Monday, February 25, 2008

Trying to Get to 20/20

(A sermon for the third Sunday in Lent based on Exodus 17:1-7 & Romans 5:1-11)

[The image is Moses Striking Water from the Rock by Jacob Jordaens]

Sometimes we get in the habit of seeing things the wrong way. Sometimes we see things in a false way for so long that we become unable to see things in a true way. And, sometimes we talk so much about our skewed way of experiencing and seeing life that when we do gain some clarity neither we nor anyone listening to us quite believe it.

Two movies I watched in recent days illustrate what I mean.

One is The Hoax (2006) which is a fictionalized account of the true story of the attempt by author Clifford Irving in 1971 to publish a fake autobiography of the very wealthy, very powerful, and very reclusive Howard Hughes. Irving spent months living a lie—actually, he was living several lies at once. As he produced the fake autobiography, he spent so much time imagining that he was inside Howard Hughes’ head that he began to think that there was some real connection between them. As he was being unfaithful to his wife, he was able to tell her that it wasn’t true and even to believe himself that it wasn’t. He began to see things in such an untrue way that the untruth became reality for him.

The other movie is The Window (1949) which is a retelling of the story of the boy who cried wolf. Nine-year-old Tommy has a penchant for telling tall tales. It’s a way of life for him. His family is going to move from their New York City apartment to his father’s ranch as soon as they can kill all the Indians. He saw a truck strike and kill a large group of people. But such things are going on only in his head. His tall tales are quite tall. One night, though, he sees a neighbor couple kill a man. He really does see it. But, because of all the tales he has previously told, no one will believe him. Tommy has lived in lies for so long that no one will believe him when he tells the truth.

The first film teaches us that if we persist in living a lie we will come to believe the lie. The second film teaches us that if we persist in telling lies no one will believe us when we try to tell the truth.

It is a sad and unfortunate truth that all too often the people of God live a lie that keeps us from being who we are supposed to be and that keeps us from bearing witness to what we are supposed to bear witness to. We choose to see life with flawed vision with the result that we don’t grow in our faith and in our witness.

Consider the lie that the Hebrews insisted on living. God brought them out of Egypt. When they found themselves trapped between the sea and the armies of Egypt, they cried out in panic to Moses, saying that it would have been better had they stayed in bondage in Egypt. What did God do? He parted the sea so they could cross. Then they found themselves in need of food. They complained again, saying that they would have been better off back in Egypt. What did God do? He sent them bread from heaven. Then, as our text tells us, they found themselves in need of water. They complained yet again, saying that they would have been better off back in Egypt. What did God do? He gave them water from a rock.

Now, let’s be fair. It’s perfectly understandable that anyone, including God’s people, would express concern when trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, when hungry with no source of food, and when thirsty with no supply of water. Let’s not pretend that any of us would not express some concern in those situations, too. You would think, though, that by the time the water crisis arose the Hebrews would have begun to understand the way things work when God is in your midst. Of course, you would also think that by the time your latest crisis or my latest crisis arose we would have also learned a lot about the way things work when God is with us.

The real problem with the Hebrews’ attitude is revealed in this question that they posed: “Is the LORD among us or not?” The Lord had already shown them many times that he was in fact among them. The Lord has already shown us many times that he is in fact among us. The truth is that he was and is. The Hebrews needed to rehearse, practice, believe, and live that truth. We need to rehearse, practice, believe, and live that truth, too. To do otherwise is to believe and live the lie that God is not with us.

They needed and we need to learn the truth that the times of testing and trial that come to us are opportunities for us to grow toward our ultimate salvation in Christ. That is the truth in which we need to live.

It seems like I’ve been getting my vision checked and adjusted for all my life. Given that I got my first pair of glasses when I was seven years old, that’s not far from the truth. Most of you know how the process works. You sit in that chair and put your chin in that little depression. The doctor swings that great big contraption in front of your face and clicks a lens down in front of each eye and asks you to read what always look to me like ridiculously small letters. Then the doctor starts clicking lenses of differing strengths down before you eyes. “Which one is clearer?” he asks. “Is it this one? Or this one? Is it A? Or is it B?” The doctor is trying to get your vision as close to 20/20 as possible. Finally, satisfied that it is as clear as it is going to get, he leans back and says, “There, read it now.” And he will write your new prescription based on that information.

But what if you lie about what you see? What if, although you can see clearly through those final lenses that the sixth line from the top says “A Z 3 P S” you choose to say that it says “4 X 8 R B”? You will have chosen to claim that what you see is not what you see. And the doctor will end up writing you a prescription that will cause you to see your daily world in a warped way.

We all have trials and tribulations. We all have problems and struggles. We all have pain and suffering. Some of us have very severe situations with which we deal and I would not for anything minimize that. I will not say something trite like “You just need to have faith and it’ll be all right.” The fact is that some of us have struggles that are ongoing and that may well endure until the day we die.

What I am saying, though, is that all the experiences of our lives work like the lenses on the doohickey in the eye doctor’s office. They can bring the truth into greater and greater clarity. Here is a test—God sees us through. Here is a death—God sees us through. Here is a rebellious teenager—God sees us through. Here is a serious illness—God sees us through. Here is a marital crisis—God sees us through. Here is a vocational struggle—God sees us through. And each crisis can and should cause us to be more and more aware and more and more convinced of the truth that God is indeed among us and that God is indeed with us. We live that truth, we practice that truth, we believe that truth, and we tell that truth.

How different the Hebrews’ experience would have been had they said, when trapped at the sea, “Well, this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and he will get us through this.” How different their lives would have been had they said, when in need of food, “Well this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and across the sea and he will get us through this.” How different their lives would have been had they said, when in need of water, “Well this is bad. But God got us out of Egypt and across the sea and he gave us food and he will get us through this.”

I’m not saying that they should have looked at their world through rose-colored glasses. But they surely should not have looked at it through the blinders of fear and disbelief and mistrust. They should have let their progressive experiences with God as he brought them through trial after trial lead them closer and closer to 20/20 vision, to a way of looking at the world in the way that God intended.

That’s what needs to be happening in our lives. When that is happening, we can say with Paul,

We…boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

In other words, our sufferings and trials move us closer and closer to God’s 20/20 vision, because our experience with them moves us closer and closer to living in hope.

Notice, though, that this perspective on our sufferings is based in a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul began this section of Romans by saying, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (vv. 1-2a). And Paul also said that we can live this way in our sufferings “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It is because we are in Christ, in other words, that we can grow in seeing life in the true way and we can bear witness in life in the true way.

So Martin Luther, commenting on Paul’s words, said,

Whatever (virtues) tribulation finds in us, it develops more fully. If anyone is carnal, weak, blind, wicked, irascible, haughty, and so forth, tribulation will make him more carnal, weak, blind, wicked and irritable. On the other hand, if one is spiritual, strong, wise, pious, gentle and humble, he will become more spiritual, powerful, wise, pious, gentle and humble…. [Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), pp. 74-75]

We can only possess those characteristics if we are in Christ.

Being in Christ, then, we grow in seeing and experiencing life, and especially the struggles of life, in the right way. Being in Christ, we grow in telling ourselves the truth about what is happening in our lives and especially about the fact that God is with us to deliver us. And as we grow in seeing the truth and in telling ourselves the truth we grow in our ability to bear witness to others about the truth.

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