Monday, March 9, 2015

We Are Helpless


March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon is available here.

Today we proclaim one of the most difficult to grasp truths of the Christian faith. And, at the same time, we also proclaim one of its most liberating aspects. This doctrine is not only difficult to grasp; it’s actually impossible. Yet all our hope depends upon our ability to accept it. It is a belief that runs contrary to every instinct in our being, but, if we want to be the people God created us to be, we must embrace it. And it is simply this: we are helpless.

I don’t know how carefully you listen to the Collect of the Day, but it is written to collect and focus all of our prayers for the day into one clear expression. It reflects where we are in the seasons of the church year, and it often articulates a thread that holds all of the readings together. Our hymns are chosen to tie in with the scripture lessons, so the words of the collect are often echoed in the words we sing. The Collect of the Day is a brief moment in our service, and it’s over before you know it, but, if you let that prayer sink into your heart each week, I believe that you will be drawn deeper into our worship. And, this week, our collect says a most amazing thing: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

We are helpless. We are powerless. We are impotent. We are beyond weak. We are utterly unable by ourselves to do anything that would benefit us. We are drowning in a sea of our own trouble and unable to save ourselves from sinking. What wonderful news! But it sounds terrible, doesn’t it? No one likes hearing that he is helpless. No one wants to be told that she is powerless. We live in a world where anything is possible—where, with enough hard work and determination, you can do anything, become anything, accomplish anything. We don’t tell our children that they can’t. We pump them up with entitled potential and tell them that they can be anything they want to be. It’s easier to let them figure out for themselves (and sometimes with the help of a therapist) that they won’t become a professional athlete, that they can’t choose to be a Wall Street genius, that they can’t make themselves happy.

I’m not saying that hard work and determination don’t pay off. There are plenty of stories of little kids who worked harder than anyone else and made it to the NFL, and ESPN knows that we’ll sit down and watch those stories. Human beings have remarkable abilities, and exceptional human beings can do the kinds of things that fill the rest of us with awe. But then what? How far will that get you? How many former athletes are now bankrupt? How many billionaires are still searching for happiness? How many couples with perfect jobs and perfect houses and perfect children are hiding their discontent? Sooner or later—whether it’s in this life or standing in front of our maker—we will encounter our own limitations. We will confront the fact that we cannot give ourselves true joy. We will take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that, in the truest sense of the word, we are powerless. And I believe that the sooner we do the sooner we discover true peace.

Jesus revealed that truth in dramatic fashion when he charged into the temple and chased out those who were selling animals or changing money and overturned their tables. In that prophetic act, Jesus confronted the religion of his day, declaring that this temple commerce had made his Father’s house a marketplace. Some commentators and preachers like to explain this disruptive display as an attack on those who would charge exorbitant prices and exchange rates to those who had come to the temple for worship. Indeed, these animals were necessary for those who had come to offer a sacrifice, and it was more than inconvenient to bring a sheep or a goat or a pigeon on a journey that could last for days. Plus, in the temple, monetary offerings could only be made in the Jewish or Tyrian currency. Greek or Roman coins, which were used everywhere else, were not acceptable, but who carried around shekels? These merchants and money changers were essential. And, in all of the historical accounts of what went on at the temple, there is no record of exorbitant prices or exchange rates being charged. By all accounts, they were a much-needed, much-respected part of worship in Jerusalem. Like it or not, therefore, it seems that Jesus’ ire was not directed at an abusive system that preyed on the poor. Jesus was criticizing the system as a whole.

An act like that—a defiant stand that challenged the very nature of religion in that day—required proof. The temple authorities went to Jesus and said, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” And Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, they thought he was talking about the structure which had taken forty-six years to build, but Jesus’ challenge wasn’t levied against the stones and mortar of Judaism. He was criticizing the assumptions that had grown to accompany the religious practice of the day. He wanted them to see that the relationship between God and humanity had never depended upon a transaction between us and God but that it had always been built purely upon God’s gift of grace. In order to make that truth resonate in the hearts and minds of God’s people, God had shifted the temple where he meets humanity away from a place where people instinctively brought their best to God and relocated it onto the person of Jesus Christ. And that had changed everything. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus made it clear that we have nothing to offer in exchange for salvation.

It is hard to believe that we are helpless. It is hard to accept that we are powerless. It is impossible, even, to understand that God sees that we have absolutely nothing to offer him yet gives us salvation anyway. And that is truly good news. God isn’t asking for anything in exchange for his love because he knows that we have nothing to offer him. We are faithless. We are selfish. We are sinful. And God declares that he loves us anyway. That is what Jesus is all about. One cannot stand in the shadow of the cross and think that one has anything to give in exchange for God’s love. How could you pay for that? How could you earn that? How could you merit that?

But our world revolves around exchange. Transactions are as old as humanity itself. We are more comfortable with quid pro quo than no strings attached. When someone gives us a present, we like to have something that we can give them in return. We make sense of things by putting a price on them, including our relationship with God. It is human nature to think that God will bless us if we are good and curse us if we are not. And, even here and now, we invent ways to quantify the economy of salvation. We have simply replaced temple sacrifice with new forms of exchange. Ask yourself why you come to church, why you put money in the plate, and why you volunteer your time. Is it out of pure gratitude for all that God has given you, or are you still trying to give something back in exchange for God’s grace?

Is our faith built upon the principle that we have nothing to offer God, or are we still working as if God’s love depends upon what we bring him? If Jesus walked through that door, what tables would he overturn? What practices would he chase out of our church? How much of our religion is still modeled on exchange? In Christ, there is no back and forth. In grace, there is no transaction. If we believe that God loves us unconditionally, we must also believe that we can do nothing to receive that love. We must proclaim the good news that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We must rejoice in our helplessness because only then can God’s love free us from the crushing weight of unmet expectations.

Hear the good news that God expects nothing from you. Hear the good news that you have nothing to offer in exchange for God’s love. In Christ, we are set free from the belief that God’s love depends on us. Don’t return to the shackles of exchange. Accept that God’s love is a free gift and that you are helpless without it.

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