02.21.2016 Preaching Text: “But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20a)
The title of today’s sermon comes from a 1927 song entitled, Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. It was eventually made into a Broadway play and, a couple of years after that, a movie. Its lyrics sought to compare the presumably superior attitudes of freewheeling Paris in the 1920’s with the more censorious ones found in Prohibition America of that same era.
Over the years, I’ve found any number of occasions to question the song’s premise. I’ve concluded, in fact, that yes, fifty million Frenchmen can indeed be wrong, even spectacularly so!
That said, the connection to today’s reading from Philippians may not be all that terribly obvious. But hear me out.
Here the apostle Paul is suggesting something basic to Christian life – that we hold to a different standard in terms of how we view the purpose and meaning of life. While others may choose “eat, drink, and be merry” as their default philosophy (for “tomorrow you shall die”), Christianity sees it differently.
This does not mean, however, that Christians are supposed to live dour, drab lives devoid of simple pleasures – in deference to some distant, anticipated heavenly joy to come. The Judeo-Christian life, to the contrary, celebrates the things of creation precisely because it was God who created them, and so named them “good.”
Christian faith is, in other words, incarnational, meaning that it sees evidence of God’s love and creativity in all created things, even the smallest, most ordinary of things. For Christians, it’s not a question of whether something is good or bad, but how that same thing is perceived and employed.
Thus, the problem with the libertinism of Paris during the roaring 20’s is not that it sought to celebrate and enjoy the things of this world (things God had made, after all), but that its use of them ignored, if not scorned, God’s basic blueprint for life, thereby falling short of the glory God intends.
The song also contains the implicit message that what others do, especially in great numbers, is what we should do as well. I don’t know how many times my parents asked me, “If everybody’s jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, does that mean you should, too?” (I usually answered this correctly!)
All in all, the song presents a very real challenge to Christian life, despite its lighthearted glibness. For the fact is we are tempted to “eat, drink, and be merry” if for no other reason than that everyone else is doing it!!!
A couple of weeks ago we heard the story of the Transfiguration. It is the traditional reading just prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
One of the main reasons for this is that the Transfiguration offers a vision of the now hidden glory of the Cross prior to the event itself. In other words, Jesus and his disciples are given a glimpse of the rapture to come in preparation for their descent down the mountain and back into the valley of conflict where, in the distance, looms the implacable dread of Jerusalem and its Cross.
With a glimpse of God’s impending glory, life’s true objectives and purposes are revealed, enabling the faithful to withstand life’s inevitable setbacks and challenges.
As with labor pains, the expectant mother knows precisely why she is suffering, knowing that her momentary suffering shall lead to new life. Such suffering is not mindless or purposeless, but ultimately yields that which is both desirable and good.
Perspective and endurance are thus essential to living well. If we forget the point of suffering, we will be sorely tempted to grasp whatever pleasure we can, while we can. Such is a form of nihilism. Because life lacks purpose and leads nowhere, we might as well find immediate gratification wherever possible. In all this there is a scent of faint desperation.
Similarly, having lost sight of God’s purposes, we are apt to simply go along with others. Restlessly casting about for meaning, we opt to fit in. But in so doing, we substitute godly vision for a worldly, truncated conformity. Lacking vision, we follow others blindly.
The Christian vision offers something completely different. It does not, as I say, reject the life-affirming simplicities of life, but seeks to direct them toward fulfilling their true purpose. Recognizing God’s goodly intent offers insight and perspective as we seek to re-direct our energies in accordance with God’s original, life-giving design.
In short, we were made by God for God. And like the author of a play, only God knows why we were created and for what purpose. But because our native vision has been clouded by sin, we easily lose sight of what is genuine and true.
Which brings us to what undoubtedly is the most commonly misunderstood aspect of Lent. In our minds, it’s associated with grim images of pointless suffering and sacrifice. The reason, to be fair, is understandable.
Yet think of it this way. When we resolve to change, when we take to heart the desire to align our lives more closely with God’s vision, we must first let go of certain allegiances and behaviors to which we’ve grown accustomed.
And when we let go of such maladaptive, though closely-held, habits of the heart, suffering naturally ensues. Quitting any habit involves pain. Yet we endure it because we wish to substitute one bad habit for a better one. Indeed, the idea is to make our lives better.
Lent therefore is not about depriving ourselves for the sake of depriving ourselves, as if God is an unfeeling sadist who enjoys watching us suffer.
Neither is God a fickle tyrant who requires we slavishly obey a set of arbitrary, meaningless rules just for the sport of it. Instead, God’s “rules,” when recognized and respected, not only align us with creation’s original purposes, but promise us the fruits of God’s goodness.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “For godly grief produces repentance and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” Suffering the consequences of sin, in other words, leads to death, but suffering for the sake of God produces life. Amen.