It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

It’s ok to fall (2): God is in control

Falling is a bad word if you are over the age of 70, because it can precipitate our dying. So our knee jerk is to take control! We are told not to fall. We avoid slippery, icy parking lots. We rig our homes to prevent falling — getting rid of area rugs, installing grip handles in the washrooms, renovating away any unnecessary steps. Ageing bears with it the mantra: “It’s NOT okay to fall!”

But we will at some point, anyway, whether we like to or not. And when we do, we pray for healing and mending of broken bones and tendons. We may come on our knees in submission and confession, asking God for help.

The story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) is normally read during the preceding season of Epiphany, when Ash Wednesday starts later in the calendar year. Because Lent starts earlier this year, it’s not in the lectionary. But this story is an excellent one upon which to reflect at the beginning Lent.

First, it is one of the most well-read stories of healing from the Hebrew Scriptures. And healing is a theme in these weeks leading up to Easter, when we take notice of our sin, weakness and brokenness, and pray for our restoration in Christ.

The journey of Lent is one where we follow Jesus on his journey to the Cross. And by recalling this holy story of Christ’s passion, suffering and death “for us”, we are invited to reflect on our life’s journey of suffering reflected in the hope of faith.

The story of our healing will thus follow the path that Jesus trod. It is our task, therefore, to pay attention to the nature of this path, and not to waver despite the temptations of the world around us to venture in another direction.

Because of the Cross of Jesus, I claim the theme of my sermons this Lent — “It’s okay to fall.” Why? Because God is in control. And this is one of those counter-cultural messages because our world tells us to take control so that we will not fall —

Tighten your grip. Strengthen your resolve. Become the master of your destiny. Show you are strong, even when you are not. All the politicians know this — never apologize or concede to your opponent, never give them the upper hand. In a national election year, we will notice this often, I am sure. The political leaders must show strength, power, control and righteousness.

The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to show weakness and vulnerability. For me to stand here and say, it’s okay to be vulnerable, show weakness; it’s okay to be honest about our stumbling in life; It’s vital for our soul to apologize when we have fallen and to seek forgiveness from the other —

This is revolutionary — totally counter-cultural! Totally going against the grain of our lives! How can we be okay with our ‘falling’? How can we even risk that?

When we camped a couple summers ago at Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, it was windy for the first couple of days. And the kite-flying enthusiasts were out on the beach in full force. Fortunately, we too had packed a kite.

And so there I was, with all the rigging, trying to keep the kite afloat high above us. I thought I had the knack of controlling the strings and handles — even controlling by my direction the flight, height and movement of the kite up or down, regardless of what the wind did — or so I thought.

Because ever so often, a micro-burst of air would come upon us unexpectedly — and only the most skilled (and lucky!) of us kite-fliers was able to anticipate and compensate for the burst of air that brought most of our kites diving into the sand. No matter what I did, the control was ultimately in the wind.

General Naaman was a command and control guy. He was the successful leader of the army of Syria (or Aram). He was used to issuing orders and getting results. People admired him for his strength, his resolve, his prowess on the battle field. He commanded the respect of not only his king but the kings of his enemies. He would be the poster boy for our culture when we imagine ‘strong leadership’.

Except for one thing. He suffered from a skin disease. It was his ‘thorn in the side’, as Saint Paul described one thing that brought him to his knees (2 Corinthians 12:6-10). General Naaman was hurting. And he tried everything to find healing. He used the resources of his country, accessed the healers, magicians of his nation and the powerful ones, all in order to rid him of his ailment.

Isn’t it true — relief from suffering becomes our sole desire, our fixation? When it comes to dealing with our suffering, control is exactly what we want. Like Naaman, we would like to control when and how this relief will come, expending all the resources at our disposal. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was. His command and control approach failed.

When we are really hurting, we will listen to anyone with a good suggestion, even those at the bottom of the food chain. In Naaman’s life, it’s the servant girl of his wife who first suggests the prophet Elisha, and the low rung servants who convince Naaman to listen to the prophet’s simplistic remedy to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

In his suffering and journey towards healing, Naaman is humbled. He concedes control to a process that is not normative for him. His world of protocols, kings, wealth, and well-known rivers is turned upside down. He has no option left at the end, in his journey, but to let go, and let God work through the prophets and the servants, and the dirty Jordan River.

We witness here, in the story of Naaman, falling can be redemptive. How letting go of control in those areas where we really do not have any control over anyway, is critical. How listening to the voice of God in unexpected places, and being obedient to that call even if it means doing something outside of the norm.

It’s okay to fall, because God is in control. This is the point of the passage, which shows us how in the end our ‘getting up’ is not because we know the best ‘rivers of healing’, have all sorts of money to buy it, or have connections with the people in power. We ‘get up’ not because we have engineered it somehow, not because we have employed our resources and worked hard to convince ourselves that we are the reasons the kite can fly.

We ‘get up’ solely and only because of God’s initiative to love us. We get up only because God, not us, is in control.

It’s okay to fall, and be humbled in our suffering. It’s okay to fall and admit our need. It’s okay to expose our vulnerability, our anger and doubt, and confess our sin. Because, in the end, the healing comes by the grace of God.

When Saint Paul prayed to be healed from his ‘thorn’, God assured him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Naaman was not the only one in the history of faith in God that needed to hear and heed the words of the Psalmist (147:10-11):

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those …
who hope in his steadfast love.”

The Pilate problem and the gift of God’s perfect action

In Pilate’s actions (Matthew 27:11ff) we witness how we can be so divided, inside ourselves, between what we believe/what we say — and what we end up doing.

Pilate is convinced Jesus is innocent. He tries all manner of techniques — appealing to tradition to free one prisoner, even having Jesus flogged — all in order to keep him from being crucified. Even Pilate’s wife intervenes to try convincing Pilate to release Jesus.

And for this we can sympathize with Pilate. We can appreciate the political struggle. He is caught between a rock and a hard place: He can use his authority to do the ‘right’ thing but incur the wrath of the crowds and incite rebellion; or, he can do the ‘wrong’ thing but keep political stability in the occupied territories, not to mention his job.

Self-preservation seems to be a guiding motivation for Pilate. But, in the end, when all has been said and done, we hang our heads low in confession that Pilate failed. In contrast to the bloodied and tortured man that stood across from him, he was no man of integrity.

When Pilate washes his hands, he does so symbolically making himself innocent from the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate deludes himself from taking responsibility as the governor of the region; because, in truth, the authority to condemn someone to death rested on his shoulders. Even though he washes his hands to try to rid his conscience of the truth, he is culpable. Ironic, isn’t it, that in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

We have heard the saying that not doing anything is doing something. There is no such thing as ‘abstaining from life’. Whether this problem is manifested in pretending not to see something happen on the road or in the mall that would require us to take a risk to help someone in need; whether self-preservation motivates us to hide or run away when what is called upon is our help; when we ignore a text or email from someone because what they say exposes us or asks us to deal with an uncomfortable truth.

These are some examples of the Pilate problem showing up in our lives — when we delude ourselves into believing there can be no significant consequence from our inaction; when we deceive ourselves into not doing anything, as a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation that requires our attention and action; when we fool ourselves to think that by ignoring someone or something we are doing some good.

Not doing anything is doing something. The question then, is: What is ‘doing nothing’ actually doing? Is not doing anything making the problem worse? Is not doing anything keeping people stuck in unhealthy habits and relationships? Is not doing anything enabling evil to accomplish its diabolic purposes?

We compulsively lay judgement on our’s and others’ actions that result in bad things; these are traditionally known as the sins of commission. But how much have we considered bad things that have resulted in not doing anything at all? The sins of omission are failure to do what one can.

This Good Friday is a good time to reflect personally on what our action, and our inaction, actually accomplishes in our families, marriages, our workplaces and church. More than what our words say, what does our behaviour communicate? Because when it’s all been said and done, our lives are a testimony to our actions.

As Dumbledore advised Harry Potter — in J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s books: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Who God truly is, was shown no more clearly and profoundly than in the Passion of Christ. But ‘Passion’ is not passive. God is doing something in the Passion of Christ. And there’s no way Pilate knew what was afoot — what his waffling was actually leading to, in God’s great work. So, in the end, the Passion story is not about the failure of Pilate, Peter, Judas and the deserting disciples. In the end, this is a story whose principle character is God, in Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus do, before Pilate? You will note that Jesus remained predominantly silent throughout his trial (Matthew 27:11-14). It’s not about what he says. Though he admits he could have called upon his disciples to fight to save him (John 18:36), though he confesses he is “the king of the Jews”, he knows what he must do.

When it’s all been said and done, Jesus against certain torture, mutilation and humiliation, had aligned his inner compass on true north. He was “a man despised and dejected” (Isaiah 53:3). But because he never wavered in his actions at the end, God “allotted him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

God, in Jesus, showed us that our God is trustworthy, faithful and true to us, no matter how dire the consequence or even how divided in our lives we are. Nothing will stop God from trying to reach out to us in love. God, if anything, is persistent. God in Christ Jesus is, in the famous words of 19th century English poet Francis Thompson, the “hound of heaven”, who wont stop at anything to accomplish what is good, and what is right.

After all, when it’s all been said and done, nothing we can say nor do can even come close to what God accomplished on the Cross.

In this Good Friday liturgy, we have been focusing on the symbols of the Passion of Christ, culminating in the Cross, which is of greatest value in Christianity.

In the German, Lutheran tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The more common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter, Cennino Cennini, “the perfect colour.”

Hard, laborious work was employed to extract even a little bit of this perfect colour. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made.

Black was gold. Black signified a valuable and, above all, worthwhile expression of faith on “Good” Friday. While the colour black can signal temperance, penitence, sorrow and a mournful mood, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort. This colour, as a symbol of faith on Good Friday, points to the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power, even over death itself.

God is not passive. God doesn’t sit around. God is active. That is why we adore the Cross — to symbolize the ultimate triumph of God.

Let us give thanks this day, that Christ’s action made all the difference in, and changed, the world forever.