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Moving Target


OT: Genesis 32:24-29

NT: Luke 21:13-19

This morning's scripture readings present us with two scenarios which at first seem to be utterly alien. One seems to depict the Patriarch Jacob having a wrestling match with God, or at least with some god. The other is a forecast of an apocalypse, telling us what attitude to take during the Great Tribulation before the Second Advent of Christ. When I read texts like this, my reaction is altogether different from when I chance to open the Bible to the Sermon on the Mount or to the Epistle of James. Both groups of texts challenge the reader, but in very different ways. How is one to meet their respective challenges?

It may be that James or the Sermon on the Mount affront me, but the affront is to my conscience. I secretly feel that these writers are right in their moral prescriptions and that I am wrong in my moral behaviors. I have no choice but to take them seriously unless I have so dulled the voice of conscience that I no longer hear their prophetic words.

But this business about wrestling with demigods who must be away ere the sun rises? Enduring the depredations of the Antichrist? Here the affront is to my very sense of reality. Biblical texts like these do not immediately communicate to the modern reader.

And here let me go back to my sermon of two weeks ago, the one about cognitive legalism. Suppose one were to read these passages, the ones about wrestling with God, about the Great Tribulation, and one were to feel summoned to believe them despite their quaint unbelievability? There you are, a subject of the Queen of Hearts who commands you to believe six impossible things before breakfast. And if you can manage to mutilate your common sense for long enough to do it, you can then boast of your expertise in believing the implausible and gloat over us poor unbelievers who cannot. Something's wrong there.

So what are we to do with passages like these? This takes me back to last week's sermon. You do with these passages what Bultmann said to do with them. You ask what understanding of human existence is implied in them. And then you ask whether that understanding challenges your attitudes about life the way the Sermon on the Mount does. And in this case, I find that it does indeed. Let me tell you what I see in these passages, Luke first.

I want to focus on Luke 21:19: "By your endurance you will gain your souls." In the context I suppose this means that you will save your skin if you hang on long enough. If you give in, if you knuckle under, if you finally give in and renounce your faith in the time of religious persecution, God will show no more mercy, and you will be damned. I guess that's the point. But that to me is no more relevant morally than the movie The Omen. I see something else in the passage. Suppose we translate the Greek word psyche as "self" rather than "life" or "soul." All are good translation options, after all. Can it be that the passage implies something about personal growth through adversity? Could the point be that you will not finally become your real self unless you are willing to endure some unpleasant things?

What unpleasant things? Anything will qualify as long as it is something that is likely to spell change for you. Ask yourself which phrase feels more natural to you. Do you find yourself thinking that current developments promise change or threaten change? What is implied in your attitude toward change?

If you perceive change as a promise, chances are that you see in it a prospect for growth. Perhaps you are dissatisfied with the self you currently are and you look forward to being, becoming a better self. Think about that for a moment. Suppose you could be rid of a certain problem, a particular idiosyncrasy that troubles you or your loved ones. Imagine what you would be like, what your life would be like without that crippling thing. That annoying thing. That besetting sin, whatever. I don't know what conditioned you to have it, but it may be that the next hand of cards dealt you by circumstances will not include that one. After the next shake-up of things, you may be different. You will finally learn that lesson that could never sink in before.

It may be suffering that will cause this change, that will wipe the lens clean, that will untie the repeating neurotic loop. It may be someone else's suffering that will shadow forth your own future. Like Scrooge you may be moved to say, at long last, "I see: that unfortunate man's fate might be my own."          

But if change seems like a threat to you, I wonder if it is because you think you will not survive the changes with the self you have been so far intact. You fear that you will have to bid your present self adieu if you move on into the future. If you open your sails up to the future. That is the only way to stop fighting change and instead let change propel you into the future.

Luke has another similar saying back in chapter 17, which, as it happens, is another end-of-the-world scenario. This one warns: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it" (17:33). Does this one contradict the one we are considering in 21:33? One says to act in such a way as to gain your life, while the other warns you not to try it. But then it says the only way to preserve it in the long run is to be willing to sacrifice it in the short run. The point, then, is really the same after all. But the saying in chapter 17 provides an important key to understanding the one in chapter 21.

What is it you are afraid of losing if you are afraid of change? It is a self, but it is not your real self. It is not a lasting self, because you will lose it precisely by trying to hold on to it. It is like yesterday's newspaper. If you want to be well-informed, you have to toss yesterday's paper aside when today comes with a fresh edition. Maybe you preferred yesterday's news. But it is not news any more when yesterday is past! Pretending it is still yesterday isn't going to do you any good!

The only way to keep your self, to gain your emerging self, is to let the process of change do its work! You must simply trust that the new self that emerges will be the real one! And it will be replaced in due time by a realer, a more true you still!

This is simply what it means to trust God for the future isn't it? What else does it mean? Does it mean to believe the arbitrary assertion that God will make only pleasant things happen to you? Believe that for a while, and you will come to a bitter disillusionment. Or maybe you won't, and that will be even worse.

It is possible to be "in denial" about your faith in God. Your childish belief in God has become outmoded. The facts have shattered it. It is time to see what remains unshaken among the wreckage. But some people will not.

Let me take an extreme example. Many Pentecostal believers start with the bold belief that God not only can but most certainly will heal them of their diseases. They pray for it or go to a meeting and ask a healer to pray for it. Nothing happens. What are they to conclude? They are told that either their faith was not strong enough or that they were in fact healed but Satan is counterfeiting the symptoms. By faith they are to wish them away and not take any faithless old medicine in the meantime.

It happens that some beliefs, no matter how cherished, like a loved one, dies. And just as you may repress your grief, you may go into denial at the death of a loved one, so may you go into denial about an outgrown belief. You may hang onto biblical literalism long after you should have graduated to something else. If you do, you are retarding your own religious growth. You are fearing to face the new, more mature self that is waiting to be formed in you.

Whatever can be threatened, whatever can be shaken, whatever you fear cannot stand, is destined to crash. Do not go down with the ship. Let that which is destined to become the past slip away. Believe that the real you is that which beckons from the future. If it is a sadder you, it will be a wiser one. And dawn will follow the darkness sooner or later. Rebirth can never come without death. Remember the central myth of our tradition: the resurrection. It says that triumph, realization of one's true destiny, cannot come without the shattering impact of change. 

Luke says it well: Was it not written that the Christ should suffer and only then enter into his glory? The same is true of you.                            

Tillich said that it is not really a question of whether someone believes in God. That is putting the matter all wrong. Everyone has a god, an ultimate concern. The real question is whether what you are living for is adequate to nourish and sustain you. Can it provide for you the courage to be?

In the same way, believing in God, it seems to me, finally boils down to whether you trust the future to bring to your true selfhood. Will you trust the future?

Will you trust God, will you trust the future to issue in the true image of this, our congregation? If you fear that the church you have cherished is over, you are holding on to a past self that is slipping through your fingers faster the more tightly you clutch it. Let it go, and welcome the new church that is coming.

It is hard not to see that our church has turned a corner. Something new will begin. That is clear. But let it be equally clear to you that you too, you as an individual, will be born again from the womb of the future. There may be birth pangs, but let it happen. Let it come. Welcome yourself. Your future self knocks even now upon the door do not turn it away, thinking there is no room left. Unless you open the door, the room you are in will soon be empty.




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