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Saturday, March 16, 2013

In Our Right Minds

In Our Right Minds
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
March 17, 2013
The Fifth Sunday of Lent

For five weeks we have endured the increasingly difficult and soul-challenging journey into the wilderness in preparation for Easter. We have, no doubt, failed in some way in our sacrifices, and we have undoubtedly learned something new about ourselves in these weeks of penance. Maybe we’ve learned something positive and encouraging about ourselves; perhaps we’ve learned to pray without ceasing during those moments of temptation or frustration. Maybe we’ve each learned something negative and shameful about our souls; perhaps we’ve seen just how depraved our cravings are and how sinfully dedicated we are to the satisfaction of our own bellies.
            Whatever we have learned or experienced these last five weeks, it is good for us to be reminded of just why we have journeyed so far into the wild. Here, five weeks into a six-week journey, we are closer to the end than the beginning. We have been at this so long we may well have forgotten what “drove” us into the wilderness in the first place.
            Remember, my friends, that this season has been an intentional sequestration from our usual habits and ways of life that we might prepare our souls and bodies for Holy Week, that central and crucial period in world history. Remember, too, that this is no hollow recreation of the drama of Easter so that we may demonstrate the cross or the empty tomb to the world as though the meaning of Easter could be demonstrated like a Christmas pageant. No, we should remember that the Lenten season is not one of mere recitation or re-enactment; this is a season when something happens to people. We are dragging our souls through the briar patch and into the desert to see what being followers of Christ is all about.
            In Lent we are confronted with the nature of discipleship. You all know that I’ve been living and breathing that word in recent months. The season of Lent, I believe, is one built for discipleship because it forces us to discover the true and essential meaning of that word. It is not the process of learning or even of understanding what Jesus said and taught. It is not the recitation of a Creed or Prayer. Lenten discipleship is the participation in the journey toward the Cross-it is the emulation of the life of Jesus. Yes, it includes the learning of the teachings of Jesus, but only insofar as those teachings inform the lives of those who would follow the Teacher. Yes, it includes the recitation of a creed or prayers, but only inasmuch as these are tools to bring concentration and motivation to the task or taking up the cross and following the Master. Gerald Hawthorne comments that, “the pattern of discipleship…is less a matter of belief than of practice, less a matter of orthodoxy than of orthopraxis, less a matter of what one thinks than how one lives. It is, in fact, imitating the model of life exemplified by Jesus himself – that is, cutting the cloth of one’s life according to the pattern for authentic living that has been given by Jesus Christ and so following his example with respect to one’s attitudes and actions.”[1]
            In short, we must remember that the journey of Lent is a blueprint of the discipleship life: taking us from what is lax and comfortable, leading us through the wilderness of doubt and struggle, and ending at the cross.

            There are times when I can’t even remember what started me into the wilderness. By now, the fifth week of the Lenten journey, I’ve become accustomed to my new diet, my new routine, and my new life. Memory is treacherous, you see. As individuals and as cultures we have a tendency to remember selectively, even going so far as to romanticize those things that have traumatized us. Even the short season of Lent is long enough for me to forget the hunger pangs I felt that first week. Even my short annual practice of Lent has seen enough years to foster a “ho-hum” attitude, as though this time or preparation was just another season in the cycle of the Church year.
            That’s how memory is tricky. We remember the way things have been done before and how we learned to adapt, how to muddle through, how to get over something. When the calendar rolls around to Lent we, like we did last year, eventually get over it.
            This season also has a tendency to exacerbate our anxieties and fears about following Jesus. In our moments of intentional prayer and fasting we are reminded of our need for God’s Spirit to prop us up each day. We are reminded of just how deep our need for God is and how pitiful our attempts at self-control and self-determination are.
            In the divinely directed exile that the people of Israel endured we can see glimmers of such despondency among God’s people. They had been taken into custody by a vastly superior civilization and were encouraged to integrate into that society as best they could, since they would be in captivity for an indeterminate time.[2] They have a cultural memory of the last captivity they endured, and of how God sent Moses and ten testifying plagues to secure their release.[3] This time, though, there is not going to be a Moses, nor will there be a series of catastrophes to convince the Babylonians to release the Jews. Isaiah points this out most specifically, saying, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
            Isaiah demands the people to do two contradictory things first, he asks them to remember that theirs is the God who makes even the mightiest armies bow down and surrender. Such language no doubt conjures the great destruction of the chariots that Pharaoh sent after Moses and the Hebrews. Certainly the language of making a path through the waters inspired hopes in the Exiles that God would miraculously provide a second exodus from their captivity in Babylon.
            But these ways of God’s deliverance are not what the people are to concentrate on. Rather, they are to remember that God is the deliverer, that God does, in fact, lead his people through the wilderness. The methods will be different, but the God will be the same. John Oswalt says it well in a sermon from 2004: “The Israelite tendency was like ours: they tended to forget what they should remember and remember what they should forget. What should they remember? What the past tells us about the character and nature of God. We should remember all the evidence of his power, his faithfulness, and his love that his actions in the past have demonstrated. We should forget how he has acted in the past and believe that his power, faithfulness, and love will be applied to new situations in new ways.”[4]
            Even if the wilderness journey looks familiar, we must not be so accustomed to this season that we neglect the new and transformative ways in which God can and will act in and through us. There may not be plagues and a parting of the seas; there may be instead a revelation of the Spirit of God in your heart that wells up to a newness of life not heretofore experienced.
            All of this is the essence of Christian discipleship. The nature of Isaiah’s call to forgetfulness and remembrance is exactly the nature of following Jesus. It is not the recitation of tried-and-true methods, prayers, and incantations that makes one a disciples of Jesus; rather, it is the painful, uncertain journey away from the expectations and securities of years gone by toward an even more painful and torturous cross in the name of Jesus Christ that makes us disciples. Something new is going to happen, something we cannot predict and therefore cannot control.

            This same trickiness of memory is exemplified in Paul’s brief autobiographical paragraph in Philippians 3. This wonderful passage is Paul’s way of saying that no matter the backgrounds of the people in Philippi, there is nothing they can claim that measures up to the new thing God has done in Christ Jesus. Paul’s rejection of his hereditary position in Judaism as well as his earned honors as a Pharisee and as one “righteous before the Law” are not devaluations of those things, as though he could go back and undo them. Rather, “Paul is first outlining the privileged status he enjoyed as a member of Israel, the people of God, and then showing that, because of Christ, this membership had to be regarded as something not to be taken advantage of. He did not give up his membership; he understood it in a new way, avoiding all possibility of taking advantage of it for self-aggrandizement…Belonging to God’s people did not, he new realized, mean a privileged status, outward symbols of superiority, an elevated moral stature in the world. It meant dying and rising with the Messiah.”[5]
            This new thing that God has done in Paul (as well as in the lives of his readers) is the new way of being the people of God. It is no longer the recitation of the old ways in which the same God worked out salvation – it is the expectation and the exciting, sacrificial journey of the new Way in Jesus. Yes, God has delivered through miracles of nature in the past; yes, God has sent rulers like Cyrus to release his captive people. Now, though, through Christ Jesus a new thing has come to pass. This new Christian discipleship is so new and so life changing that everything in Paul’s life has been cast aside in favor of the new life in Jesus.
            David de Silva help us with clarity here, saying, “"The things behind" are not the claims of Jewish privilege, which Paul had come to consider a debit, but accomplishments in the service of Christ, or achievements as a Christian. These, too, are "forgotten" or "left behind," a necessary requirement for making progress in the race. All Paul's energy is focused in the forward direction. There is no place in a race for stopping to take pride in achievements or privileges, and slowing down out of self-assuredness (or "confidence in the flesh") means losing the race.[6]
            That race, that journey, is the way of Christian discipleship. It means forgetting the things that have come before, whether they were profound or even miraculous. It is the putting away of degrees, baptismal counts, church plants, and temptations overcome as ends in themselves in favor of the one true goal, our increasing emulation of Jesus Christ. It is not that we can go back and undo the things we’ve accomplished any more than we can undo our sins. We are called instead to put these things aside and press onward through this wilderness or trial toward the surpassing glory of Jesus.
            We do not give up on our work or on our ministry; rather we pray for the strength to remain faithful. We do not measure our Christian success in numbers baptized or in consecutive days without a cigarette. We measure one footfall after another on the way to the giving over of ourselves to the nature of Jesus Christ. Ellen Babinksy comments, “It is not that we are to be inactive and unengaged; this is no passive way of living that is unconnected to the necessary tasks of the day. It is rather that we place all our valuing in our true treasure, Christ alone. What we do does not make us holy, but whose we are. We do not do holy things but, instead, dedicate heart, mind, soul, and strength to the One who has made us his own. We do not do holy things but make holy what we do. Not only the stripping away, but also the "becoming like him" are indicators of the strain of the enterprise. This knowing and becoming is the goal, which Paul, by personal example, urges upon us, for which we are to forget about everything that lies behind and give ourselves to the prize toward which we are to strain with every ounce of our being. The prize is Christ himself, that reality by which we are able to undertake the enterprise at all.”[7]
            This “holy forgetfulness” is essential to our discipleship task. It is the motivation to move forward into Christ-likeness that will bring us out of the wilderness. Paul himself has not arrived, and we certainly have not. Because Paul had not been resurrected or perfected, he continued to pursue Christ, even as he had previously persecuted Christians. The apostle longed and yearned to take hold of God’s future in Christ in the present even as Christ had taken hold of him in the past. Paul determined to forget the things behind him – be they good, bad, or indifferent – and to stretch toward the things in front of him, like a runner striving for the finish line.[8]
            In our self-imposed exile we must prayerfully seek out the new way in which God is calling us as believers and as a church to become more like him by following Jesus. I’ve mentioned before that if we dare to walk behind Jesus through this wilderness, we must keep in mind that Jesus is walking toward the cross toward a resurrection.
            It is this resurrection that we look toward. It is the “hope of salvation” that kept the Exiles from losing their identity in Babylon; it is the hope of salvation that drove Paul to race with all his might toward Christlikeness. So it is left to us, hoping in the salvation offered to us by God that though we give up everything, even those sweet memories of our successes, we would find new life.
            “Therefore, we are not to be surprised if living as Christians brings us to the place where we find we are at the end of our own resources, and that we are called to rely on the God who raises the dead. Living by faith rather than by fear is so odd for us, so scary for us, that it takes a lot of learning. Bit by bit we must open ourselves to the power of this resurrection God; and sometimes this will only happen when we find ourselves in the sudden crisis when there is nothing else we can do. Don’t be surprised if this happens, not least when you face an uncertain future. Use such an opportunity as the moment when your belief in the resurrection of Jesus, your trust in the God who raises the dead, you determination to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, reaches down one or two levels deeper into your own innermost being, the place where all those fears still live.”[9]

[1] Gerald F. Hawthorne, “The Imitation of Christ: Philippians” in Patterns of New Testament Discipleship, edited by Richard N. Longenecker. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996, 166.
[2] Cf. Jeremiah 29. This is contra Oswalt, whose sermon will be quoted below.
[3] Cf. Exodus 5ff.
[4] John N. Oswalt, “The God of Newness: A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21,” Calvin Theological Journal, 39 (2004), 386-90.
[5] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, 88.
[6] From David A. DeSilva, “No Confidence in the Flesh: The Meaning and Function of Philippians 3:2-21.” Trinity Journal 15 no. 1, 49-50.
[7] From Ellen L. Babinsky, “Philippians 3:7-15,” Interpretation, 49 no. 1, 71.
[8] Paraphrased from Todd D. Still, Philippians and Philemon, Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2011, 108.
[9] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, 71.

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