07.23.2017 Preaching Text: “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:25)
One unique hazard of contemporary life in the West has to do with high expectations. No other civilization has dealt with this before, really.
Which is to say that throughout history societies accepted the hardships of life. The reason? They didn’t think they had a choice. Life was random and often difficult, its outcome beyond their control.
But today, after centuries of scientific advances, we’re tempted, often with some justification, to think we can control events and outcomes.
One need only cite modernity’s countless medical achievements. My mother’s older brother died from strep throat at the age of 12 simply because antibiotics hadn’t as yet been discovered. Today such a malady is anything but life-threatening.
On many fronts these modern advancements have altered our worldview. Consider hunger and malnutrition. In the West today obesity is far more prevalent than people not getting enough to eat.
Even the poorest in America frequently have amenities unheard of in years past, and not that long ago. It’s been suggested, in fact, that the average American today lives a more “luxurious” life, in terms of labor-saving devices as well as food, shelter, and medical care, than the richest kings of old.
And it is within our reach to extend these advancements to the far reaches of the world, helping to alleviate suffering while creating wealth and opportunity. So much so that we are tempted to think, as I said a few weeks ago, that any and all suffering anywhere is our fault, given that, in many circumstances, we could have made a difference.
This and other factors have convinced us that the vicissitudes faced by our forebears, both ancient and more recent, no longer apply to us. With the right application of expertise and know-how we can conquer life’s age-old challenges and create a perfect world here on earth.
So again, a unique hazard of contemporary life is this belief that perfection is not only attainable but is in fact our due! Anything less is simply unacceptable.
One side-effect of this is that anything less than perfection is seen not only as failure but unjust. It offends us. We may even assume it is others who have ruined what otherwise ought to be a utopian world.
That said, today’s readings from Romans and Matthew may strike us as a bit odd. In Jesus’ parable we are told that it is our lot to live amongst the weeds. As Jesus tells it, the perfect world God created of good seed has been invaded by bad seed – the weeds.
The particular weed to which Jesus refers is a common one called the darnel. The darnel weed when it first sprouts looks almost identical to a young wheat plant.
By the time it has grown to full length, however, the darnel can no longer safely be pulled up. The reason is that its roots get tangled up with the roots of the wheat plant. If one were to pull up the darnel weed, it would rip up the wheat plant as well.
Jesus advice? Let the two plants grow together side-by-side until harvest time. At that point the two plants will be separated safely.
Here Jesus is saying, for one thing, that evil exists. It’s a fact of life. We cannot avoid it. Yet his larger point is that when the harvest comes, when he comes again, the separation of evil from good shall result.
As I say, this presents a problem for modern utopian idealism. It means there are limits to what we humans can do. It also means we are destined to live in a world that we ourselves cannot perfect. Only God can fix the brokenness we are destined to co-exist alongside.
We can interpret this two different ways. We can despair of our limited powers. We can protest Jesus’ seemingly defeatist message and how it calls into question our rightful ability to fix the brokenness of our world. It may even lead us to conclude that Jesus is simply wrong in this matter, given all the evidence we see as to how we can make a positive difference.
But the other way of interpreting Jesus’ message is to see it as one of immense hope. No matter how dim life may appear, no matter how much the world’s brokenness may challenge us or hurt us, God will intervene and evil will be defeated…completely.
This is, perhaps ironically, a freeing message. Among other things, it advises that we need not despair of life’s many imperfections. Additionally, it sets us free to pursue our Christian calling to love and serve our world knowing that perfection is simply beyond our control.
Consider Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Far from their ancestral home, with no hope of imminent return, they must carve out an existence in a foreign land, surrounded by the godless paganism of Babylonian culture.
In Jeremiah 29, Jahweh instructs those in exile: “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…[Seek] the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
He then offers the one important caveat – that they not fall prey to the dreams and deceptions of those among them, the Babylonians (the weeds?).
The larger point is that we Christians are properly strangers in a strange land. This world is not our true home. We are citizens of heaven, God’s children. And while we are required to live in this world and seek its welfare, we are never to be deceived by its false dreams of, among other things, perfection born of human control.
Knowing this offers us the very best possible consolation: the truth that God will indeed right all wrongs – the wheat and the weeds shall be sorted.
In the meantime, as Paul commends, we are able to be joyfully hopeful, fully aware that “hope that is seen is not hope.” We hope instead “for what we do not see,” and “wait for it with patience.” Amen.