Whenever I start writing a sermon, I ask myself, “What is God revealing about himself in this passage? Who is God teaching us that he is?” Today, I want to ask that question of a larger section of Scripture, I want to ask, “What is God revealing about himself?” in the whole of the Gospels. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is this God revealing himself to be? Travel with me a moment, if you would, imagining the whole of Jesus’s life before us; we’ll start from the end and move back to the beginning.
So, first — or last — there’s Jesus’ resurrection, the flesh-and-blood proof that death and darkness do not get the final word. If anything, this is why we worship this God, because we hope that the brokenness and destruction and sin that we see around us and within our very selves is not the whole truth about the world. We believe that the truth about the world includes God and his final and profound victory over all evil.
Moving backward, there are the three days in the tomb, Sunday morning, Saturday, and Friday night — there’s a lot of theological richness in these three days, echoes of the three days that Jonah the prophet was in the belly of the whale, the three days that Abraham and Isaac journeyed to the place where God asked for a sacrifice, the three days that Queen Esther prepares banquets in order to save all of Israel. The three days in the tomb are three days that humanity sleeps, the disciples are scattered and despairing, but God in Jesus is anything but sleeping. God is bringing life out of death, God is bringing new creation out of nothingness, this waiting period only looks like nothing is going on, actually, everything is going on — the world is being changed and transformed. The three days are the center of all creation and all history.
Moving backward still, we have the three years of Jesus’s ministry here on earth, wandering around with his followers, healing and preaching and feasting and walking, lots and lots of walking. This slice of his life is the longest so far, a thousand-some days, and it’s the piece that gets the most attention in the Gospel accounts, the most active, we might say, it’s the bit that’s most closely covered, but I wonder if there’s another piece of Jesus’s life on earth that might be helpful for us to think about this morning.
That’s the piece that comes before his public ministry, those first 30 years of his life, between his miraculous birth in Bethlehem and his baptism by John. Think about the first 30 years of your life — what all happened in there? Author Flannery O’Connor says that anybody who’s had a childhood has enough material to write about for the rest of their lives. It’s a way of saying that plenty happens in the first 30 years of each of our lives, there’s a lot of stuff in there, and yet only one little story is written down in the Gospels about Jesus’s first 30 years, the time when he hangs out with the religious leaders at the temple and wows them with his wisdom.
What I’m most interested in this morning is the unknowns of those years, not the one snapshot we do get. What was God in Jesus up to for all that time? Why would he waste all those decades just hanging out, letting life happen, rather than capitalizing on the people, relationships, and lessons that there were to teach and form during all those years? What might God in Jesus be trying to reveal about himself, trying to teach us about who he is, by having spent these 30 years just growing up in a rural area as the oldest son of a carpenter? To my mind, that’s a waste of time for the son of God, the 3 years of his ministry makes a lot more sense by comparison, even if the running about with stinky fishermen and touching diseased bodies doesn’t make a lot of sense, sitting around a podunk town seems to be downright crazy.
So let’s look deeper than “crazy.” What might God be up to? What is God trying to show us about who he is? I’ll bet a lot of kids, and parents, and friends, didn’t live very long in the first century, so he probably saw a lot of death. I’ll bet in the rural area there wasn’t a lot of money going around, or a ton of food, I wonder if Jesus was sometimes hungry. Back in the first century, of course, there wasn’t indoor plumbing or electricity or heat or air conditioning, it must have gotten hot, and stinky, and whatever weather blew in was just what happened — there was no running up to Tennessee or driving of out Houston for it. People were pretty much stuck where they were unless they could walk out.
People have lived in hard conditions since there were people. I doubt that God was trying to cut his teeth on a rough lifestyle just to prove a point, so what else could he be about? I wonder if he was just trying to show in his body, in the same flesh and blood that hung on the cross, that God in Jesus stays. For 30 years, he didn’t say a word that was saved or written down, he didn’t do any miracles that were revered and talked about, he didn’t gather people around him and tell them the secrets of the world. He just sat alongside his friends as they learned in school, or were taught trades by their fathers, he just walked with his Momma to the river and watched over his siblings as they played. God in Jesus didn’t take a shortcut to the cross, he didn’t even take a shortcut to his ministry.
I think that’s why Jesus spent 30 years that aren’t documented in Scripture or elsewhere, he spent 30 years just being a normal human being. He put time into relationships and he watched and learned and grew up. Of all the time that God incarnate, Jesus Christ, spent on earth, only one-tenth of that time is written about. The rest was, perhaps, not as newsworthy, not as unusual or controversial, but what does that show us about who this God is?
This God, who came to earth in Jesus Christ to live and die and be made alive again among us, throughout the Old Testament, throughout all of history, throughout all history since his ascension, this God shows humanity through every single thing he does that we are never alone, he will never leave us. He will sit next to us when our parents die, he will stand next to us as we face disaster, he will carry us as we commit ourselves to his loving arms. The flip side of this truth, this revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ, is that this isn’t a God who will wipe away all problems or, like a crane, will pick you up out of your troubles and fly you away to paradise. The God who is with you in travail will not usually pluck you straight out of it.
And isn’t this the rub?
We get frustrated when deliverance takes too long. We lose hope when the path is so dang hard. We throw up our hands and we shake our heads and we look for the exit route. For me, often the exit route is a syrupy waffle or a brownie a la mode; I consider it a win when I’m able to say to myself, “I’m eating my feelings” as I shove the sugar down my throat. Rather than feeling frustrated or sitting with my anxiety or taking the time to sort out the tangle inside of me, I stuff it all down with sweets.
I think that might be what Paul is getting at in today’s passage from Romans, living as if it is night, drowning ourselves in various vices, reaching for something that can quiet our hearts and still our souls just for a moment. We seek to escape, to choose the easy path; we want to provide for the flesh, just for a minute, to release all the tension and the stress just for a little bit of time. You know as well as I do that a waffle, even one scratch-made and freshly cooked, both crispy and gooey with syrup, will not solve even one of my problems. It won’t even make me feel better for more than the three minutes it takes for me to wolf it down. My waffle is provision for my flesh, my waffle is the easy way out. My waffle is the exit route.
And when I choose the exit, when I choose the easy way out when I make provision for my flesh, as our brother Paul puts it, I’m trying to take a shortcut. I’m trying to find a way that doesn’t make me march through the valley of the shadow of death. I’m trying to finagle a path that doesn’t require me to lean on Jesus, or to truly set down my fleshy desires, or to let go of my jealousy or my quarreling.
There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a massage, there’s nothing wrong with a waffle. The problem is when we drown our sorrows in alcohol because we can’t face the way life turned out, or when we use somebody else’s body to try to make us feel whole again, or when we compare our own houses or families or lives to somebody else’s because we wish our life didn’t look this way, or when we tear each other down with words or pick fights with somebody else because really, we’re scared about our own worthiness, or we don’t have the courage to live our own lives, so why should somebody else be so bold as to live theirs?
My friends, “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Paul isn’t asking you to be nicer to your neighbor, and he’s not asking you to try harder. That is not the Gospel, that is not why God in Jesus came to live and die and rise again. Jesus lived it and Paul preached it and I say to you this morning: God in Jesus Christ lights up our lives, awakens our souls, enables our spirits and minds and bodies to withstand the easy way out, to refuse the exit, to expose the shortcut for a lie. God’s great power runs through your veins, he offers himself to you in the Body and Blood of his Son here on this table. You are no longer enslaved to this world. You are free by the cross of Christ.