Sunday, February 10, 2008

A: Lent I (10 February 2008)

Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:4b-9,15-17,26–3:7

I am the oldest of seven siblings, so Brenda and I were also the first to present my parents with grandchildren, and to make uncles and aunts out of my brothers and sisters. When our kids were young, our own home was, of course, “child proofed”—anything that was dangerous, or especially valuable, was placed more than four feet off the ground and off the edge of the counter. But when we would visit one of my siblings who was married, but as yet childless, it was always a little bit stressful, because their homes were not similarly attentive to the strange idea that you have to put something in your mouth before you can be sure it really exists. And among all the forces of nature, an unattended two-year old has more destructive capacity per pound per minute than anything else I can think of! So Brenda and I would always be on edge, lest the natural curiosity of one of our offspring should lead to disaster or embarrassment.

Those days are long gone, of course, and we were long since been able to turn the tables on my brothers and sisters—as well as on some members of Brenda’s extended family who have from time to time been in our house—as we watch them squirm while their small children—and now, even my brother’s grandchildren— prowl around our decidedly non-childproof home! But it occurs to me that, while most of us grow up to know how to behave ourselves in polite company, there is a sense in which we are still marauding toddlers, roaming around in search of something poisonous to put in our mouths or something expensive to break. Only in our case, it’s not the poison that goes into our mouths that causes the trouble, but the poison that comes out. And the things we break are not made of porcelain or crystal, but of intangible qualities like trust and hope and affection and security. And they’re not expensive because of the rarity of the materials, but because of the costly effort that goes into building and sustaining a relationship between two human beings.

As individuals, we wound one another with our words, spreading poison with gossip and innuendo, creating webs of deceit and treachery that are beyond imagination in their complexity and subtlety. As a society, we consume natural resources with scarcely a second thought for the effects of our behavior on future generations. Surely God must see us sometimes the way a parent sees a two-year old loose in grandmother’s living room.

Now take that image, and put it on a mental shelf, because I want to come back to it. But for the moment, shift gears with me, and try on another scenario in your mind. Think of your favorite sweater. Now imagine that you snag it, gently but firmly, on a rose bush or a low hanging tree limb. The snag starts out small. “Maybe no one will notice,” you think to yourself, because you really like the sweater. But every time you move, the snag gets bigger. It starts to spread. Pretty soon, you’ve got six inches of loose yarn dangling from your sleeve. But you notice that there really isn’t a discernible hole, so you think, “Why not just take a pair of scissors and go ‘snip’ here and ‘snip’ there, and all will be well?” So you cut off both ends of the offending loop. But your attempt at sweater surgery only compounds the problem. The hole you couldn’t find rapidly appears, and grows whenever you look at it. You realize, to your horror, that your favorite sweater is both unwearable and beyond repair.

Have we not all felt at times that this unraveling sweater is a perfect description of our lives? We make a small mistake. We experience a lapse in judgment. We certainly didn’t mean to, and would be more careful if we had it to do over again. But we don’t know quite what to do, and there doesn’t appear to be any tremendous harm done, so we do nothing. But the damage grows, and grows, and before we know, we’re neck deep in a disaster, and we feel desperately hopeless.

Once again, I invite to take your sweater with the dangling yarn, and put it up on that mental shelf next to the rampaging toddler. Then move with me to one final image. You’re a lover of antiques, and you acquire a fine oriental ceramic vase that you place on a pedestal in the corner of the entry hall in your home—the entry hall with the polished slate floor. But one day, the cat, who normally lives outside, gets into the house, which utterly delights the dog, who normally lives inside. In about 1.5 seconds, the dog and the cat do what dogs and cats do, and your antique vase is in a thousand pieces evenly distributed over the area of your polished slate floor.

In one sense, I feel safe about this, because I don’t own anything as expensive and fragile as that vase, though we do have a hard floor in our entry way, along with a cat who prefers to be outside when the weather permits, as well as a dog who goes outside only under supervision. But figuratively speaking, I have personally broken a number of these vases myself—with no help from anything four-footed —and have witnessed the destruction of many more. I have seen relationships—between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters—relationships bearing such a load of bitterness and resentment that there doesn’t seem to be enough forgiveness in the whole universe . . . to cover it. I have seen dreams of a lifetime shattered beyond recognition, indefatigable hope drowned in disappointment.

Now, take the shards of your antique vase, and scoop them up, and make a pile on your mental shelf next to the unraveling sweater and the curious toddler. What I’ve been describing, of course, can wear many different labels—alienation, estrangement, enmity, corruption, perishability—but ultimately, it’s just garden-variety Sin. Garden of Eden variety, that is. Sin is a condition, an experience, a tendency, that we are all born with. We are both victims of it and perpetrators of it. The time-honored story from the book of Genesis paints the picture for us in bold and unambiguous strokes. Adam and Eve chose to trust themselves more than they trusted God. They attempted to become gods unto themselves. For all the ceramic vases that we break, for all the dangling sweater yarn we try to neatly clip away, for all the two-year old tantrums we throw, we are simply giving expression to this fatal flaw that infects human nature: We want God to hand over the controls—until we fly into a tailspin, that is, at which point we will beg Him to take over long enough to set everything right.

God is, of course, in the business of setting everything right, though rarely according to our specifications. Jesus came to save us from the “garden variety” Sin that will otherwise be our undoing. The very name “Jesus” means “God saves.” This is much more easily said, however, than done. We should not underestimate the gravity of the task, or think that it was somehow “easy” for Jesus just because he’s, you know, the Son of God, that all he had to do was somehow “will” it to happen, to really want to save us, and then endure a few painful hours on a cross, and that’s that, and we all live happily ever after.

To understand the price of our salvation, to truly comprehend what saving us costs Jesus, let’s look back at that mental shelf where we’ve been setting things. When Brenda and I lived in California, and were able to have her extended family over to our house during holiday times, it was pretty much a full-time job to keep track of each one of the pre-school children who were there. They are miniature destruction machines, and a parent or grand-parent or benevolent volunteer from a neighboring branch of the family tree has to hover over them like a guardian angel, preventing disasters from happening and cleaning up the ones they can’t prevent. Meanwhile, the child is essentially oblivious to the work it takes to provide this escort service, and completely uncooperative in trying to make the task less of a burden.

Part of Jesus' ontinuing saving activity on our behalf is to hover around us to prevent . . . and clean up after our destructive behavior. Where Adam and Eve disobeyed, Jesus obeys. Where you and I disobey, Jesus obeys. We still may get swatted on the behind when we throw a tantrum, but it is done always in love and never in anger. The important thing is that even if we spill grape juice on the cream-colored carpet, Jesus knows how to get the stain out. What we make bitter through our sin, Jesus can turn sweet with his obedience. The grudges that we hold on to because of our sin, Jesus can pry loose from us because of his obedience. The trust that we lose though our fickleness, Jesus can recover through his faithfulness.

Now let’s deal with that snagged sweater. Before taking scissors to that offending loop of yarn, why not take the sweater to a master weaver? Jesus is a master weaver. He can painstakingly trace the snag to its source, and then re-weave the yarn with unimaginably complex labor and great skill. This is a slow process, so we’ll need to be patient. And it takes a professional—it’s not something we should try at home. But Jesus’s saving ministry on our behalf includes patiently and laboriously re-weaving the fabric of our lives after it has been snagged by Sin. It’s something we could never do ourselves.

But what about that antique vase, shattered into a thousand pieces? If the shards are entrusted into the care of an expert, the vase can be not only restored, but made stronger than it was in its original condition. But every tiny piece must be carefully collected, examined, sorted, cataloged, and finally re-fitted into its precise location. And when it is a human life that is shattered, no one but the Creator of that life has the expertise to put it back together. When it is hope that has been shattered, only the Source of that hope can reconstruct it. When it is love that has been shattered, only the Author of love, the one who is himself love in his very nature, can restore it.

So let us never use the expression “Jesus saves” as a mere slogan. That trivializes the cost of our salvation. Saving us is a tremendous labor of tremendous love. The nature and extent of that labor is illustrated for us on this First Sunday in Lent through the gospel account of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness right before the commencement of his public ministry. The first temptation, at first blush, seems harmless enough. Jesus had been fasting and he was hungry. If he had the power to turn stones into bread, why not do it? The second temptation seems rather fanciful. Satan wanted Jesus to jump off a high building just for the exhibitionistic thrill of watching a pack of angels come to his rescue and set him down gently. The third temptation is a no-brainer: Why would Jesus want to fall down and worship Satan for the sake of a few kingdoms that weren’t Satan’s to give in the first place?

But the real significance of the temptations is not in the temptations themselves, but in Jesus' replies. In each case, he quotes Old Testament scripture, and each quotation refers back to a particular act of disobedience that the people of Israel had perpetrated during their 40 year wilderness sojourn. In responding to the Evil One this way, Jesus is going about his arduous task of laboriously piecing back together what human sin has shattered, of systematically undoing the damage that sin has done, of going back and finding every petulant “No!” that has been shouted at God, and substituting an obedient “Yes” in its place. Jesus doesn’t save by executive decree, by waving a wand, by telling his aides “Make it so,” but by getting down and taking care of the messy details himself, one at a time. Every time I make a mess by my apathy, Jesus is there to clean up with his compassion. For every wound that I inflict through angry or sarcastic words, Jesus is there with the soothing ointment of forgiveness and reconciliation. Every time the fabric of human society starts to unravel through violence, Jesus is there to weave it back together through peace. I cannot put it any better than St Paul does in his letter to the Romans:

“ one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

And as we sing in the hymn text by John Henry Newman:

“O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.”


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