Saturday, March 12, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

II Corinthians 6:1-10
Matthew 4:1-11

This week we have seen a disaster, another great earthquake and tsunami, bringing back memories of what happened with the great tsunami that hit on Dec. 26, 2004, and of the earthquake in Haiti only a little more than a year ago. A lot of people have died, a lot are still unaccounted for, and many are suffering. The full dangers regarding a nuclear power plant are not yet known.

I cannot help but think, when I hear Christians trying so hard to make sense out of the evil in the world, that they need to read my younger brother’s second book, The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart. Because in that book he states the most liberating truth of all about the evils that happen so often in the world. Namely, that we should not try to make sense out of them. Christ did not come to make sense out of the evil in the world, neither to justify God against the charge that suffering and tragedy must indicate some kind of flaw, or lack of true goodness. Christ did not come to show that evil and woe, whether by human malice or natural disaster, fit a larger and higher purpose that is somehow necessary in God’s scheme of things. Indeed, he never suggests that it does. The Gospel for today shows that a time comes to resist temptations that are spiritual in nature; and the internal pressure to commit bad theodicy is one that I wish most clergymen would resist.

What Christ did in fact actually come to do, is told to us by Saint John: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the Devil (I John 3:8).” The cross of Christ made use of the evil that is done by violent men and unjust authorities; but it does not fit into a pattern that needs evil in order to balance the scales and make the universe work. On His cross He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In His resurrection he destroyed death.

The liberating truth of the Gospel is not that God will make sense of evil and tragedy; but rather that Christ has won the victory against the senseless, meaningless condition of suffering and death, of sorrow and tragedy, that we experience while we live in this condition of being fallen, subject for the time being to pain in a world that knows death because it knows sin. The fact that we will die, and that life is "this vale of sorrows,” that illness, poverty and disaster fall upon all sorts and conditions of men, will yield and give way at Christ’s coming again to the fullness of complete victory over every consequence of Adam’s Fall. Death will be no more, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Our hope is not that we will someday make sense of evil; Our hope is in the Living Christ Who was dead and is alive forevermore, who holds the keys of Hell and of death; Who will, when He returns in glory, destroy the last enemy- Death- and share with us the spoils of His conquest over the grave.

So, I cannot make sense of the Holocaust, or the American Holocaust of millions of innocent babies murdered by abortion. And, as my brother’s book was dealing with quite directly, I cannot make sense of the tsunami that killed so many people on December 26th of 2004, or of the disasters that have hit Haiti and Japan. I am free to mourn, and to face sorrows, not because I believe they must make sense, but because I know that they make no sense, ultimately- even when they are used for good by Providence, as the selling of Joseph into Egypt, and the good use made of Christ’s cross. In my article forTouchstone, titled Her Mother’s Glory, I related the fact that my beloved adopted daughter was conceived by rape. After my wife’s courageous battle to have and to keep her daughter, against all the forces that were trying to pressure her to abort the child, I married Diane and adopted Hannah (who is now grown up and happily married). God alone is the Author of Life, even when something as hideous as rape has been committed; and no child is unworthy to see the light of day because of someone else’s sin. This is what I wrote about that:

“What if the Author of Life takes the opportunity to do good from someone’s evil? The injustice done to Joseph resulted in the saving of his life, and that of millions of people, foreshadowing the good done for the whole world by the unjust crucifixion of a young rabbi from Nazareth. It is ever the way of God to make good come from the evil that men do.”

Providence is always at work, and so, yes, God takes the evil that men do and turns it into good. This is not because He needs the evil; He is not dependent upon anything- certainly not evil. It is simply that He always wins, and His goodness cannot be deterred or overcome. When evil is as evil as it can be, God is still good and is also All-powerful, able to give life and to act by His eternal character of Love. As Joseph said, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 50:20).”

All of this relates to the last of the three temptations we read about today. The Devil tempted the Lord to enter right away into His kingdom and, as clichés go, to “make the world a better place.” The temptation was to avoid the cross, and to put an immediate end to the apparent problems of the world, but not to the real problem of the world. He could end hunger and poverty and injustice and make the world safe for Utopianism, and also avoid the suffering, humiliation and death that was an inherent part of the cross.

The message of today's Gospel is not, "imitate Jesus: if he could do it so can you." Yes, try to imitate Jesus the best you can by doing always what pleases the Father. But, when, not if but when, you fail, confess your sins and receive God’s forgivness. This is one area in which you cannot imitate Jesus, for he had no sins to repent of. We have no power in ourselves, of ourselves, to save ourselves. The temptations of Jesus in this passage from Matthew are strange to us. They exist on a higher level than the carnality we must wrestle with. I have never been tempted to use divine power to turn stones into bread. Have any of you? I have been tempted to eat when I was fasting, and tempted to satisfy the body in ways that are outside of God's will; but, never to turn stones into bread.

Let us back up and take a good look at these three temptations. The scriptures tell us that our Lord Jesus Christ was “tempted in every point like as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” This can be misunderstood. He lived in the real world as a real man. But, even in His human nature He did not have the problem we have, namely that thing called concupiscence. His human nature was not deprived of the grace to live above “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:16).” The point of the Gospel for today is not that we can follow His example and be perfect. We cannot. We are supposed to imitate Christ in His life of obedience to the Father’s will, of self-denial and of holiness. We also find, at the end of the day, that no day has gone by in which we have lived without sin by thought, word or deed. Not so Christ. He lived His entire life without sin, born of a virgin and having come into the world from above as its Lord.

So, looking again at the third temptation, many people are tempted to “make the world a better place” by worshiping the Devil; or even if by worshiping some thing they give in to the Devil, the idolatry still serves his end. Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon worshiped themselves; Marx worshiped economic power as the only true force; Hitler worshiped racial purity; and many modern American Utopians worship some form of education or some ideology. Even people who believe that the only hope for the world is to spread Democracy, must face reality.

Christ was presented by the Devil with a temptation to rule the world with perfect justice, and to end man’s outward troubles. But the real problem of the world is not ignorance and injustice; it is not inequity and woe, hunger and unequal distribution, or whatever evil you can name. Christ will rule the world with perfect justice when He comes again in glory; but first He took away sin and overcame death; just as the Old Testament first speaks of Messiah as the priest who offers sacrifice for sin, and only after that as the King. For, ultimately, all that really plagues us are those two things that are always connected: Sin and death. He came the first time as the Suffering Servant, and will return as the Lord of Glory. And, He will not make sense of those things that plague us. He will take them away forever, and wipe away the tears from off all faces.

For now, we must overcome in this life, "all that is in the world," hoping not to have our questions answered about how God could allow suffering; hoping, rather for something better and eternal.

No comments: