Rev. Sarah Buteux

February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent, Year C

Psalm 91 & Luke 4:1-13

 

 

 

 

A Strange Deliverance

“We want the Jesus that comes down from the cross, the Jesus that rights wrongs, ends pain, corrects injustice…We want solutions,” we want answers. But God doesn’t give us what we want. God gives us what we need, not just love, “but a love that sticks around, a love that stays put, a love that hangs on. That’s what the cross is. A love that hangs on.” – Samuel Wells “A Nazareth Manifesto”

 

It was 2 Sundays after September 11th, and unfortunately you all know which September 11th I mean. I was newly ordained and had been invited to preach at a church in Canada. As you may well remember, just getting across the border after 9/11 was difficult then, but knowing what to say so soon after such a devastating event, that is what felt really and truly overwhelming.

 

I think I must have put all of my thought into the preparation of the sermon and left them to put together the service, because when I stood up to lead the call to worship… it was Psalm 91.

 

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,

who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

will say to the Lord,

“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you …

he will cover you …

… under his wings you will find refuge;

You will not fear the terror of the night,

or the arrow that flies by day,

or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you.

 

Had I been staring in a comedy about a bumbling young preacher, the organist might have leaned over and whispered, “too soon?”But alas this was no comedy, and when I looked back at the program things only got worse. It simply called for an invocation…an invocation I had not thought out, an invocation I felt ill prepared to give on the heels of words that felt so decidedly false.

O God, I thought, O God, O God. And so with “O God,” I began. I don’t remember all of what I said. All I remember is that I spoke the truth.

“O God, it’s hard to know what to make of these words.

You say not to be afraid, but we are…

because we have seen the arrow that flies by day,

and we have seen it hit its mark.

We have seen destruction in the full light of morning.

We have watched thousands fall and it all feels so terribly close.

O God, you have not protected us and we don’t know why.

We are afraid, O God… so very afraid. Amen.

 

***

 

I read a commentary on Psalm 91 this past week that described it as an amulet psalm. That piqued my interest, so I read on. Apparently both Jews and Christians would recite the Psalm like a magical incantation in times of danger and many went so far as to copy out verses from this Psalm – particularly those verses about guardian angels – and would place them inside a locket for added protection

[1].

 

The commentator then went on to say that of course we live in a world where – Psalm or no Psalm – God’s protection can seem to be lacking at times, a world where bad things still happen to good people and suffering is an ever-present reality.

 

None of us lack for examples, so how, she asks “can we continue to pray with the psalmist that God is our refuge, our fortress, and protector?”

 

How indeed, I thought.

 

But then she lost me.

 

“As we interpret this psalm,” she says, “we must acknowledge that our worldview has changed since this psalm was written. The psalmist had a much simpler view of the universe and causality. Scientific study has opened for us new ways of thinking about the creation of the world and God’s involvement in it.[2]

 

Did you catch that? “…a much simpler view of the universe and causality.”

 

Now that gave me pause because the truth is, I don’t think our worldview has changed as much as we might like to think, nor do I think the psalmist was a simpleton. It’s not like Psalm 91 was a one off.

 

There are 150 Psalms in the Bible and though many of them are songs of praise, roughly 67 are songs of lament: psalms of despair, disillusionment, anger, and doubt. The psalmist may well have believed that God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked, but they would not have been so naïve as to believe it always works out that way.

 

And for all our advances, the truth is most of us believe this way too – maybe not in a God who sits up in some heavenly control room dispatching angels or lighting bolts to actively reward or punish us – but definitely in a world where you reap what you sow, because for the most part this is how life works.

 

At least this is how it works if you’re a white middle class cis-gender person in the developed world with all the privilege that entails.

 

Which is to say that if you live with all the advantages I do and you play your cards right, keep your nose clean, and work hard, you’ll probably turn out ok and eventually retire to Boca.

 

Whereas, if you cut corners, lie, cheat, or steal, your bad deeds will most likely catch up with you and there will be consequences… unless you’re 4 white guys in a stolen Prius.[3]

 

(Let it be noted: that was my first superbowl reference… ever).

 

But back to this whole cause and effect, reap what you sow mentality. The great theologian N.T. Wright encapsulates it beautifully: if you lead a life of righteousness and virtue, he says, you will normally fare better than those who practice crime or folly. “Avoid crime and folly and you will normally have a more peaceful life than a fool or a criminal. The catch, of course, is the word ‘normally.’” For in both life and scripture, “we discover that the normal is regularly thwarted.” [4]

 

On the whole people might reap what they sow, but not always. For good or for ill, we don’t always get what we deserve. Arrows hit home. Good people get cancer. Bad people get away scot-free. Some of us our born into circumstances of great advantage or disadvantage through absolutely no fault or merit of our own. Life isn’t fair. And worst of all, God doesn’t always come through.

 

At least not in the way we would want.

 

And frankly, that’s tough. It was tough to understand back in the Psalmist’ day and it’s just as tough to understand in our own. But that has never stopped us from trying because there is just something in our nature that wants to make sense of the world, something in us that would love to bring some order to the chaos of life, find a way to control fate, bend it to our will, and guarantee a good outcome.

 

Who wouldn’t want a psalm that works like a charm,

a life without pain,

and a “god” to do our bidding?

Sounds good, right?

Sounds damn good, until you realize that’s Satan’s offer, … at least it was to Jesus in the wilderness… Satan’s offer, not God’s… and that really ought to give us pause.

 

***

 

If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.

 

If you would but worship me, I will make the whole world behave according to your will.

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here

so we can watch the angels catch you.

After all, if you are the son of God,

than God must love you too much to let you fall.

 

Satan is the master of the quid pro quo…if you do this then I’ll do that. If you’re really who you say you are, claim it and force God to do what you want. Satan’s temptations are so real and attractive, because what Satan offers is control. Satan offers security. Satan offers a “Your way, right away” kind of world where Jesus can have what he wants when he wants it.

 

If that sounds to be good to be true, that’s because it is. “The promise of all bogus religion,” says Will Willimon, “is the promise of a peaceful life without pain.[5]” It’s the promise of success without sacrifice; life without death, control without cost. That’s Satan’s offer and Jesus is wise enough to see right through it.

 

But in his rejection of the quick fix, Jesus reveals a strange truth … the truth that not even God gets to manipulate the world like that – think about that for a moment – not even God gets a world like that – for if God could simply make the world the way God wanted it to be, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to come in the first place.

 

If the world were as God wanted it to be, Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

If the world were as God wanted it to be, there would be no need to turn stones to bread, or bring the powers that be to heel, or command the angels to protect us, because we would already protect and feed and use our power for the good of one another.

 

The world is not as God would have it be, and for whatever reason God refuses to snap God’s fingers and make it all ok.

 

The world is not what God would have it be, and for whatever reason God is either unwilling or unable to unilaterally change that.

 

The world is not as God would have it be, and yet God refuses the Devil’s bargain as surely as does Jesus.

 

And I don’t entirely know why. The truth is, no one does. I mean sure I could launch into a discourse on free will or the meaning of suffering, but wiser minds than mine have tried to make sense of all this and as far as I can tell, none of them have come up with an answer that means a whole lot if your child is dying of cancer or you’re waking up in Syria this morning.

 

I don’t know why life is so hard for so many. I don’t know why God can’t just make it all better. All know this: the world may not be what God would have it be, but God has still not given up on the world.

 

Not then. Not now. Not ever.

(That’s the good news in this rather depressing sermon.)

It would seem that God remains resolutely present with us, so present that 2000 years ago- rather than scrap the whole human experiment – God decided to double down, put on flesh and yield to the same limits and vagaries of existence you and I live with everyday.

 

God chose to come among us as one of us, not to remake the world for us, but through us. God did not give up on us but became Emmanuel, God with us… which curiously enough, may just be the key to understanding how Psalm 91 could actually be true.

 

If you go back and look at it carefully I think there’s another way to read the psalm we began with, not so much as an incantation to bend God to our will – “if I love you God then you’ll take care of me” – but as a testament to God’s ultimate will for us all.

 

I think it can be read as a promise that come what may God will always be there for us, quite similar to Paul’s promise in Romans 8 that nothing – not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword. Neither death nor life, angels or demons, the past or the future” can separate us from the love of God.

 

The psalmist is not saying that if you love God you will be delivered from any of the bad things that could possibly happen to you in this life, but that God will be with you no matter what happens to you in this life… that God’s presence is the ultimate deliverance and in that presence is our ultimate salvation.[6]

 

God’s deliverance may not keep us from the snare of the fowler, the deadly pestilence, or the piercing arrow, but from any one bad thing being the last and final thing.

 

In plain English, God doesn’t promise a life without pain, but a life that doesn’t end there.

 

All God can promise is come what may, I will never let you go.

 

It is a strange deliverance to be sure. Satan’s offer actually sounds rather appealing in comparison. But if the promise of all false religion is a life without pain, there is nothing that feels false about a God who loves us so much he would willingly suffer pain the better to keep close to us.

 

There is something strangely comforting in the notion that the central promise of our faith, of Jesus’ way, of this Lenten journey, lies not around the cross but through it, a promise that come what may in a world where may always comes, not even death can separate us from a God who loves us so much that he gave up his power to become one of us, to live and die just like us, a God who has walked many miles in our shoes and will keep walking and walking and walking… walking with us all, till every last one of us has found our way home.

…a strange deliverance to be sure, but one I can’t help but believe is actually true.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2 p 32, Elizabeth L. Hinson-Hasty

[2] ibid, p 34-36.

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/02/07/not-everyone-is-laughing-at-this-prius-super-bowl-commercial/

[4] NT Wright The Cross And the Caricatures http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk//news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?view=printer&

[5] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/why-leaders-are-pain#.VrpBqruMb0t.facebook

[6] Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4 year C, p 106, Timothy Hessel-Robinson.