SJF • Lent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?+
God often goes to extremes to make a point. But when we read the Bible or hear a Scripture passage in church on Sunday morning, we often miss just how extreme God is, because we know the end of the story. We know that after Christ is betrayed, tried, tortured and crucified — that he will be raised from the dead. We know the happy ending, so we don’t experience this whole story as quite so suspenseful.
In order to get the full impact of the Scripture, put yourself for a moment in the shoes of the Big Fisherman, Peter, so put off by the whole idea, when Jesus says he is going to Jerusalem and will suffer and die there that Peter doesn’t even hear the part about being raised. He is not afraid to rebuke his own Lord; he isn’t about to let him put himself in danger, no siree!
This Gospel carries an almost unbearable message. Not only does Jesus prophesy his own death, but he says that any who choose to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Does the misery of Jesus so crave company that he wants the disciples to be crucified too? Does he want us to be crucified?
The answer, of course, is No. What Jesus is doing to the disciples, and to us, is daring them and us to risk what we love most — those “dearest idols” we sang about in the hymn. Jesus challenges them — and us — to weigh our most precious possessions
against our hope and faith in God. Jesus is defying us to put our money where their mouth is.
We are not quite so dramatically challenged as the disciples were, at least not usually. But there are still places in the world where being a Christian can bring you into serious danger and even death. All you have to do is listen to the news reports of churches burned with worshipers inside, of Christians being beheaded, children kidnapped and murdered. Extremists acting in the name of Islam, from Isis to Boko Haram, will maim, torture and kill anyone who stands up for Jesus against their ferocious and intolerant zeal.
For most of us, in what we like to think of as a more civilized country, we do not usually face attacks for being Christian. But I’m sure the people in London and Paris thought the same, when they were attacked and killed on the streets of their own cities. Most of us, we hope, in our everyday lives will not face such lethal threats or assaults.
But we will find challenges in having to choose between what we know in our hearts God wants for us, and what we feel in our bones we’ve just got to have for ourselves. Maybe it’s the new car; or the new PlayStation or XBox, or that shiny new Blu-Ray player.
Or maybe it’s something less physical? We know God wants us to be faithful in our relationships; to treat others as we know we would ourselves be treated — but then there are those temptations to cheat; and the wandering eye can lead you astray. We know God wants us to be loving parents; but then sometimes the kids are such a chore, such a pain in the you know what — it’s easier to send them out to spend time on their own, to send them out into the streets rather than to spend time with them. We know God wants us to be honest; but it’s so tempting to pad the expense account, or fail to report that little under-the-table cash that comes in on form 1040 that comes around this time of year.
What does God ask of us? Our deaths? No. Not really; does he? No, I think God asks for something simpler, and maybe, like many simple things, harder in the long run. God does not ask for our deaths, but our lives. God asks us for our love — love for him and for each other. It seems simple; but like many simple things it’s hard, really hard. Because we all experience the forces pulling us the other way: possessions, relationships, and the four P’s: position, power, prominence and pride.
Saint Paul knew all about it. He knew from personal experience how these things work in our lives, pulling us away from God. Remember how he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do...” Paul knew how hard it was; he knew the downside; he knew the temptation, he knew about the powerlessness in the face of temptation: the wretchedness of knowing what is right but not being able to do it. But Paul also knew the upside! He knew that even if he couldn’t fight it on his own, God could. God could empty him of his sin, and fill him right back up to the brim with grace.
Paul knew that God could raise him up, even if it was God knocked him down in the first place. (Sometimes God puts those he loves through the wringer. Who did he love more than his Son?) And yet Paul laid it out in black and white: Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” “Handed over to death” — not just the cross, which is bad enough — but death upon it: that slow, painful death of hanging, nailed to a tree, for a tired, painful afternoon. Think of that: to die that way, hanging there, bleeding to death and suffocating — not an easy death. And God didn’t do any kind of last minute rescue on Jesus, as had happened with Isaac, when God stopped Abraham’s hand and let him spare Isaac’s life. He was the one promised in God’s covenant, the promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and Sarah would be the mother. Now, as you know, the only child this aged couple had was Isaac — yet God challenged Abraham to give up that child of the promise, testing his faithfulness, offering him up to death; testing him, but then rescuing Isaac at the last minute, and stopping Abraham’s hand — and that proved how faithful Abraham was: because he was willing to risk the promise.
But there was no rescue for Jesus, for God’s own Son. There was no army of angels to fly in and knock down the Romans, there was no one to deliver him from the cross. Instead there was that painful death, then after the death prying at the nails — think about that: pulling nails out of someone’s flesh to take him down from the cross, the clumsy lowering down to the ground, and the waiting, weeping mother raising a cry to split the heavens.
And yet, Paul assures us that even if this is how God treated his own son for our sake will he not do more for us, now that the cost has been paid? Yes, Jesus died. But Paul also assures us that he was raised from the dead — why? For us; for our justification. And with Jesus on our side, the risen Jesus who lives for ever, with him on our side who — or what— can keep us from God? That is Paul’s good news, that is his Gospel.
Yes, we suffer temptations; yes, we have desires we can’t control; yes, we fall and we fail. But the grace of God can restore us, can lift us back up again, can raise us up, even as he raised up Christ — “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and yet was raised for our justification.” God took an old man and woman, childless and comfortless, and made of them a multitude of nations, the parents of kings of peoples. God took the lifeless body of his own Son and worked upon it in the silence of the tomb, bringing life from the dead. And so too God will work on us, dead in our sins, or dead in the grave. Gaining the whole world will profit us nothing if we lose eternal life. But if we risk our lives — our lives in the here and now, and lose them for the sake of the gospel, not ashamed to name Jesus as Lord and savior, he will indeed save us, and raise us up on the last day. Nothing can stop the power of God at work in Christ, and in us, through him.
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Though we will never likely face death for our Lord, we will undergo those prosaic trials, those day-to-day temptations, but even — especially in them because that is what is before us — we can call upon the same faith and hope that raised the hearts of Abraham and Paul. That faith included several basic truths of which we sometimes lose sight.
First, everything we are, everything we have comes from God. When God asks for something back, he is only asking us to return something we have received from him. We say “All things come of thee, O God, and of thine own have we given thee” perhaps so often we forget how true it is! All things come from God and it is out of that we give back. And what a radical statement it is! Everything belongs to God! You, the clothes you are wearing now, your car, your Blu-Ray, even your Xbox, your shoes! Everything belongs to God.
Second, God doesn’t ask for everything back right now. He lets you keep the car, he lets you keep the XBox, keep the Blu-Ray. You can keep your shoes on. God doesn’t take it all back — until we die, and as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. But in the meantime God accepts the part that we offer, even though God could ask for it all right now. Right now, the earth could open up and swallow this church and we’d all be dead and buried. That hasn’t happened in 150-some years; let’s hope it doesn’t happen in another 150! God could do that, right now. But God doesn’t. Instead God asks us to offer something, some part of what we have been given. What God wants is for our hearts to be free so that if we were asked to give everything we would be willing to give it; so that at the end, when in fact it all will fall away and we pass into death, we will be ready to let it all go — returning everything to God, including our selves, our souls and bodies as a reasonable and holy sacrifice given completely to him. What a wonderful feeling that will be, if we’ve learned in the meantime how to let go. This is like training wheels, my friends: learning to let go of part of things as we live, so that at the end, when we die, we will be ready to let go of all of it.
Remember those words from the hymn we sang at the Gospel: “The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be: help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee.” When we put something else on God’s throne, we have lost sight of God. When we treasure anything more than God, well: he told us where you treasure is, there your heart will be also. And so God asks us for something back, some part of our treasure, just to show that we can let go, and give up, for him — for him, the one who gave us everything.
That is how God lets us see where our hearts are. For if we treasure anything more than God, the pain when we let go of it will let us know. Just as pain is the body’s way of letting us know something is wrong, so too that pinch, that regret when we let go of what we offer lets us know our heart-strings are still tied to it and we haven’t yet learned how to “let go and let God.” God wants us to be free, my friends, free from everything, even everything that he gave us, including our lives. And if we can learn to give up those somethings in the here and now, we will be ready to give up everything when the time comes for us to do so, at the end of our lives.
Everything belongs to God; and God wants it all, but in the mean time we honor God with what we give, when we offer the portion of our gift here at the altar, giving thanks to Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom we know, one day, we shall have to render a full account.+