March 16, 2014
The season of Lent
gives us the opportunity, in a limited period of time, to think about our
spiritual life as we live it in the presence of other people and before a God
whose mercy is great and whose love never ceases. Yes, we can do this at any
time of the year, but often we don’t. So it helps to set aside a time such as
this and if the season of Lent didn’t exist, we would need to invent it—and
really that’s what people much like us—distracted and negligent—people much
like us did over several centuries, slowing expanding this time of Easter
preparation to around 40 days.
Of course when we
examine our “spiritual life” we do so recognizing that we are very much
physical people as well. But we recognize that there is a quality to human life
that is—what, more than physical, other than physical—the part of us that
seeks meaning and love and the ability to love, that part of us that
senses—however tenuously—our connection with God—the One in whom we live and
move and have our being. And while Lent gives us that opportunity to examine
and strengthen our spiritual life, even more it calls us to a greater awareness
of the living God who is indeed the source of our life and all life.
This morning we
arrive at the second Sunday of Lent. As I said last Sunday, in my sermons
during these days in which we start looking for signs of spring, I want to look
at what we might discover about ourselves and about God in times of thawing,
times of mud, times of shoots, and times of green grass. Last Sunday we heard
the good news that God calls us out of our frozen hearts, our frozen lives. And
if the weather today is not the best, it at least comes after warmer days and
with the promise of similar days to come.
As the warm, springtime mercy of God
continues to unfold before us, what do we discover about God as we move from
the frozen days of winter into this time of thawing?
Paul tells the
Christians in Corinth: “The message about the cross is foolishness for those
who are perishing, but to use who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The “message about the cross” that Paul
announced to the Christians in Corinth is an important message for us in these days
of preparation for Easter. Even so, I want to recognize just how disturbing
this message about the cross can be to us when we first hear it.
It sounds like a “Good Friday” message—doesn’t
it?—and it’s the kind of message that we Protestants tend to avoid. We recoil
at Christ crucified. The crosses in our sanctuaries or around our necks are
empty, inviting us to look beyond the death of Jesus to his being raised in
glory. We recoil at Christ crucified—and with some justification. For we have
seen that an emphasis on suffering and death seems to lead only to, well, more suffering and death. If we have a
choice, we’ll prefer the message of the empty tomb to that of the cross.
This is the choice that those early
Christians in Corinth made as well. They went from the cross to exaltation. In
his letter, Paul reverses the direction, going from exaltation to the cross. As
the German New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann put it: The result of the
resurrection is not that the cross is superseded, but rather that it becomes
possible to speak of it.
And when we listen as Paul presents his
“message about the cross,” it slowly dawns on us that the Cross here is not
about some blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. The Cross is that place
where God is bringing a new creation into being.
The message of the cross tells us
certain things about our lives and this universe. It tells us that God is
present in the depths of human suffering. It tells us that God is made known to
us in weakness, anguish, and despair as much as—if not more than—in victory and
strength. It is to have a confident faith—or a doubting, struggling faith—that
God is making something new even in the midst of great suffering.
The message of the cross does not invite
us to wallow in suffering. We know weakness, anguish, and despair, but we do
not need to seek them out. Always the way of Christ is the way of life. But the
way of weakness and suffering is also the way of God with us. This is the God
who takes away all reasons to boast in our wisdom, might, or wealth, stripping
away all that we might choose to exalt ourselves. Yet this is also the God who
acts with steadfast love, delighting in creation, delighting in us.
The message of the cross is our
wholeness, our life, the salvation that we desire.
Knowing Jesus only as crucified is
incomplete. We need resurrection for our understanding of God and of life to be
complete. But not knowing Jesus crucified is also incomplete. For in Jesus we
see neither tragedy nor triumph, but gospel—the good news that God has come to
us, shared our common lot, and invites us to be new people in the new creation
that began with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This is the message of the cross.
And as important for us this morning are
Paul’s words about the recipients of that message. “For those of us who are
being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God.”
“Those of us who are being saved.”
Now wait a minute.
Can’t we always find people over on the
Pentecrest asking students if they are
saved? Don’t we, when members join this congregation, pray that we will all “be
witnesses of our risen Savior?” And if we have a savior, have we not also been saved? Isn’t this our current
Not so fast, Paul would say. We are
people who are, as Paul puts it, “being saved.” If the Cross is that place
where God is bringing the new creation into being, then we recognize that this
new creation is an ongoing process. The old order is passing away and we are
part of what has been called the not-yet-completed character of salvation in
We are people still in the making. And
what we shall become is revealed only slowly over time.
In Bethsaida some people bring a blind
man to Jesus seeking his healing touch. After laying his hands on the man,
Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?”
His curious reply is, “I can see people,
but they look like trees, walking.”
In all the Gospels, this is the only
account of a healing that does not take place immediately. Here new sight comes
only gradually. And there is something encouraging for us in this story of
healing in stages.
It reminds us that the life of faith is
a process. Remember that story about the Adam and Eve and the serpent that we
heard last Sunday? In it the serpent promises instant awareness: “Your eyes
will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” If we want
quick solutions, the serpent has them for us.
If we choose to follow in the way of
Jesus Christ, our sight, our healing, our wholeness might take a little longer,
but it will be more complete in the end.
The quick answers are not the ones we
We seek the answers that come when we have been
touched for a second time, recognizing that “clear sight” does not come
quickly. “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and
his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
This does not mean “every day in every
way we’re getting better and better.” It does not mean that we are moving
toward perfection. It means that in midst of the difficulties and setbacks and
struggles of life, we are moving forward, we are moving toward health, toward new
In our work, in our decision making, God
invites us into a life of progress, not perfection.
It is like the thawing of spring, longed
for, eagerly awaited, but coming slowly—often with changes that seem like
The late John Gardner, a UI graduate and
author, wrote about what New Englanders call “unlocking time” in his novel October Light. These are the days when
the world “unlocks”—when the back dirt roads turn to mud, when then river ice
lets loose, when the world begins to thaw. It happens in Iowa as much as in New
England. The days of Lent remind us of the “unlocking” that occurs in the life
of faith—a thaw that can occur in us at any time of year.
And with the thaw come the challenges of
the thaw as well.
Years ago now when Robin and I were in
Divinity School, we needed to get out of Cambridge for a few days during the
spring. So we found an inexpensive bed and breakfast in Vermont, rented a car
and headed out. For reasons I don’t remember we weren’t able to leave town
until later in the day and this meant that we were driving in Vermont after
dark. That usually wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but the spring thaw
meant that the air was saturated with moisture and we were driving up and down
the Vermont mountains in a thick, nighttime fog. Sometimes it was so thick that
we really had no idea of just where the road ahead was.
The next morning we were coming down the
mountain and realized the winding road had no guard rail, and that there was a
precipitous drop all along the way. The challenges of the thaw—the challenges
of becoming new a new creation.
We are people who are being saved—and sometimes that can be a
dangerous process, that unlocking of our hearts, that thawing of our lives.
As we thaw out, as we unlock, the road
can sometimes seem as dangerous as it is uncertain.
Kathleen Norris writes that the Hebrew
word for “salvation” means literally “to make wide,” or “to make sufficient”…She
tells of reading in the Oxford Companion
to the Bible that “the primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words
translated ‘salvation’ is non-religious.” The Hebrew words usually come from a
military context, and refer to victory over evil or rescue from danger in this
life. And in the gospels it is often physical healing that people seek from
Jesus, relief from blindness…She says “Salvation is described in physical terms
of the here and now, because I believe that this is how most of us first
experience it. Only later do the more spiritual implications of salvation begin
to make themselves known.” [Amazing Grace,
Salvation is finding that the road is
wide. The ice and snow melt away and our cars have a little more room as we
drive down the streets of Iowa City. Our hearts unlock and we realize that the road
of life is wider than we might have thought, traveled by all manner of people
loved by God. We travel that road in all of its uncertainties, all of its
dangers—at all times being saved by the mercy of God.