As I said last week, the Psalm appointed in our lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent, Psalm 91, has functioned in the life of many parts of the church for the last fifteen hundred years as a word for the night-time, the end of the day, a quiet moment to recollect with assurance the love and care of the Father. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,* abides under the shadow of the Almighty. He shall say to the LORD, ‘You are my refuge and my stronghold,* my God in whom I put my trust.’”
Then we come to the gospel reading for this morning, Luke 13, and we can already sense the turbulence and the gathering storm and nightmare of Holy Week. The Pharisees telling Jesus that he needs to get away from Jerusalem and head back to the safety of the Galilee, because the authorities are already taking notice and beginning to plan their deadly intervention. And then Jesus: I need to stay here and to be about my work, because this is the place where prophets speak and where prophets die. A shivering in the cold wind, and the shadow of the Cross. We can almost hear in the distance the hammer beginning to pound on the nails.
Once again in the Psalm appointed for this Second Sunday morning in Lent we are given a framework for this incredible and terrifying story unfolding before us. We can look at the version printed at the bottom of page 3 of this morning’s leaflet. To be reminded that the story of this brutal and unjust death is not the story of shame and loss and catastrophe, not the story of hopelessness and fear. It is for us and in truth a story of hope, and peace, and strength, a true story that gives birth to a life built on the foundation of a relationship of trust that is stronger than any storm, that will prevail against even the darkest enemy.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? --Psalm 27. A hymn for Israel, even as fierce enemies surround the Holy City. A song in the night.
The Pharisees advise Jesus to flee, to head to the hills—back to the obscurity of Nazareth and Cana and Capernaum. Away from the center stage, out of the spotlight.
I’m reminded of the compelling story that the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis tells in his strange but also very beautiful novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. (If you saw the movie many years ago, you got at least a part of the idea, though I didn’t think the movie really captured the strange and interesting tone and vision of the novel.) If you’ve read Kazantzaki’s probably even greater novel, Zorba the Greek, you see very much a similar theme. Also an interesting movie. For an existentialist like Kazantzakis in the tumultuous era of mid-20th century war, along with writers like Sartre and Camus, this question about the moment of decision. To choose the costly act that will give your life a greater meaning, a definition, even if in the process the cost is your life itself, or to step back, recede into the shadows of the personal. Kazantzakis looks at the temptations we read about last week, as Satan paraded them before Jesus out in the wilderness, fame, wealth, power. But he speculates that the last and most powerful temptation for Jesus was simply the temptation to go home. To be a village carpenter. To get married, have kids. Three bedrooms, two baths, and a 30 year mortgage. Bowling on Tuesday evenings, family dinners with the in-laws, driving the kids to soccer. The Last Temptation of Christ: Die and save the world, or have a life. It’s up to you, Jesus.
Kazantzakis wasn’t a Christian, but he knew this story well, and he knew this is a story about a man who knew what needed to be done, and who did what needed to be done, despite the cost. “ Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid”—verses three and four of our psalm: “and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.”
And then in verses five, six, and seven: to put into words in this simple way the yearning for God’s presence. It’s a spiritual presence of course, but I know there have been times when the material and even architectural reality has felt very powerful for me. In the hour of worship, as the opening of the organ at a processional hymn. Or sometimes just in a quiet moment. It’s not unusual for folks to peek into the office on a Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon—maybe someone of the St. Andrew’s congregation, or maybe a friend in the neighborhood, or simply a passer-by—who will say, “would it be all right for me to sit in the church for a while?”
“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of the LORD, and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.”
That can be special for us in Lent, of course. I would hope and pray that there would be moments like that for all of us. Maybe in Church, or maybe as we sit in a chair at home, to begin whatever Lenten devotion we’ve set for ourselves. Or simply as we find a quiet moment to pause in the midst of the day. We know the promise of the Lord in the last day, but we can begin to experience it for ourselves even now. Verse eight: “Even now he lifts up my head* above my enemies round about me.”
And the psalm rolls on to speak of the thanksgiving that wells up in our hearts when we know and experience God’s love and faithfulness. A spirit of thanksgiving that wells up in us to become love and faithfulness and blessed assurance: “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the LORD will sustain me.”
That Cross as it looms on the horizon and as we move nearer and nearer would seem designed to fill us with fear, a sign of intimidation, the victory of sin and death and utter hopelessness. But even at the darkest hour it is not that at all, because of the one who took it on for us, and for our salvation.
The psalmist asks, “what if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”
What if I had kept my eyes on the ground, and not looked up to see him? What if I had not turned when he called? What if I had remained turned in on myself, full of my own worries, seeking only the fulfillment of my own desires? To think that this is all there is, all there ever can be or will be . . . .
And so the word, from the singer of this psalm and God’s word for us. Continuing in this Lent, in the story of our lives, and the invitation to hear and read and mark and learn and inwardly digest his Holy Word, and to come into his presence as he has called us, to eat and drink with him and in him at this table. “O tarry and await the LORD’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the LORD.”