“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”
Those were the words of an old friend and fellow pastor as he shared with Lisa and me the news that he was engaged to be married. Actually, that announcement had come as a bit of a surprise; we hadn’t even realized he was involved with anybody special. But while on a visit back to his home state of Missouri (or “Missour-ah,” as he always made sure we pronounced it), an old friendship was renewed, sparks were rekindled, and now he was moving back to the Midwest so he could be closer to her in planning the wedding.
And he positively beamed as he was telling us about it: “I wasn’t expecting this,” he said, “I wasn’t looking for it; but now I can’t imagine it never having been!” Then this big goofy grin spread wide across his face as he added, “You know… this has been the strongest and clearest ‘yes’ of my entire life!”
This was years ago, but I’ve never forgotten his words, nor the look of utter amazement in his eyes as he spoke them: it was as though this man could not believe the depth of what he was feeling at that moment. The strongest and clearest “yes” of his entire life(!); a rare and powerful affirmation that had changed his life forever.
I suspect you might know what that’s like. Maybe you heard that strong and clear “yes” when you fell in love; or at the moment your baby was born and you knew it was healthy and perfect; or maybe it was when you got the news that the medical tests had all come back negative. It’s making the impossible half-court shot; it’s finishing the marathon; it’s acing the final exam: if you’ve ever reached a goal you’ve worked long and hard to achieve; if you’ve experienced a joy you never dreamed would ever be yours, then you know what it means to have that feeling resonate so deeply in your soul that you just have to say, “YES!!” It’s because suddenly and maybe just in that singular moment, everything is good and all is right with the world. A “yes” moment, you see, brings us affirmation, support, promise and approval.
Of course, one of the things that make these “yes” moments so powerful is that for most of us they come few and far between! Not to be, as they say, a “buzzkill,” but we all know too well how often and how loudly the world says, “NO;” and we’ve all had the experience of wanting, needing affirmation in our lives but getting beaten down instead! Not long ago I read a biography of Charles Schultz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, and whose childhood was, ironically, the inspiration for Charlie Brown. The book tells about how in the last months of his life when Schultz announced his retirement and the end of the comic strip, he got literally thousands of letters begging him to please, please, just once, let Charlie Brown have the chance to kick that football before Lucy pulls it away!
But that was the thing about Charlie Brown: he never got to kick that football, he never got to win a baseball game, and he never got to know that little red-haired girl! In 50 years, Charlie Brown hardly ever had a “yes” moment, and that’s why so many of us identified with him! Charlie Brown, you see, was essentially you and me; the kind of people whose lives quite literally get filled up with a wide variety of “no’s.” But lest we think this to be a small matter, consider the words of Thorwald Lorenzen, who makes the point that oftentimes “No” is so powerful that it can cripple people’s souls; and moreover, it’s how some people come to experience or understand God in their lives!
For me, you see, that’s the real question: how do we experience God; and how do we understand God as being integral to our life and living? I think that most of us understand that even in faith life is going to have its share of both joys and sorrows; but what happens to that understanding when everything in life just seems to weigh heavily on the side of sorrow and struggle? In other words, do we perceive God as speaking a good word into our lives, or are you and I hearing something else entirely? Does our faith in God bring forth a “yes” from our hearts, or are we too overwhelmed by all the “no’s” in life that we fail to notice?
In our Epistle reading for this morning from 2 Corinthians, Paul is engaged in a bit of “damage control.” You’ve heard me say before that the Corinthians tended to be a factious and divided group of Christians; well, in our text this morning we find that some of that factious anger is being directed at Paul! Apparently, Paul had not come to Corinth to minister with them as he had told them he would; and so now they’re accusing him of letting them down, of being unreliable, and of being someone who talks out of both sides of his mouth; that is, “ready to say ‘Yes, yes,’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time.”
Basically, in the midst of all their struggles the Corinthians were feeling wholly rejected by Paul: as far as they were concerned, he’d said “No” to them at the worst possible time, and that was devastating to their faith. But even as Paul rises to his own defense (“as surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been ‘Yes and No.’”) what’s interesting is that Paul immediately shifts the discussion from one about his faithfulness to that of God’s faithfulness. The real issue here, he says, is not Paul’s so-called “vacillating,” but rather how, in the midst of their struggles, they’ve been unable to keep their faith in what matters: and that’s the gospel!
In other words, says Paul, whatever I do or don’t do; however faithful you think I am or not, it’s God’s faithfulness that really matters. What God has communicated to humanity in Jesus Christ is neither negative nor ambiguous in the least; and whereas so much of what we perceive in this life is muddled with uncertainty and mixed messages, when God speaks, he gives us a clear and unequivocal YES. That’s why this passage from 2 Corinthians is sometimes referred to as “a manifesto of grace:” “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we claimed among you… was not ‘yes and no;’ but in him it is always ‘yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’ to the glory of God.”
That’s what the Corinthians were missing, you see; but lest we think Paul’s only talking to them, the fact is, this is one truth that’s all-too easy for us to lose as well.
I ask you, friends; at what point in our daily lives do you and I start living as though the disappointments and struggles we face tell the whole story? How does our experience and understanding of God end up manifest in the “no’s” of life rather than proclaiming the great “YES” of Christ’s victory over hopelessness and death? How is it that we somehow start to view the promises of God as something abstract and “pie in the sky” rather than acknowledging it as the bedrock reality of each and every day of our lives?
The late Old Testament scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier once wrote that “we moderns sometimes have a strange view of our relationship with God,” in that while we often think of God as something constant, someone “out there” that we’re supposed to seek and find, our “attitude toward him wavers, changes, grows, depending on the depth of our faith at any one time.” But the truth, as the Bible reveals it, is quite different. In scripture, Achtemeier writes, “God is constantly acting… He speaks words and does deeds and brings about events, moving steadily forward as he invades the stream of history. [With God there is always] a way, a walking, a movement forward toward [his] God’s goal for all nature and history.”
What you and I need to understand is that whatever else seems vague or meaningless or without hope in daily life, God is working… always working in a firm and steadfast way ever and always for the sake of his people. We hear this in the Isaiah reading this morning: God’s promise to bring his people back from exile; offering up everything that God has done in the past as a guarantee on the future. But, he goes on to say, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth… I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”
Even in a desert wasteland, God will make a way; and so it is for us on the struggles we face on life’s journey. The good news is that because God says “yes” to us, we can say “yes” to ourselves even when the world seem rife with “no’s.” We can go through our days knowing we are worthy, and accepted, and loved because God said so first; and moreover, said so not in a way that was begrudging, or qualified or muffled, but said so decisively and emphatically! God reaches out to us in absolute affirmation, “putting his seal on us and giving his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment;” it’s our guarantee that the best is yet to be.
This week I found myself remembering times back when our children were little and we’d be getting ready for a trip to visit the grandparents or to spend a few days “up to camp.” Being the Daddy, I would always say to the children who were excited about going, “if you guys clean your rooms, and if you help us get ready, then maybe we’ll get off fairly good season sometime on Monday morning.” Trust me; this never… ever worked! Lisa, on the other hand, understanding the true reality of the situation, was much more direct: we’re gonna clean, we’re gonna pack, we’re gonna get ready and we’re gonna get up early and go! No ambiguity there (!); but back when they were young, that’s all it took for those kids to be off and running!
Actually, there’s a larger truth there; you and I, we tend to go through much of life navigating through this long series of “ifs, ands, buts and maybes” that more often than not become “no’s;” a series of navigations that not only lead us nowhere we want to go, but also which inevitably convince us we’ll never get anywhere at all! It’s things like, if I can only say and do the right things at the right time in the right way, then maybe I’ll be loved and accepted, even if that means losing myself along the way. Or, if I focus all my attention on doing whatever I have to do to have more money, then maybe I can have all the things I want and then I’ll be happy; at least until the next “thing” comes along that I don’t have. And then, of course, there’s the old reliable, if we could only get back to the way things used to be, then everything would be great! It goes on and on; but inevitably all of this ends up falling far short of what we’re seeking in this life, and all we’re left with is this resounding NO.
But with God, you see, there’s no if, ands and maybes.
God says YES: yes, here’s the pathway to the kingdom, and here’s the means by which you’ll find it: Jesus Christ. Oh, and while you’re walking, I’ll be walking with you every step on the way. So don’t worry; we’ll face whatever obstacles and potholes that come along together.
You just need to trust me; you need to hold on and let my love and grace sustain you… especially when you’re so tired of the journey that you just can’t take another step. You’ll make it, I promise; I’ll help you along the way, and together, we’ll get to where it is we’re going. And when we get there, you’re going to be so filled up that won’t be able to keep yourself from shouting from your very heart…
Beloved, my prayer for each of us today is that we will have that kind of a joy-filled yes in our lives; so that life itself might be the kind of Amen that’s shouted to the glory of God; this incredible, life-affirming God who goes to the greatest lengths to bring us into a good relationship with him.
By the way, what’s interesting here is that originally, this sermon was intended for last Sunday, which was the last Sunday of Epiphany and which usually focuses on the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. But after the snowstorm last Sunday forced cancellation of worship, to be honest, I struggled with whether this image of God fits with the more somber journey of Lent that we begin today. But then I realized that God does indeed bring his glory to the world in Jesus Christ; and since that glory found its fulfillment in the cross and the empty tomb, what better way for us to begin this journey than by saying “Amen” to God’s glory that gets revealed to us in Jesus, the very intention of this God who loves us and affirms us beyond measure!
And so for this, and so much more, as we begin the journey together may our thanks be truly unto God.
Let all the people of God say it together:
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry