Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Facing the Fire: A Lenten Sermon

Do you know what’s the scariest part of moving? It’s passing the driving test in your new state!

When my wife and I moved to Raleigh some years back to become pastor of First Baptist Church there, we secured a copy of the dreaded North Carolina Driver’s License Exam booklet and began to study for the driver’s exam, otherwise known as the DMV’s idea of humility therapy. I understand that the man who wrote that book has other hobbies too – he tortures kittens for fun. We went down on the same day to take the exam. We both passed. But I had no more than gotten seated in the car and buckled my seat belt when she started with me: “I only missed one; how many did you miss?”

“Two, I missed two!” You happy now?”

Filled out a credit application lately? Bet you didn’t know there were right answers on those things, did you? They’re not looking for information; they’re passing judgment! I can’t believe the questions they ask on those things! “Do you brush your teeth up and down like the dentist told you, or are you one of those ‘side-to-side’ brushers?”

Life is a test! Everywhere you go you’re being tested, sifted, measured, evaluated. When you go to the doctor’s office, why doesn’t the nurse just say: “All right, go over to the scales and weigh yourself and then come back and tell me what it said”? Because it’s a test, that’s why! She doesn’t want you to cheat!

To be human is to be tested. To be human is to have options – options to do the better thing or the cheaper thing, to prove your mettle or to be devoured in the unforgiving flames. And though some “tests” stand out as more memorable than others, there is a sense in which we are “tested” every day of our lives. At every juncture we choose: to egress or regress, to become more than we are or less than we were. The choices we must negotiate are both constant and cumulative, and their effects terrifyingly real.

The New Testament has a word for it. It’s usually translated temptation, but that’s not what the Greek word behind it really means. The word in the Greek is peirasmos and if you listen carefully you can hear in the sound of the word its real meaning. Listen: peirasmos, “pyromania,” “pyrotechnic,” the “Fire.”

Jesus had to face the fire. We sometimes call it the “temptation of Jesus.” Mark describes it this way: “And immediately the Spirit flung him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days being tested (translate it ‘under fire’) by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to him.” I take comfort in that: Jesus too had to face the fire. Like the People of God who for forty years were “tested” in the wilderness, Jesus too was tested in the wilderness. To be human is to be tested, to find yourself “under fire,” and the fact that he was God’s Son didn’t spare him from the Fire. No exemptions, no exceptions.

And so, whether we’re talking about Jesus, or you and me – and to talk about Jesus is to talk about you and me (that’s what “Incarnation” means) – to be human is to be “tested,” “tempted,” “judged,” call it what you will, but what it is, is “facing the fire.”

There’s a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon that I love, for reasons that will become apparent. It’s a picture of a spotted dog dressed in pulpit robe and standing in pulpit preaching to other spotted dogs. He’s frowning, pointing his paw at them, and saying: “Bad dogs! Bad dogs!” And underneath the caption reads: “Hellfire and Dalmatians.”

Any preacher worth his “spots” has to work with a little fire now and then. Especially during this time of the year when we’re taking a “Journey to the Cross,” called by some “Lent” – that 40-day period leading up to Easter when the church, remembering Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, sets aside a protracted period to “face the fire,” to put itself to the “test” to see if it measures up – especially at Lent we can stand a little “pulpit pyromania.” And contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just giving something up (like chocolate or pizza). It’s not about “giving up” at all; it’s about “giving in,” surrendering, submitting, repenting, saying “no” to self and “yes” to God, burning away the dross so the pure metal can show through. It’s about “Facing the Fire.”

I know, I know, “hellfire and dalmatian,” can be off-putting. “Give us something positive and upbeat! Judgment can be so, so…well, judgmental!” But let me say a word about it: Diagnosis is a necessary part of cure.

“You’ve got to have an operation.” Tell me, is that good news, or bad? Well, it depends, actually, on what preceded it. Suppose the physician said: “The report came back positive. You’ve got cancer. But we think surgery will take care of it. You’ve got to have an operation.” Now, is the statement good news or bad? You see? Diagnosis is a necessary part of cure.

That’s what C. S. Lewis meant when he said: “it is the essence of Love to perfect the beloved.” You see, if you really love someone, you call out of them their highest and best selves, even if that’s not what they want. And I have good news for you…and bad…God really loves you! And that means that while he will never let you go, it also means that he will never let you off until he has brought you, in the words of Paul, “unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” His goal is none other than your perfection, no matter how long it takes, no matter how personally painful it may be for you. Because you see, God really loves you!

Somewhere in his writings, the great Christian writer George MacDonald uses this parable. He says to imagine that you are a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he’s doing. He’s fixing the drains and repairing the leaky roof. And that pleases you, because all those things needed to be done anyway. But he doesn’t stop there. He starts knocking down walls and taking out partitions, and it hurts terribly! What’s he up to? What he’s up to is that he’s building a very different kind of house from the one you had in mind – putting on a new wing here, adding a new floor there, running up towers and laying in courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. You see, he intends to come and live in it himself, and he’s not going to live in merely a decent little cottage!

It is the essence of love to perfect the beloved.

And let me say another word about it. There is a faith on the far side of the fire that the glib and the giddy will never grasp.

Will Willimon tells a story about a contentious budget meeting he had been involved in back when he was at Duke. Everyone, it seems, was contending for his/her budget items not to fall to the budget axe, and of course emotions were on a razor edge. Everyone agreed the budget had to be cut, but no one wanted their program to suffer. During the rancorous debate that ensued, Will noticed that the Librarian was quietly sitting in the corner watching the chaos with apparent detachment and composure, seemingly unaffected by it all. Then, in a collected and quiet voice, he offered his own analysis of the budgetary problems as well as a potential solution. The group saw immediately the wisdom of his suggestions and very soon a consensus was forged where only moments before chaos had reigned. When the meeting was over, Will walked back to the library with this insightful man and on the way asked him: “Jerry, how is it that you could be so calm and composed in there with all that shouting and chaos?” The Librarian said: “I had open heart surgery two years ago.” Will said: “I didn't know that.” “Oh, yeah. Two years ago it was now. You know, Will, they stop your heart. I died for about five minutes on that operating table. My heart was stopped and was not beating on its own anymore. And while I was lying there, I could have sworn I heard a Voice say: ‘Peace. Be still!’” Will said: “You’re kidding! That's remarkable. But what's that got to do with your composure during the budget meeting?” And Jerry said: “It's a funny thing, you know, but when you've died and been raised, they can't do anything to you anymore.”

Have faith in the fire!

One thing more. What if, having faced the fire, you find your faith failing? It happens! Remember, even Jesus wasn’t done with the Devil in the desert. Gethsemane may have looked like a garden, but it was a desert. It’s a long way from Lent to Easter, and only they who daily face the fire will make it through the desert.

Do you know the story about the medieval peasant who was walking down the road one day and came upon a monk? Stopping him, the peasant asked the monk: “You know, I’ve always wanted to ask you, what do you holy men do all day long way up there in that monastery so high and so close to God?” The monk, full of wisdom and grace, said: “What do we holy men do up there so high and so close to God? I’ll tell you what we do. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up!”

Of course. Of course.

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