The very first thing that caught my eye as I drove into Ann Arbor the spring of 1966 was that strange graffiti on a huge concrete retaining wall. Being in Greek I could not decipher it and perhaps for that very reason it tantalized me.
Of course, as soon as I started my studies at Concordia College I was shocked to discover that I had to spend most of my waking hours catching up with the others in the study of biblical Greek. I had already told my pastor I wasn’t a good foreign language student, but he assured me it wouldn’t be too burdensome. Yet from the very first day on campus I had to labor to catch up by taking ten credit hours of Greek which required me to stay up through the wee hours of the morning with a tape recorder and a thick workbook to try to take it in. It was all Greek to me.
I did drink coffee, but I didn’t need amphetamines. Surely it was the flame and wind of the Holy Spirit that pushed me on—but I must admit that that red-spray-paint graffiti helped. What did it say?
Within a few weeks I had enough basic grammar and vocabulary to get my answer. I retraced my steps and found the wall and discovered the writing there was a line from 1 Corinthians: “If you think you are standing, beware, lest you fall.” Some student at the University of Michigan had thought enough of these words that he (or she) had risked prosecution to spray this near the main intersection near the busy quadrangle of the school.
This coming Sunday we hear three sections of Scripture that reinforce this message, including the epistle that includes this exact passage. Since Lent is all about reflection, repentance and renewal, these lessons seem to have been chosen for this Third Sunday in Lent to warn us that complacence works mightily to keep us from what we need; and so we have to work mightily hard to overcome that tendency.
Isaiah writes in a time after the leading citizens have been allowed to return home from exile in Babylonia. They and the others who welcomed them home to a devastated homeland are worn down by years of desperation and disappointment. So they are desperate too for anything that can promise a return to normalcy. And lo and behold there are many who are ready to sell them the fulfillment of their dreams. What could these things have been? An easy way out of debt? Great deals on cheap housing or a new goat? Ways to improve their appearance or their love life? The prophet cries out, “Why are you people such suckers? Why do you pay out so dearly for things that cannot satisfy your existential needs? (Isaiah 55:1-9)
Paul is addressing his words to Corinthian Christians who are convinced that they have been twice born through their baptisms and so they are now above temptation and sin. They have become more spiritual through the sacraments, more knowledgeable and more powerful in speaking tongues and many other things. Paul has to warn them that the Hebrews who left Egypt and traveled the wilderness went through their own brand of Baptism and Holy Communion and yet they sinned gravely and were destroyed (1 Cor. 10:1-13).
In the Gospel (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus addresses people who ease their own consciences by rather smugly concluding that certain Galileans who had been slaughtered on Pilate’s command, and workers who were crushed by a collapsing tower of Siloam in Jerusalem, must have been punished by God because they were greater sinners than themselves. Jesus says there are none who are immune for prosecution from the one greatest sin of all: not producing fruit.
Do any of these warnings about complaisance hit home? We live in an American culture that grows more secular and scientific and more bankrupt every day. We are increasingly convinced that all existence—all that is real and good and true is defined by two things: money and science. We have a vague and vacant memory that there may be things like love and joy and peace and commitment—there may be some absolute truths out there somewhere–but until they materialize (and they probably won’t) we have to hold onto our meager retirement accounts and what ever improving technology can solve.
And to salve our consciences with having settled for a flat world defined and delimited by science and money, we have created a new quasi religion of self-affirmation. We don’t think there is any absolute truth, but the one thing that seems attractive and inspiring enough to substitute is self-affirmation and unlimited human potential. If we simply believe that any person can do anything they dream about and work hard to do, then even if we quit dreaming and quit striving, there is always that possibility out there.
All of this seems to make Lent and the whole idea of repentance and renewal counterproductive. Certain Pentecostals and evangelicals may be complacent because of the kind of spiritual arrogance the Corinthians suffered under. Some may be simply dulling the shock of seeing people suffer by convincing themselves that the sufferers, through their sinfulness, brought it all on themselves. But far more are like the weary audience of Isaiah’s words: suckers who have bought the goods.
Only the goods today are the beautiful lies. Who needs reflection, repentance or renewal. You don’t need to return to God or to turn to others for community. You are full of infinite potential yourself. Just be yourself, follow your dreams and don’t let anyone rain on your parade with warnings that it may be headed in the completely wrong direction.
Is there good news in these lessons? Is there anything God can be doing to pull us out of the muddy pit of our own complacency?
Perhaps one thing is to sprinkle warnings about us, like that graffiti I saw in Ann Arbor years ago. Warnings that shout, “If you think you stand, beware lest you fall.” Perhaps the most powerful warning of all is the Man on the cross. Perhaps our shortcomings, our cowardly inaction and our out and out inhumanity are serious enough to have put the Son of God in the execution chamber.
Surely the good news is that we are given another day and another chance. Instead of being cut down we have a chance to be pruned. Manure can been set around us—experiences that stink, but can make us grow. There are the warnings and advice of heroes like Isaiah and Paul and Jesus and a holy host of others. There is a Word spoken that, if we listen, we are encouraged and made better. And all the while we can listen to the greatest Word of all, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
Yet, certainly, the loudest Word of all in these lessons on the Third Sunday of Lent, is that when Jesus said, “Forgive them Father…” it afforded us an opportunity, not a blank check. This is another chance. This calls on us to make decisions with ultimate consequences. Will our lives bear fruit or not?