We pray that we may Guard the treasure of faith entrusted to us, relying on the Holy Spirit in all things!
This is life (challenges and tragedy): I’d like to tell you it’ll be ok, I cannot honestly do that: 100% death rate
You probably have heard it said, “Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.”
I’d like to tell you that the death rate for humans is less than 100%, but that’d be dishonest. It is the pain of death that rips our hearts and dreams right out of us. It is the basic, most profound fear of each human. It drives us to succeed, even by evil scheming, which leads to eternal failure.
The OT commonly claims that God blesses the faithful with material successes. There is no end of advice on how to be successful.
One of my favourites is “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Charles R. Swindoll
Reba McEntire gives us: “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.”
Pele, the soccer star, offered all together: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing….”
Winston Churchill pointed out that it’s always a process:“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
John Barrow said, “Music is 10% exhilaration and 90% utter disappointment.” Many great musicians will confirm this, and it seems success is like that as well: Despite all our efforts to succeed most of our efforts end in utter disappointment and only the cream of the crop rise to the top. Or as the lessons for today tell us, those who pursue evil schemes seem to succeed in life’s pursuits, and God does not bless the faithful with success.
Life’s challenges, tragedies, defeats – We’d like to say that they are not what they are, but they are what they are.
With the looming end of life at our own deaths, and the slim chance of success, even when we follow the best advice, it would be great if the church offered some kind of helpful advice to succeed in the face of life’s tragedies, challenges and defeats. Too often it does, and most often it is a false teacher who provides something other than the sound teaching of the Gospel.
Spouse develops dementia
When a spouse develops dementia, and lives on but does not even know their loved ones, we’d like to say that it will be OK, but it is not OK. It’s a loss for which hardly anything can prepare us.
When a family member or friend becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, we’d like to tell you that they need to go to AA or NA and you to Al-anon and everything will be OK. It is so important to go to AA, NA or Al-anon, but that’s only a small step. For the addict the rest of life is one drink or fix away from the same devastating decline towards death. Those close to the addict are invisibly drawn down the same road as they fight to make the world right again. But attempting that impossible task robs us of all the goodness of life. Al-anon only helps us see the invisible road to disaster, even as we remain one misstep from jumping or rolling right down that path again.
When perhaps the worst tragedy hits and a child dies: We cannot tell you that it was God’s will, and that everything will be OK. We can tell you that most people agree that parents are not supposed to have to bury their children. It’s a loss and tragedy that is beyond comparison.
Habakkuk pending defeat to Babylon
There is much more to say in the face of every challenge or tragedy, so do not despair.
Yet this is what especially the OT lesson for today tells us. There will be destruction, violence, strife, contention and justice that is perverted, and it will seem as if God has deserted us. Besides the breakdown of their nation’s integrity, the prophet’s people faced inevitable defeat by their powerful neighbours, Babylon and Egypt. The Promised Land will be lost. They will go into exile as slaves. Worst of all, their identity as God’s people in the Promised Land will disappear, if it has not already.
The Prophet’s Complaint and Plea, Posture (Standing, Waiting)
So the prophet cries and pleads with God, how long must they wait for God to save them from themselves and their neighbours?! The prophet does not lie down in resignation. Instead the prophet stands in wait for God’s answer.
God’s Answer: a Vision, a Promise
And God answers with a vision in which all is put right. It may seem to take too long, but in God’s time all will be done right!
That’s quite the promise. That promise is repeated in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where it was instrumental in Martin Luther’s break through to understand that we are saved by Grace alone! Can we live abundantly in that promise, when we face challenges, losses and unimaginable tragedies, when we see creation rebelling against our abuses and we know success is rare and death is sure?
That’s much harder than following all that advice on how to be successful. We might well cry to God, “Help! Give us faith!”
Gospel prelude to today’s lesson: Forgive
In the verses leading up to today’s Gospel Jesus has told the disciples that they must forgive, and forgive and forgive without end. The disciples see that as too hard. They do not know how to succeed at this. So the disciples’ plead with Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
In answer Jesus tells them the smallest amount of faith is more than sufficient. We know from Paul’s letters, especially Galatians, reflecting Habakkuk’s words, that faith is not up to us. It is a free gift that God gives to us undeserving sinners. That faith given to us by Grace transforms everything in our lives. We become God’s children who act out that same Grace for everyone around us.
Turning Point: Christ abolishes death!
We read in the Letter to Timothy how profound this transformation is: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus…, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
This is the power of God! In Christ Jesus death is abolished. Our core identity becomes not how we live, not what we do, not who we live with, nor even for whom we live out our lives. Our core identity is established again as it was at creation: we are God’s people by Grace alone. It is what God does to us, not what we do, that gives us our identity.
We can trust the promise that, even though we be overrun by a foreign power, the Promised Land be taken from us, and we are scattered across the face of the earth, we remain God’s people.
Terry Waite, as an envoy for the Church of England, negotiated the release of a number of hostages in the Middle East. Then during one negotiation, he was kidnapped and held from 1987 to 1991. For most of those five years he was isolated and blindfolded. It would have been so easy to lose himself, his identity, his sanity. A key component to his survival was daily Holy Communion. By himself, by memory, he went through the service using the old words from the English Book of Common prayer, even when he had no bread or water for the elements. This Word of God reminded Terry who he was and it reminded Terry who God was. It pulled him into communion with the faithful of every time and place – day … by day … by day: he was the one for whom Christ died, so that he might be forgiven and live abundantly, even in captivity.
Even a tiny bit of the faith, that Grace alone saves us, is enough for us to extend that same forgiveness to everyone around us.
Facing Real Life, even Defeat, as God’s Children
With even the smallest spark of that faith in us, death does not have the final say in our lives. The treasure of this grace-given-faith through the generations overcomes every challenge, tragedy and defeat. When a spouse develops dementia, when a loved one becomes an addict, even when a child dies, then we can trust that God carries us onward in the world God made and said “It is Good!”
Everything taken: we remain God’s Children
Everything can be taken from us. Like Paul, we can be imprisoned and even worse: our reputations can be ruined, our church can be taken from us, our livelihoods and ability to work can be taken from us, our freedom can be taken from us. Still we will remain God’s children, for God alone has made us God’s children. Nothing can take that from us.
Billboard of faith
Like a billboard the Holy Spirit has engraved the Gospel of Jesus on our foreheads with a cross, poured it into our hearts as love, and kneaded it like leaven into our minds and actions, so that a runner, or a fellow disciple in deep grief or having forgotten Grace-given-Faith, will easily be able to see the treasure of Christ’s Grace in our lives.
Knowing that Christ has defeated death and is raising us to new life, at the end of each day, whether it was challenging or not, we will not have chased after trite nor revered successes.
The Habit of Costly Faith Courageously Shared
Instead, having treasured Grace and forgiveness as a habit so that it comes easily to us, we will say: “We, faithful servants of Christ, have done only what we ought to have done! Though it cost us, like William Tyndale who was martyred in 1536 for translating the Bible into English, with the courage of the Holy Spirit we share with others the Grace that saves us.” …. [breathe!]
10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react …
Yet it is 100% what God does for us that counts!