A Sermon For Year B, First Lent
Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Gen 9:8-17, 1Pe 3:18-22, Mar 1:9-13, Psa 25:3-9
Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Gen 9:8-17, 1Pe 3:18-22, Mar 1:9-13, Psa 25:3-9
Well, once again it is Lent. Four days after Ash Wednesday. Six weeks until Easter. We have just begun our yearly journey into the wilderness with Jesus.
Lent is a time when we ask hard questions of ourselves, and our relationship with God. No, I don't mean questions like "What will accessorize with purple?" I don't even mean "How do I get this darn streak of ashes out of my shirt?"
I mean hard questions about our failures and weaknesses. Questions about our motives and desires. Questions about whether all of these things are drawing us into Christ, growing us into Love, and helping become healthier people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are things in our lives- even deep down in our hearts- that are making us less Christlike. Less loving. Less healthy. Maybe there are things we need healing from. Things we need release from. Things we need to let go of.
These are difficult questions. They are hard to answer. When we do answer them, they are hard to be honest about. It is easy to avoid the hard answers. And perhaps the easiest way is to refuse to ask these questions at all.
And, if you have journeyed into the wilderness this far with Christ- if you are courageous enough to ask hard questions about yourself- then you might find that these hard questions lead you to ask hard questions about God too.
They are hard because they deal with the very foundation of our existence, the very nature of God: Questions about God's goodness, God's Love, and God's justice.
No, I am not talking about questions like "Why did God make the duck-billed platypus?" (as strange as that is) or "Where did God come from?" (as mind-bending as that is). I am not even talking about "Why does God allow Reality TV shows?" (even though this is surely an affront to God's good taste).
I am talking about hard questions like those raised by today's readings. In fact, our readings today form a sort of "trifecta" of deeply problematic questions about the goodness of God.
It turns out that Lent is not just a difficult time for us. It is difficult time for God too.
Let's start with the Psalm. The Psalm tells us wonderful things about our God. God is described as "compassionate" and "good", "gracious" and "upright". A God whose "paths… are love and faithfulness".
This description is not unique, but echoes the essential character of God across the Scriptures, culminating in the God who Jesus called "Father", "Abba", and "Daddy". It is the same God John spoke of when he penned the words "God is Love".
But then we read our other readings, and questions arise. Let's start with the Genesis reading. Genesis chapter nine comes right after God- according to the text- knowingly allowed the entire world to be wiped out in a flood. How could the Loving God of Scripture allow every man, woman, child, and animal to perish in an unspeakable tragedy, when God could have prevented it?
Hmmm. That's a difficult one to deal with.
Then we turn to our Epistle reading. The reading from First Peter begins with the statement "Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous."
Where is the justice in that? Why did Jesus- a righteous, kind, just person if ever there was one- why did he have to die like a criminal?
Why did His God- whom He called Father- why did this God abandon Jesus to die like that? Where is God's justice and love for this person who placed all his trust in God?
The questions are not getting any easier...
Yet, perhaps the most difficult question comes from the final reading out of Mark's Gospel. You see, apparently this relationship Jesus had with God was not one sided. God felt that way too.
In that Gospel, after Jesus was baptized, we hear God say: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And then the VERY next verse we read that God's Spirit "immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness".
Wait, wait, wait! That's NOT how this deal is supposed to work out! When we are obedient to God, everything is supposed to work out right. Right? I mean, if God's Spirit is leading us, God will lead us into health, happiness, prosperity, and feeling good. Right?
How can it be that God can love someone, and send the Spirit to guide them, and then make their life MORE complicated? MORE messy? MORE problematic?
How can this good and loving God be a part of a process that eventually leads Jesus- His only unique Son- to an undeserved death as a criminal?
I am not sure the questions can get more difficult than that.
And its not like those questions "camp out" in the Bible, never to raise their heads in our lives. They are symptomatic of our Journey with God in every age, and through every life.
No one can live long on this planet without asking questions like "Why did God let my loved one die?", "Why did God let this tragedy happen to me?", and "Where is God in all of the suffering of the world?"
The problem of evil and suffering is great. It is so great, that Paul, who was no stranger to suffering, called this problem "the mystery of iniquity". It is beyond us. A problem cloaked in deepest darkness.
Because, if God is as good and loving as Jesus thought, then God should not want his children to suffer like they do. He should not want his firstborn child- Jesus- to suffer as He did.
And, if God is as powerful as Scripture claims God is- the maker of all worlds, the Almighty creator- then God should be able to keep His children from suffering. In short, it seems that God should desire, and be able, to keep life from being so messy and so painful.
But God doesn't. Life has been messy and painful from the time of Noah's Ark, to Jesus life, to our world today. So where is God? Is God not good enough, or not powerful enough, or simply not there?
So, it turns out that Lent is not just a wilderness for us. God is in the wilderness with us too.
There are many who are afraid to Journey with God through hard questions like this. And I just want to say that it OK to ask hard questions about God. It is good to wrestle with God through difficult problems. In fact, if we are going to have the kind of faith that Jesus or Mary or Paul had, then we must face questions like this... In the wilderness... With God.
Because, if we don't, we will not have a faith that can make it through hard times. We will have a faith that gives up, and gives in, in the wilderness of life.
As for me, I honestly do not have these questions all wrapped up in a nice little bow, and answered. None of my classes in theology or psychology or Biblical studies have made the mystery of suffering suddenly un-mysterious. None of my experiences in Social Work or ministry or parenthood have made evil easier to deal with.
But, I have some hunches. I think there are some sign-posts that give us direction on our Lenten Journey in the wilderness.
My first hunch is this: I think that a free world somehow is more satisfying than a world where everything is determined. I think that God- who is a God of creative freedom- created us as creative creatures who mirror their Creator.
From the bottom to the top, God's creation shares in God's freedom. From the indeterminate movements of subatomic particles, to unpredictable weather, to what humans choose for breakfast: We are made free.
Freedom is that gift that allows us to share in God's creativity. With our freedom we can choose love, we can choose life, and we can choose to become people who reveal the splendor of God's beauty.
But our freedom has its price. Freedom can be misused. Freedom can be abused. Freedom can abuse others. And this happens in tragedies, in relationships, and even in genocides. Freedom has IMMENSE consequences, both good and bad.
And this leads to my second hunch: God knows the consequences of freedom. God knew the cost of Love when God chose to make a world to share Love with. God knows Love is messy.
I guess it is a little bit like parenthood. From the Love that two people share, we choose to make new little lives to share our Love with. And when those babies are born- crying and cooing and eating and pooping- we know that this Love will cost us everything.
It will cost us sleepless nights and crazy mornings. It will cost us new clothes and college tuition. It will cost us visits to the principal's office, and wrecked cars, and broken hearts. Love costs everything: Money, time, effort, emotion. Everything.
Why then do we Love?
Because of the sheer beauty of weaving our lives together with someone else. Because of the sheer joy of giving the gift of life to another person. Because Love is worth all the messy consequences.
I think that must be something like what God feels about His free Creation, with its chaos and messiness and pain, always existing alongside its beauty and wonder and joy.
And I do not think that God exempted Godself from the consequences of this world's freedom. I do not think God sits in heaven, far removed from the joy and pain we go through.
I think that in Christ, God chose to take the full consequences of the world onto Himself. In Jesus, God became one of us, and one with us, through joy and pain, height and depth, good and evil. In Christ, God experiences personally, concretely, what it means to live and die as one of us.
God knows what it means to face fear and suffering and death, because Jesus did. God knows what it means to loose the one closest to you, because the Father lost His Son that day on the cross. God knows what it means to walk in our shoes, because Jesus trod the path we all tread.
And that leads to my next hunch in this Lenten Journey. That is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Victory of God.
Death is not the last word. Life is. Suffering is not the last word. Joy is. Chaos does not have the final say. Christ does.
When faced with the enormity of the question of evil and suffering- a question raised by genocide and murder, injustice and mayhem, hate and hypocrisy- we need a hope that is audacious enough to pull us through.
The boldness of our hope comes not through a program or a plan, but in a Person. The Person who defeated death. The Person who made all things, and takes the consequence for all things upon Himself, and who will raise all things to new life in the resurrection.
He "suffered for sins once for all". Although He was "righteous", He defeated all our "unrighteousness", in order to bring us to God. "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit", and He will make all things alive again by the power of that same Spirit.
My final hunch on our Lenten Journey comes from years of watching my grandmother weave intricate needlepoint pictures. One thing that always struck me was how different her needlepoint pictures looked on each side.
From the bottom of a needlepoint, all you see is a jumble of threads, going this way and that, with very little discernible pattern. It is messy. It is chaos. It is ugly.
But, when you see the top of the needlepoint, you see how everything fit together. You see how she took the dark colors and the bright colors and wove them to create something beautiful. What was chaos on one side, is marvelous on the other.
I think that Jesus' resurrection is the pledge that God is going to do something like that with all of our joys and pains. On this side of history, what looks like chaos and mayhem, will be woven into a beautiful tapestry, on the other side.
And I have a hunch that somehow, someway, Christ's life, death, and resurrection will be the scarlet thread that ties us all together. Amen