Threaten and trample all things every day?
Hath he not sent us hunger? Who hath cursed
Spirit and flesh with longing? Filled with thirst
Their lips that cried to him?
Some have seen him as the complete stranger, the utterly untouchable. In one of H. G. Wells’ books, there is the story of a businessman whose mind was so tense and strained that he was in serious danger of a complete nervous and mental breakdown. His doctor told him that the only thing that could save him was to find the peace that fellowship with God can give. ‘What!’ he said, ‘to think of that, up there, having fellowship with me! I would as soon think of cooling my throat with the Milky Way or shaking hands with the stars!’ God, to him, was the completely unfindable. Rosita Forbes, the writer and traveler, tells of finding shelter one night in a Chinese village temple because there was nowhere else to sleep. In the night, she woke and the moonlight was slanting in through the window on to the faces of the images of the gods, and on every face there was a snarl and a sneer, as of those who were filled with hate.
It is only when we realize that God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that there comes into life that closeness to him, that new relationship, which Paul calls justification. Through Jesus, says Paul, we have an introduction to this grace in which we stand. The word he uses for introduction is prosagōgē. It is a word which conjures up two great images.
(1) It is the word normally used for introducing or ushering someone into the presence of royalty; and it is the word for the approach of the worshipper to God. It is as if Paul was saying: ‘Jesus ushers us into the very presence of God. He opens the door for us to the presence of the King of Kings; and when that door is opened what we find is grace; not condemnation, not judgment, not vengeance, but the sheer, undeserved, incredible kindness of God.’
(2) But prosagōgē brings to mind another picture. In late Greek, it is the word for the place where ships come in, a harbor or a haven. If we take it in that sense, it means that as long as we tried to depend on our own efforts we were tempest-tossed, like sailors striving with a sea which threatened to overwhelm them completely; but, now that we have heard the word of Christ, we have reached at last the haven of God’s grace, and we know the calm of depending not on what we can do for ourselves but on what God has done for us.
Because of Jesus, we have entry to the presence of the King of Kings and entry to the haven of God’s grace.
No sooner has Paul said this than the other side of the matter strikes him. All this is true, and it is glory; but the fact remains that, in this life, Christians are up against it. It is hard to be a Christian in Rome. Remembering that, Paul produces a great climax. ‘Trouble’, he said, ‘produces fortitude.’ The word he uses for trouble is thlipsis, which literally means pressure. All kinds of things may press in upon a Christian—want and difficult circumstances, sorrow, persecution, unpopularity and loneliness. All that pressure, says Paul, produces fortitude. The word he uses for fortitude is hupomonē, which means more than endurance. It means the spirit which can overcome the world; it means the spirit which does not passively endure but which actively overcomes the trials and tribulations of life.
When Beethoven was threatened with deafness, that most terrible of troubles for a musician, he said: ‘I will take life by the throat.’ That is hupomonē. When Sir Walter Scott was involved in ruin because of the bankruptcy of his publishers, he said: ‘No man will say “Poor fellow!” to me; my own right hand will pay the debt.’ That is hupomonē. When the poet W. E. Henley was lying in Edinburgh Infirmary with one leg amputated, and the prospect that he would lose the other leg as well, he wrote ‘Invictus’.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
That is hupomonē. Hupomonē is not the spirit which lies down and lets the floods go over it; it is the spirit which meets things head on and overcomes them.
‘Fortitude’, Paul goes on, ‘produces character.’ The word he uses for character is dokimē. Dokimē is used of metal which has been passed through the fire so that everything base has been purged out of it. It is used of coinage as we use the word sterling. When affliction is met with fortitude, out of the battle we emerge stronger, purer, better and nearer to God.
‘Character’, Paul goes on, ‘produces hope.’ Two people can meet the same situation. It can drive one of them to despair, and it can spur the other to triumphant action. To the one, it can be the end of hope; to the other, it can be a challenge to greatness. ‘I do not like crises,’ said the Director General of the BBC, Lord Reith, ‘but I like the opportunities which they supply.’ The difference corresponds to the difference between individuals. If we let ourselves become weak and flabby, if we allow circumstances to beat us, if we allow ourselves to whine and grovel under affliction, we make ourselves the kind of people who, when the challenge of the crisis comes, cannot do anything but despair. If, on the other hand, we have insisted on meeting life with our heads held high, if we have always faced and, by facing, conquered things; then, when the challenge comes, we meet it with eyes alight with hope. The character that has endured the test always emerges in hope.
Then Paul makes one last great statement: ‘The Christian hope never proves an illusion, for it is founded on the love of God.’ The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam speaks wistfully of human hopes:
The Worldly Hope men set their hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.
When our hope is in God, it cannot turn to dust and ashes. When our hope is in God, it cannot be disappointed. When our hope is in the love of God, it can never be an illusion, for God loves us with an everlasting love backed by an everlasting power.
The fact that Jesus Christ died for us is the final proof of God’s love. It would be difficult enough to get someone to die for a just person; it might be possible to persuade someone to die for some great and good principle; any one of us might have the greater love that would make us lay down our life for a friend. But the wonder of Jesus Christ is that he died for us when we are sinners and in a state of hostility to God. Love can go no further than that.
Rita Snowdon relates an incident from the life of T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. In 1915, he was journeying across the desert with some Arabs. Things were desperate. Food was almost gone, and water was at its last drop. Their hoods were over their heads to shelter them from the wind, which was like a flame and full of the stinging sand of the sandstorm. Suddenly, someone said: ‘Where is Jasmin?’ Another said: ‘Who is Jasmin?’ A third answered: ‘That yellow-faced man from Maan. He killed a Turkish tax-collector and fled to the desert.’ The first said: ‘Look, Jasmin’s camel has no rider. His rifle is strapped to the saddle, but Jasmin is not there.’ A second said: ‘Someone has shot him on the march.’ A third said: ‘He is not strong in the head, perhaps he is lost in a mirage; he is not strong in the body, perhaps he has fainted and fallen off his camel.’ Then the first said: ‘What does it matter? Jasmin was not worth anything.’ And the Arabs hunched themselves up on their camels and rode on. But Lawrence turned and rode back the way he had come. Alone, in the blazing heat, at the risk of his life, he went back. After an hour and a half’s ride, he saw something against the sand. It was Jasmin, blind and mad with heat and thirst, being murdered by the desert. Lawrence lifted him up on his camel, gave him some of the last drops of precious water, and slowly plodded back to his company. When he came up to them, the Arabs looked in amazement. ‘Here is Jasmin,’ they said, ‘Jasmin, not worth anything, saved at his own risk by Lawrence, our lord.’ That is a parable. It was not good people Christ died to save but sinners, not God’s friends but those who were hostile to him.
Then Paul goes a step further. Through Jesus, our status with God was changed. Sinners though we were, we were put into a right relationship with God. But that is not enough. Not only our status must be changed but also our state. The saved sinner cannot go on being a sinner but must become good. Christ’s death changed our status; his risen life changes our state. He is not dead but alive; he is with us always to help us and guide us, to fill us with his strength in order to overcome temptation, to clothe our lives with something of his radiance. Jesus begins by putting sinners into a right relationship with God even when they are still sinners; he goes on, by his grace, to enable them to quit their sin and become good. There are technical names for these things. The change of our status is justification; that is where the whole saving process begins. The change of our state is sanctification; that is where the saving process goes on, and never ends, until we see him face to face and are like him.
There is one thing to note here of quite extraordinary importance. Paul is quite clear that the whole saving process, the coming of Christ and the death of Christ, is the proof of God’s love. Sometimes it is stated as if on the one side there was a gentle and loving Christ, and on the other an angry and vengeful God; and as if Christ had done something which changed God’s attitude to men and women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole matter springs from the love of God. Jesus did not come to change God’s attitude; he came to show what it is and always was. He came to prove beyond question that God is love.(Barclay, W. The Letter to the Romans (3rd ed. fully rev. & updated) [2002, Louisville, KY] pp. 84–90)
Assurance is the name of the game this week. Instead of living in constant fear we find coming straight at us the assurance of God given to us by Jesus.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
We often use that phrase— “my life is in your hands”—jokingly and flippantly. When we’re riding in a car with a teenager with her learner’s permit or trying someone’s “experimental” new cooking recipe, we might tease or joke. But other times, it’s no laughing matter. About six months ago one of my elderly parishioners found herself trapped in a locked garage in her smoldering car with a concussion and two broken ankles. She recalls that she somehow got out of the car and began using her elbows to move herself across the cement. There was the sound of glass breaking, and a sudden shadow above her. She remembers that a firefighter lifted her up. To this day she calls him her guardian angel who was sent by God. “At that point, I just collapsed,” she told us in the hospital later. “I knew I was in good hands and that he would take care of me.” About ten seconds after they got out of the garage, the car exploded.
How often do we assume that we have exclusive rights to God? After the World Trade Center attacks, businesses and churches and even private homes hung banners or lettered their outdoor signs to read “God Bless America.” Some did it out of a sense of patriotism, but others were quoted in newspapers or on the news as wanting God to “get the people who did this.” There was an attitude of “who cares about anyone else.” One church caught me eye, though. In the midst of the flags at half-staff and yellow ribbons, one church had put up the sign: “God bless the whole world...we are all God’s children.” It awakened many around my city to the fact that while we were hurting as a nation, we didn’t have the exclusive rights to God’s blessings. That church made the news, and within days many of the signs around the city were altered to include blessings and prayers for the entire world.
We all have boasted or bragged about something in our lives. Whether it’s our children’s abilities in sports or straight-A report card, or our own skills in money-making or shrewd negotiating abilities. We can even turn our spiritual lives into an opportunity for boasting. When I was a college freshman I attended a Christian group on campus for the first few months. I became aware fairly quickly that this wasn’t the group for me. The first small-group discussion was about baptism, and since I had been baptized as an infant I was pressured into “making a commitment to Christ” and “getting baptized for real.” I was hoping this was just a zealous member or two, but the next week the group learned that I couldn’t point to a specific day or time when I had been “saved.” That didn’t go over well and I finally gave up on explaining that I really was a Christian. One young man in the group boasted that he had been baptized four times, another young woman boasted that she had “saved” seven people the year before at college.
One of the traps we can fall into when following Christ is seeing how much we can suffer for God. Pastors tend to be among the most vocal about “martyrdom.” At a clergy luncheon, I overheard one man said woefully that he barely had time to eat or sleep because he was so busy and the church needed him so much. He had had two heart attacks and high blood pressure because of it. Another said that he hadn’t taken a day off in months. Another woman piped up and said that she hadn’t had a decent meal with her kids in weeks. But those gathered around seemed to treat these expressions like badges of honor. It was noble to suffer, because after all it was for God. We were neglecting the temple of the Holy Spirit in order to serve God better. Ironic.
The passage in Romans reminds us that despite our inability to see exactly what the future has in store for us, we are invited to have faith in God. Robert Farrar Capon uses this illustration to describe what faith really means. Assume, he says, that you are in the hospital, in traction, with casts on both of your arms and both of your legs. Then imagine that a friend visits you, but while the friend is there, you carry on about how your house in falling into shambles in your absence: the paint is peeling, the window sills are rotting, and the roof is blowing away in the wind. But then one day, after some time had gone by, your friend returns and says, “Guess what? I have great news for you! I have just finished paying a contractor—he’s made every repair that needed to be done, and now everything is fixed. It’s a gift from me to you.” In the face of that kind of news, what are your options? If you choose not to believe, you continue to live in misery about your house. But if you believe—if you have faith that all the necessary work really has been done—you’re finally able to experience a kind of joy that you hadn’t been able to feel for some time. Faith, Capon contends, doesn’t accomplish anything; but it does make joy possible. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], p 41)
Amid all the struggles and turmoils of life, fear is a common reaction in many people. But living in constant fear takes it toll on us. U. S. News & World Report (12/22/03) told of how researchers at the University of Chicago demonstrated that fear shortens the life of rats. They conducted the experiment by putting rats into an environment that contained many objects that were strange to them. The rats that were not intimidated by the new things, that wandered freely through the environment, lived a median of 701 days, while the more timid rats, the ones that seemed to shy and nervous in the environment, lived a median of only 599 days. Also, the fearful rats produced more corticosterone, a hormone that is related to stress response. Scientists, writing in the issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was released in December of 2003, suggested that carrying around extra amounts of that hormone may have caused the rats to age faster.
The history of South Africa is a demonstration of how hope can emerge out of suffering, and how God is at work even when God’s presence cannot easily be discerned. Desmond Tutu tells about how during the darkest days of apartheid, he would tell P. W. Botha, the president of South Africa, that Botha’s side had lost and that he and the other whites were welcome to come and join the winning side. Tutu said that even though all of the objective facts at the time were against him: the pass laws were in effect, black leaders were imprisoned, other political activists were murdered, black gatherings were teargassed, and many black communities were subject to massacres. Yet Tutu even then was convinced that he was on the winning side, because he trusted that God created a moral universe. Therefore, Tutu believed, there was no way that God was going to permit evil and injustice to have the final world. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p 2)
Although we might prefer that suffering not have to take place in our journey toward the hope that God offers, sometimes suffering serves a significant purpose. Desmond Tutu points out that prior to rising to the office of president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela first spent 27 years in prison. Tutu believe that those 27 long years served the purpose of tempering Mandela’s steel and removing his dross. Finally, as a result of the suffering he endured, he achieved a level of authority and credibility that could probably not have been achieved any other way. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p 124)
Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us to trust that God is always moving forward with God’s will, even if we don’t see how that is so. In that regard, there is a Portuguese saying that God writes straight with crooked lines. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p 122)
Our salvation comes about not because of anything we do; rather salvation is a matter of discovering that our future is entirely in God’s hands. In order to emphasize that point, in the early days of the Reformation, many Protestants sought to emphasize the inability of humans to save themselves by refusing to take part in any kind of burial services for the dead. Protestant interments at that time were typically done without any clergy present, and they were frequently done at night. They were attempting to demonstrate that the future hope of the deceased was entirely independent of any human prayers or ceremonies. That extreme break with tradition, though, shocked and horrified the Protestants’ Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], p 558)
One of things about the Exodus passage that is difficult for many modern Americans to appreciate was the preciousness of water to those Hebrews. Today most regions have water in such abundance that we use it not only for our own personal survival and the survival of our crops, but we use water copiously as well for less vital purposes, such as watering our lawns so that they are perpetually the right shade of green. It is estimated that about 30% of the municipal water in the eastern United States is poured onto lawns; while in the western states, where water is sometimes in short supply, as much as 60% of the municipal water is still sprinkled on people’s grass. (Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], p 9)
An attitude of hope may play more of a role in the overcoming of suffering than we may realize. National Geographic (August 2004) reported that one of the greatest wonder drugs in the history of the world is none other than the placebo, the sugar pill. Although there are no pharmacological ingredients in placebos, still they have been found to ease pain, improve spirits, and cure a wide array of ailments. Surgery placebos have even been found to be quite effective as well. For instance, while arthroscopic knee surgery is typically a standard remedy for arthritis, researchers have found that when doctors simply nicked the knees of sedated patients, woke them up, and told them that the procedure was a success, two years later the participants in those sham operations reported as much pain relief and improved leg function as those who had undergone the actual operations. In another recent study, 50% of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease showed improved motor function after receiving a placebo. The symptoms of Parkinson’s are caused by a failure of the brain cells to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. But brain scans showed that the mere anticipation of relief, when the patients thought they would be receiving a medication that would be helpful to them, triggered dopamine production. Professor Tor Wager, a psychologist at Columbia University, administered two skin creams on subjects’ arms, telling them that the one would work really well at reducing pain while the other would not. When he then applied intense heat to those spots, the participants reported less pain from the area where the cream was applied that they were told would really work, although, in fact, both of the creams were identical. Professor Wager affirms: “Our beliefs have powerful influences on our experiences.”
CNN’s “1999 Year in Review” remembered Mario Zacchini, who was known far and wide as the Human Cannonball. Zacchini passed away that year; he was 87. Hundreds of times he allowed himself to be stuffed inside a cannon and shot across the circus tent. His father, Idelbrando Zacchini, was a circus performer in Italy who perfected the human cannonball feat in the early 1920s by using an air-powered gun to shoot its occupants through the air. When American circus producer John Ringling saw the family’s act when he was in Europe, he immediately brought the entire family to the United States and added them to his show. Mario Zacchini continued the family tradition until he broke several bones during an accident at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1940. One day a reporter went up to Mario Zacchini and asked him, “Isn’t it hard flying through the air like that?” He replied, “Flying isn’t the hard part; landing in the net is.” Although at times we might feel like we’re being shot out of a cannon and flying through the air, we can trust that ultimately God will catch us in the net.
Many today find it difficult to have hope in a future which they cannot fully comprehend: “The theology of glory, in whatever guise it assumes, is invariably tempted to be a theology of sight, not faith; finality, not hope; and power, not love.” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], p 33)
Even in seemingly hopeless situations, our lives are always in God’s hands: “The valley of the shadow of death holds no darkness for the child of God. There must be light, else there could be no shadow. Jesus is the Light. He has overcome death” (Corrie ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord [Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1974], p 108)
Although we might prefer that only good things would happen in our lives, God often works through bad situations to accomplish a particular purpose: “One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all. Another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth.” (William Law)
God works through challenging situations to help us understand what we are able to do when we place all of our trust into God’s hands: “There aren’t any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.” (Admiral “Bull” Halsey, Commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II)
When we think of placing our life in God’s hands, some of us echo Woody Allen’s hope. “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank,” he would say. But he has given us a much different clear sign that is especially appropriate during Lent: God takes sinners and makes them saints. Not nearly as titillating but every bit as exciting.
“Peace has to be created to be maintained. It is the product of faith, strength, energy, will, sympathy, justice and the triumph of principle. It will never be achieved by passivity and quietism.” (Dorothy Thompson, http://www.wisdomquotes.com/cat_peace.html)
“I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.” (Helen Keller, http://www.wisdomquotes.com/cat_peace.html)
“Peace by persuasion has a pleasant sound, but I think we should not be able to work it. We should have to tame the human race first, and history seems to show that cannot be done,” said Mark Twain. This is why Paul notes, “God has poured out his love into our hearts.” Twain was perceptive. St. Paul was correct. (Mark Twain, http://www.wisdomquotes.com/cat_peace.html)
I remember how my father used to put his arm across my mother’s back and touch my shoulder when we sat in church as a family. His strength and warmth reminded me of his love; his power and discipline reminded me to sit still and pay attention. When that hand became a single finger resting firmly on my shoulder, I knew I had reached the boundary of his patience; when that hand moved to the middle of my shoulders, I knew he was pleased. I believe God wants to be that close to us with His love, power, discipline and even the terminus of His eternal patience.
I remember how my mother used to dust the piano keys as soon as she got up, her hand firmly stroking each note. “Now, that’s done!” she would say. “If I don’t accomplish anything else, the piano is dusted.” She then would turn on the light in my room and say, “Time to get up.” If my feet weren’t on the floor when she returned in five minutes, she would touch my forehead, speak my name and remind me that it was ‘time to get up.’ Her next step was to remove the covers. I suspect Christ would prefer to awaken us gently with his hands. But if all else fails, he loves us enough to pull the covers from around our heads so that we not only see where we are but also see Him.
There are many films in which a character gives up something or dies for loved ones and acquaintances, but finding one in which a person sacrifices him/herself for “the ungodly” is another matter. The closest I can think of is the scene in the little known Kevin Costner-Elijah Wood film The War wherein Costner’s Stephen, a father desperately seeking employment, does the unexpected. His son Stu has been surrounded at the county fair by several roughneck members of the Lipnicki family. They have been feuding with Stu, his sister, and their friends for a long time, and when the gang comes upon Stu, waiting for his father to go and buy the two of them some cotton candy, they encircle him and start to beat him up. Stephen, cotton candy in hand, returns and separates the warring parties. Returning to their car, Stu and Stephen look over at two of the younger Lipnicki’s, a boy and a girl, still insulting Stu’s family. Stephen, still holding the cotton candy, purposefully strides over to the taunters. They draw back in fear, as they have suffered much from their abusive father. However, instead of hitting them, Stephen hands them the candy, and walks back to the car. The children are stunned for a moment, but one starts eating the unexpected gift. Stu is furious with his father, telling him accusingly that those are the kids who just tried to beat him up. Stephen says that he knows that he gave them their candy because it looks as if it’s been a long time since anyone did anything for them. Further parallels to Christ include Stephen’s ultimately sacrificing himself for a friend during a mine cave-in.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
People: Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
All: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
Leader: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand;
People: We believe this, O God, but still we do not live as if this were true. Help thou our unbelief!
Leader: And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
People: Dear Lord, suffering too often in us produces complaints and other forms of self-centeredness!
Leader: and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us,
People: We pray, dear Lord, for your forgives so that this will be true for us, as well as for the apostle Paul.
Leader: because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
People: O God, what a relief it is to hear those words and to know that they are vouchsafed by the very blood of your Son! Thank You that we can go forth as a forgiven people!
Freely You give to us, and freely do we seek to give back to You. May these gifts be used well in the work of your church as it seeks to spread the good news of your love for us in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Dear and gracious God, once more we come before You to acknowledge that we are in your hands, hands that became flesh and reached out to welcome the outcast and the overlooked. Hands that were pierced with the nails of rejection, and yet which even upon the cross were still symbolically extended in good will even to enemies. Mold us each day into a greater likeness of your Son, that we might continue his ministry of grace and love. We thank You for this church, and for other fellowships also gathered this day to honor You. Bring us all—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—closer together so that our witness will not be compromised by bickering over differences instead use us this week to lighten the load of the poor and the hungry, the neglected or rejected. Mold our nation into a more righteous one that will seek justice and reconciliation, and not just pursue its own self-centered ends. Bring the nations of our planet closer together through the work of the United Nations and other international agencies of relief and good will. Soften the hearts of those who believe that they have been wronged so that they will give up the ways of terror and violence. May we truly learn from our violent past so that men and women will meet to settle differences around tables rather than upon battlefields, and that every voice will be honored and heard. Grant us peace, as far as this is possible as we also seek justice, for we pray this, and so much more, in the name of the One who is the Prince of Peace. Amen.