Lenten Wednesday Service
I’ve always been fascinated by commonly repeated Christian platitudes. You know, things people say like, ‘God only gives you what you can handle’ or ‘she’s in a better place now’ or ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Now, make no mistake here, I understand why people say these kinds of things to themselves and to others and I’m not really condemning anyone for saying them. We feel like we need them sometimes, like the way we need that glass of wine or that bag of m&ms or just one more funny animal video on Facebook. Life is really hard and it hurts sometimes and we do not know what to do with that hurt so we look for a way out for ourselves and for those we love.
One of those often repeated statements is that we have a God of second chances. But I certainly hope not. Truth is, I really don’t want a god of second chances because if we are really honest with ourselves, we all know that a second chance isn’t going to work for us. When it comes right down to it, what I need, what we need, what the whole world really needs is a God who can breathe life into the dead. The world needs a Gospel for dead men and women who float hopeless in the lonely dark waters of life. A second chance doesn’t cut it. I doubt it would do for anyone.
Martin Luther said that we are to die daily to sin. He believed that the struggle against sin was a daily, ongoing thing and that every day of our lives we die again to it. However, it might also be good to say we must rise out of the dark waters of sin and death every day. Rise, alive. That’s more than just a second chance. But I don’t know that we can do that on our own. No matter how good a swimmer you are, you can’t manage that every single day.
One of the biggest reasons we seem to focus on the idea of our God being one who gives us a second chance is because of a great fear of eternal punishment and damnation that often dominates our view of not just what it means to be a faithful Christian but also the nature of God as well. I have spent no small amount of time as a pastor fighting against hell. By that, I don’t mean struggling against going there or perhaps even the powers of hell so much as struggling against the near-obsession level hold the idea and fear of hell has on many of us. Notably, I think it is Jesus who is to consume our thoughts, the love of God and love of our neighbor and not fear of Hell. Meditate on the law day and night, the Old Testament tells us. Pray without ceasing. Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself, all of which actually leaves no room for meditating on the fear of punishment. A lifelong Christian (lifelong Lutheran, actually) once told me that he’d spent his whole childhood having nothing but Old Testament hellfire and damnation hammered into his head.
There is no hellfire in the Old Testament, I said. The voracity with which he responded to me was quite impressive! ‘Yes, there must be Hellfire in the Old Testament!’
But there is not. And if someone has told you this, I think they lied. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything about death, the consequences our choices bring to us or what happens when someone dies. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t something about it in the New Testament. But there is not, as far as I have ever been able to find, a single word about the fires of hell in the Old Testament. The notable thing about this, however, isn’t that the text doesn’t include it but the extreme devotion to the idea so many of us have that it must be present because it is so important! This guy is not alone by any means! The strong and nearly unshakable belief that so many thoughtful, faithful Christians have about the important place they feel hell should have in our faith is quite remarkable.
Why do we spend so much time threatening people with hell. Be it cold, hot, burning or oblivion, we church-type-people in general spend a disproportionately significant time threatening people with hell. Or fearing it ourselves. Even though the Lutheran church is famous for its hard emphasis on being saved by grace and has even been accused of having a casual, ‘don’t worry, be happy, God forgives you’ kind of attitude towards the Christian life, I find the staggering majority of deeply faithful people still have an unshakeable belief that it all comes down to trying to stay out of hell and get a second chance to try to be good tomorrow. The forgiveness of sins is less about a metanoia, turning around and moving toward living their lives differently because of God’s grace and mercy, and more like a sort of “do over” so you can reset and try again to do it right this time so that you can avoid punishment in hell. But then there is the constant state of anxiety about slipping again and being in danger of those flames once more! It is a cycle that never ends not because we are both saint and sinner but because the focus is on avoiding punishment not on living; living the new life in Christ we have been so graciously given by Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
Is that really what we want to do with our faith? Scare the devil out of others and ourselves so that we will all beg for a second chance? Oh please save me from hell and I’ll do better! I won’t sin any more if you give me a second chance! What happens when we screw that one up? Because we will. All of us will. And the third chance? And the fourth? On my own, on our own, we’ve got no chance at any “chance” and all the fires of hell cannot burn away our inability to be perfect.
We need something more. We need a God that is more than a second chance. We need a God who is willing to breathe life into our lives. We need a God who is willing to say, “This is my body, given for you….this is my blood, shed for you.” Take and eat real food for new life. Healing from the inside out. There is the New Covenant in my very blood. Freedom from that terrible cycle of fear and begging for a second chance from which we can never free ourselves. We need a God who will say here is forgiveness in flesh and blood and I willingly give every last drop for you as I give up my life on this cross and as I take you with me when I exit the tomb. We need a God who chooses to do these things not so we will spend the rest of our lives in fear, trying to avoid punishment, but will spend our lives in thanksgiving and loving God and one another.
That is our God and that does not sound like a second chance to me. In fact, “second chance” sounds like a puny, cheap offer in comparison to the overwhelming mercy God is handing out. Or should I say acting out. Diving into the dark waters of death. Breathing life into our dead bodies.
No, not a second chance. New life.