Sermon - 4 Lent
In the Name....
One winter Sunday, a young Scottish minister had to make an afternoon visit to a farm on the far side of a loch. Noting that the loch had frozen over, however, he put on skates and, skating across, cut his travel time in half. But, reflecting that he might have broken the Sabbath, he later consulted with the wise old minister of a nearby village. Hearing the story, the elder mused, "Well, I suppose it was alright - as long as ye did’na enjoy it."
If I were going to have a title for this sermon it would be “The Power of Negative Thinking.” Obviously that's a play on the title of a famous book on how to achieve peace of mind, but, if you glance at the shelves of any bookstore today, you will find a veritable host of books whose theme of self-improvement is not dissimilar. In essence, the common premise is that each of us has within us the power to do whatever we want, be whatever we want, and achieve whatever we want, if only we have determination and something called “faith.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes, but, it doesn't go far enough. Often it is unclear how much this “faith” is in ourselves as opposed to something outside of ourselves and to suggest to a person struggling with deep anxieties that simply repeating a positive affirmation so many times a day will automatically solve life's problems is at best prescribing Valium for a cancer. There's nothing bad about feeling good, but, nothing good about ignoring what is bad in life and this is the Achilles Heel of what is called positive thinking.
Historically, positive thinkers have sought self-fulfilment in many of the same ways. The hedonist, the prophet of pleasure, encourages "Enjoy yourself". The teacher earnestly counsels "Educate yourself." The artist freely declares "Express yourself." The philosopher wisely admonishes "Know yourself." But, Jesus said "Deny yourself."
Now, self-denial is not exclusively Christian. Many religions also encourage it as a way for us to find inner peace. So, religious positive thinking, then, paradoxically consists of a negative affirmation, in using the word “No.”
A writer once said that a friend of his wasn't so much a person as a civil war and I think we can identify with that image. We all know the tension of conflicting forces within ourselves. St. Paul knew it when he wrote "In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but in my body there is a different law making me a prisoner. Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
For Paul, as for us, rescue comes through a combination of two things – our own efforts, certainly, but, also, and more importantly - God's grace. When we want to do right and we’re tempted to the opposite, we must deliver a firm No, but, get support for that No from God.
Of course, Oscar Wilde once quipped that the best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. And, he had a point. Give in and there's no inner struggle and you don't have to bother God - or bother with God.
A few years ago, I saw a book called "Abundant Life" and thought it was Christian, but, the chapter headings were; "increase income and financial security", "release nervous tension and renew energy", "build self-confidence and personal happiness." And all these things are good and right and God knows we should have them. But, nowhere in the book was there any hint of God in our lives.
In theological college we read the diary of one of the great saints in which he meticulously unfolded the agonizing torment of his daily struggle over whether or not to have butter on his morning toast. I thought, “What?” So much fuss over something so trivial? But, that morning contest was a spiritual exercise to shape his character.
Very few of us will ever have to face the choice of denying Christ or being thrown to the lions. But, even St. Paul did not get to that point of his life in one jump. If he had not first let a life filled with the power of negative thinking, he would have given up on Christ long before. And if Christ had not led a life filled with the power of negative thinking he would have given up on us.
Wasn't that the constant temptation of Satan? Jesus, they are not worth it. They don't deserve your sacrifice. Well, what if Jesus had decided to get rid of that temptation by yielding to it?
Positive thinking asks us to deny what is bad. Negative thinking asks us not to deny it, but, fight it. When Jesus was in the wilderness he didn't say to Satan - You don't exist. I don't believe in you. Instead, he said, I know you and I am going to fight you with the Word of God and my own will. And that is what he expects us to do as well. We have the same Word of God and we have our God-given wills.
In 1936, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a visit to Germany’s Adolf Hitler with a letter which he joyfully announced to the British people would bring "Peace in our time". Those few who scoffed were howled down in the popular euphoria. Four years later, one of those scoffers, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told the British people as bombs rained down on London that they could look forward to nothing but, "blood, sweat, and tears." He held out no bright promises. He made it clear that if the nation was to survive there would be choices and sacrifices. It would have to say “No” to the easy way out.
The Cross is the ultimate act of negative thinking. Jesus did not reject the pain, suffering and death. He refuted it by facing it and going through it. And out of his supremely negative act came the supremely positive truth - that beyond the Cross is the only authentic positive life.
There is a parish church in England dedicated to the Holy Cross which is remarkable for its architecture. I actually knew the priest who designed it. The entrance door handles are plain wooden crosses. Right in the vestibule is a life-sized, full-colour, horrifically, sickeningly realistic crucifix. It's gross. But, the only way to get to your pew is to walk by it. And above the altar is a plain white stone cross with gold-incised letters, "He is Risen". Thus, to enter the church you must take the cross in your hand. To take your place in the church you must pass through the crucifixion. But, then, when you are in place you can see in the cross the ultimate victory of abundant life - the real kind.
Lent is a way to rediscover the Cross. The observance of a holy Lent is meant to demonstrate that saying No opens the door to the greatest Yes. So, on behalf of Lent and the Cross, I appeal to you to experience the power and the joy of Negative Thinking.
In the Name…