1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 4:1-12;
Gen. 2-3; Rom. 5:12-19
THE MYSTERY OF HISTORY (1)
We began praying in our Prayer of the Day today that God would guide us so that we may follow Jesus and “walk through the wilderness of this world.” Then we sang in our Lenten verse, “Keep in mind that Jesus Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead.” Sometimes, when we are walking through the wilderness of this world, it is difficult to be patient. It is difficult to keep in mind that Christ has died and risen for us. In a very real way, this lenten journey, on which we’re embarking this week, is a test of patience. Can we make it through the wilderness and keep our faith? We want to celebrate Easter right now.
The readings for today bring together so much that is central to our faith: the story of the fall into sin from Genesis; and then St. Paul’s version of it that became so influential in giving us the notion of “original sin.” And, finally, the story of Jesus’ temptation. There are many ways to interpret these crucial matters of sin and temptation. But this morning I’d like to reflect on them in light of our struggle for patience, that a supreme temptation we constantly face is that of losing our patience, falling into the sin of impatience.
When your children are young, and you decide to build them a playhouse, or some such thing, part of the deal, of course, is that your child help you. That’s what it’s all about, really. In love, you want to spend the time together. And so you drive more nails than necessary, because you don’t drive any nails except for the ones she hands you. Or you have him go get the tape measure. If she takes a popsicle break, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. It’s a very inefficient way to build a playhouse. You could have built the playhouse in a fraction of the time had you not been building it under those circumstances.
It seems to me that that’s how God is. When Jesus speaks of God as his Father, it seems to me he’s speaking of something like that. That is to say, that God is trying to bring something out of Creation, and he wants to do it in concert with us. God doesn’t want to do it by himself. He wants to do it with us. And God knows that that’s a terribly inefficient way to do it, given the fact that we take popsicle breaks and all kinds of other breaks, all the time. It will take a lot longer. As a matter of fact, it will take all of time, because the task is not to build a playhouse. But the task is to transform the violence of the Big Bang into the all-encompassing and all-embracing love of God. And it will take a long time, precisely because it will happen in part because of our participation and our contribution. So God has a tremendous patience, to try to do something in this way. We have time, we have history, we have the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. It doesn’t happen in an instant.
The problem is that we humans become impatient with the process ourselves. We would like to have it done right now, on our terms. We lose faith. Patience, it seems to me, is the supreme Christian virtue. It’s almost a synonym for faith. And we lose patience. We decide to grasp at what God is giving us as a gift, but giving it to us as a gift in time, over history, in a long process, in a constant giving and receiving. We are tempted to grasp after it.
The Fall is basically our impatience with God’s gift. Adam and Eve grasp at the gift that God is giving them gradually. They want God-likeness right now. They don’t want to receive it over time. They don’t want to grow in faith and love. They want to know what God knows and to take charge. They want it right now, and so they grasp at it. That’s the story in Genesis 3.
Now, the most famous analysis of the Fall is Paul’s analysis in the fifth chapter of Romans, and specifically verse twelve, which began our second reading today: “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” There’s an ambiguity in the Greek wording that our English translation removes. In our reading of it, the last phrase says that death comes to us because we have sinned. But the original Greek could be read in the exact opposite way: “because of death all have sinned.” Instead of sin causing death, death caused sin. As a matter of fact, this is precisely how the Eastern Church has tended to read this passage.
So what would this mean? Because of death, all have sinned. Well, it has enormous implications for what we are thinking about this morning. It has a lot to do with this impatience, because death makes impatience logically coherent. In other words, if there is only death, then our impatience and our determination to have it now — and to have as much of it as we can before death takes it all away from us — makes that attitude of impatience as logically and morally coherent as it’s possible for it to be. In other words, death as our ultimate horizon plays right into the devil’s hand. The devil is the one who trying to get us to abandon the patience of God and the patience of our Christian faith in favor of a grasping at something, to try to have it right now.
There’s a title to a country music song which is as superficial as anything I’ve ever heard in my life. But Emerson said that ‘something foolishly spoken can be wisely heard.’ The title of this song is “The Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Do you see what I’m trying to say? Knowing that there’s a deadline, that time is running out, is what makes us lose our God-centeredness, our grounding, our faith, our patience. It’s the source of ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you shall die.’
Christians literally have all the time in the world. In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have the promise that death is not our ultimate horizon; life is. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pour ourselves out to the very last drop. But it means that God is patient, and that we are patient, and that the Holy Spirit is bringing about the transformation of the world gradually, and that we needn’t panic, nor seize upon an immediate manifestation of that.
It seems to me that we have an aspect of this same situation in the Gospel story. Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness. These are not petty temptations — not just temptations to power or appetite, etc. These are Messianic temptations. Jesus is being offered the opportunity, as the devil presents it, to bring about the full and final triumph of God’s love and God’s life right now, by doing something so dazzling that nobody could miss it. And therefore the recognition of Christ as Christ would happen instantly. In each case, Jesus rejects these temptations. He accepts God’s plan as a gradual one that needs time and history. Jesus accepts God’s timing.
I heard on the radio a couple weeks ago an interview with these two black women who died within a couple years of each other, the last one just a few weeks ago at the age of 107. Their father was a slave. This was an old interview. And they asked these women, ‘You’ve seen a lot of terrible things in your life. Do you have any observations?’ [Answer:] ‘Well, I don’t hold anything against the Creator, you know. Sometimes I find his plan is inscrutable, but if it please him I’ll make do.’ That’s faith. That’s patience. And that’s what Jesus says in the wilderness to the devil, who says, ‘Look, we could be on CNN by tonight.’ And Jesus says, ‘No, that’s not the way it’s going to happen.’
The same issue comes up at the end the end of the first century when Christians are running out of patience. They had had a very profound experience: that the Cross and Resurrection had changed everything, and they were waiting for the second shoe to drop. They looked at the world, and it didn’t look like it was changing all that much outside of their own community. And they knew it had changed everything. They’d had that experience. They knew it by faith, and it was solid knowledge. They were right. But they expected that it was going to happen now. When is the second shoe going to drop? The apostolic generation was dying, so apocalyptic expectations sprouted up: ‘It’s going to happen tomorrow.’
It’s interesting that when impatient people think about God, the God on whom they are tired of waiting turns out to be a God who’s about to lose his patience. In psychology that’s called projection, taking the experience you are having and projecting it onto others, thinking that they are having the same experience, even if that’s the furthest thing from the truth. When we are impatient, we have this habit of projecting it onto God, too. We begin to think: ‘God’s running out of patient, and before long, the day after tomorrow, he’s going to come down and straighten out the situation once and for all, right now!’ In other words, we’re missing the mystery of history — and the gradual way in which love has to work, because love is always a voluntary thing. It cannot happen because of fireworks. It can only happen because the heart is open. It’s a gradual process. It takes all of time. It’s a slow thing. So we run out of patience, and we begin to see God as a God who’s running out of patience.
In short, our impatience pushes us into the age-old sin of idolatry. Instead of the God of patient, forgiving love we meet in Jesus Christ, we project a false God who is running out of patience like us and so will shortly force things to happen. We lose sight of the horizon of life in Jesus Christ, falling into the impatience pushed upon us by the horizon of death. And so we experience a false god projected out of our impatience who will begin real soon to force things.
St. Matthew wrote to such folks at the end of the first century — even more so now to us, two thousand years later. We are even more impatient, and we are tempted to see God as the impatient one. And so as we begin our Lenten journey to Good Friday and Easter, the message is, ‘Be patient. The victory has already been accomplished at the Cross. Be patient. Christ is the Lord of History. The Cross is the turning point in history. The full presence of Christ in history is simply a matter of time. Give it time. Take your part in it. Don’t be impatient. Don’t be anxious. God is with us, Immanuel.’ Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, February 17, 2002
1. Based on a sermon given by Gil Bailie at a Catholic parish in California, February 1999. It is on a tape entitled “The Mystery of History,” distributed through the Cornerstone Forum.