“Unlocking Time”

March 16, 2014


I Corinthians 1:17-21

Mark 8:22-25


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 reality?

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 Christ.

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 really seek.

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 possibility.

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 setbacks.

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, pg. 20.]

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.