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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=119


 

Lent II Year C (February 21, 2016)                                 St James', Peace River

Last weekend I caught sight of a little news story from southern Ontario. I guess it was little because it was good news! But it was still kind of amazing. A 7-year-old boy was sitting with a classmate in the ski lift. The classmate's ski got stuck as they left the ground, he turned to see what had happened, and began falling out of the chair. The 7-year-old grabbed him, and held him. He couldn't pull him back up, but he held on to him long enough for staff to stop the lift, and come out with a safety net to catch the boy, as he finally fell, scared but unharmed.

I thought about that story again as I read through the Bible lessons for today, because in one way or another they are all about holding on. They remind us that our spiritual life can often be like that ski lift incident. You just have to hold on; you feel like you can't, and yet it turns out you can endure more than you think you can. You have no guarantee of a happy ending – I bet letting go of his classmate was the hardest thing that little boy will ever do in his life. But somehow, God is in it. Not just at the end, but in the moment of panic, and breathing hard, and “I just can't do this”, God is right there.

Jesus in the gospel of Luke may be the model for anyone who has to walk that walk. “Today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way,” he says, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” He knows where his journey is headed, just as we know that Lent leads to Good Friday. That can't have made it any easier to keep going, worse in fact – but on he goes, day by day, and then moment by moment. We know that he contemplated finding an exit, asking God at one point if it was possible “for this cup to pass” from him. But with renewed commitment, he just kept holding on to the bitter end.

St Paul, writing to the Philippians, makes this a pattern for Christian life as a whole. He points out how there are many choices to be made throughout our lives, but they really boil down to one choice: will you persist in being faithful, in turning back to God time after time, in expecting the salvation that is promised – or, will you bug out and throw in your lot with the rest of the world, enjoying what you can get from this life and not thinking or caring about anything else? Paul himself lived out that pattern, going through some pretty extraordinary trials in order to keep doing what he did, to keep sharing the news. A few verses before what we read, he explains that his motivation is simply “to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Somewhere beyond the confusion and disappointment of faithful living as we experience it, there is something worth holding on for.

I've met people who live their Christian faith in a way that embodies that conviction. Often it's older people, even some of the ones living in the seniors' home or in long term care, who to the casual observer are “just holding on”. But when you get to know them a little, you realize that they really are “holding on” more in the sense that I've been talking about. They are holding on day to day, not because they expect anything good to happen or life to get better, but because it is the faithful thing to do, and because in the end they are expecting and waiting for their Saviour. It takes a lot of courage to do that – to persist through whatever life throws your way, knowing that not much if any of it is going to be positive, but convinced that life as a whole is worth offering to God and that means taking the rough with the smooth. And yet it can also be beautiful to see, as you witness someone who has literally made their peace, who is not going to be swayed or diminished by anything that happens to them, whose focus has been lifted beyond the day to day experience to something much greater.

There's something for us to learn from people like that, at earlier times in our lives and in other circumstances. In a way it applies to any situation where you or I might feel “stuck”. People may feel that way when careers aren't working out the way you expected, when demands of family life constrain what you wish you could accomplish in other ways, when health issues become intractable, or even spiritually when you just can't see what God has in mind for you. Those times can go on, and on, to the point where you just have to stop thinking that tomorrow the sun will come up, it will be a new day and life will change. Or to use an image from modern technology, we can't always just change the channel and expect to find something different. Sometimes we're just forced to confront the reality that life is hard, and it is going to stay hard, and then the question is: How are you going to deal with that?

Faith offers two kinds of promises in that sort of situation. One is the one we've been thinking about, which looks beyond the life you're living right now and maintains the conviction that in God's sight it is worth something and leading somewhere. That's a valuable perspective and an important motivator, and we can look at the saints of history and the saints we have known and be amazed at what they were able to bear in the light of eternity – and perhaps we can find something of that same strength of hope ourselves. But there is another promises that faith offers, and I think it is even more important. It's a version of the story of salvation we've been thinking about ever since Christmas, which is that God chooses to come and be with us where we are, in the life we're actually living.

What that means in the time of being stuck and holding on, is that God is not just at the end of the road over the horizon, waiting to welcome you home, though that is certainly true. But God is also right there walking the road of boredom and frustration with you; God is right there facing the expectation of failure with you; God is right there digging deep to find the last ounce of resources to carry on one more day, along with you. In the picturesque if gruesome image of our Old Testament reading today, God is present between and amongst the broken pieces of life, in the middle of things, not just at the end. And God's presence in those places is not an accident, but a covenant: God's absolute commitment to be with us not just as a goal we can aspire to, but every step of the way towards that goal, however fruitless or meaningless the steps of that journey may seem to be.

The real challenge of faith, when you look at it this way, isn't believing that God will do good things for us as long as we wait long enough. It's believing that God is just as much present and active when good things aren't happening. But that's also something that the life of Jesus demonstrates to us – now not looking back to Christmas but ahead to Good Friday, as the one who is God-with-us walks into greater and greater darkness, leaving the miracles and the crowds behind and instead having to face enemies, injustice, and execution. God was just as much there, though to be fair, even Jesus was challenged to hold on to that conviction, asking at the end, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” But the power of God which had always been with him, is what enabled him to hold on, just long enough, to complete his mission and his life even when it all ended up seeming pointless.

Perhaps that's something we find it at least as difficult to see in our own experiences. How is God present when he seems so far away, when it seems like I'm just going through the motions or spinning my wheels, when faith doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything? And yet somehow God is there in the very act of holding on. Going back to that young boy holding on to his friend in the ski lift – what was it that made it possible for him to do that? From each second to the next, he had to have the courage, the spirit, and the physical strength, to not let go. Those gifts came from God, and God was right there with him hanging on. In the times when you are feeling stuck, or facing something which you know is just too much for you to face, when you hold on, you still have the strength God is giving you, and God is still with you, and that is a promise we have from God regardless of whether there is ever going to be a good outcome. (The cross was not a good outcome!)

So on the surface at least, this is not much of a good news sermon. I'm not telling you that things are going to be great, or even that, if they don't turn out great here and now, you'll get your reward in heaven instead. But in the light of the gospel I hope you might be able to find a different perspective on the most difficult moments and challenges that you have to face. In those moments, the good news is not a hollow promise that it will all turn out right, which often won't be true anyway, and even if it is, may be impossible to believe. Instead we have a promise that God is there in the thick of it, not just to share our suffering (though that's important too), but active in the struggle along with us. Lending us the strength that we find within ourselves to resist, and persist, and continue despite everything. Making his story part of ours, and ours part of his, as we hold on together.