Sermon: What Is the Meaning of Life?

03.19.2017     Preaching Text: “We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.” (Romans 5:5, MSG)

Last week, the lectionary highlighted the beginning of “salvation history” as Abraham is called to serve as the very first agent in God’s plan to reconcile the world back unto its Creator (after, that is, the ravages wrought by Adam and Eve’s Fall).

But God will not stop with Abraham. For from Abraham, we are told, a great nation shall arise, one that will carry forth God’s plan out into the future.

That nation, of course, is Israel. Biblically Israel is “chosen” not because of any sort of inherent superiority but because of the nature of its mission, its calling, its job: to be the messenger of God’s salvation, God’s plan to reconnect all of life relationally back to its Creator (i.e. to overcome sin).

In a sense, the lectionary readings so far this Lent constitute a kind of “greatest hits” of biblical theology. In today’s Exodus reading we see the origins of Israel’s self-identity as a nation.

Prior to the Egyptian captivity, Israel did not exist as a nation, much less as a unified people. The Jewish race, if you will, consisted of various wandering tribes. They were hunters and gatherers, with each tribe having its own separate identity.

It was not until a group of these disparate tribes ended up in Egypt and fell under slavery that any sense of national identity emerges. One educated guess is that Moses led these tribes out of Egypt in or around 1446 B.C. Significantly, it was at this time that Israel first identified and began worshipping Jahweh as their God.

This identification of God and nation ultimately led to the establishment of the political and religious entity we now know as Israel, with its capital centered at Jerusalem. As the nation developed, and its understanding of God deepened, theologians began to write down the story of Israel.

They begin with the Creation and Garden of Eden stories. Some literalists attempt to date these events at around 4,000 B.C. In any event, it’s safe to say that no one was around to jot down these momentous events on a piece of papyrus or stone.

Before that, the story of Israel’s past was passed down from generation-to-generation by means of Oral Tradition. The Jewish theologians thus went about trying to fill in the blanks in light of their earth-shattering belief that Jahweh was directly involved in the events of human history. The result is the Old Testament.

Today’s reading from Exodus is, in reality, the defining moment for Israel. It is here in the wide open spaces of the desert that they begin in earnest their new relationship with their newly discovered God.

What’s most interesting here is how quickly Israel goes from celebrating their newfound freedom under the auspices of their newfound God to turning against both!

Facing genuine hardship in the desert, they begin to complain, quarrel, or, as the King James Version has it, murmur. They wonder why Jahweh would lead them out into such a God-forsaken place only to let them to die of hunger and thirst.

They begin to feel as if they’d have been better off staying in Egypt where at least they had three square meals a day and a roof over their heads. At this point slavery seems preferable to freedom.

Last week we talked about how God called Abraham to announce a new way of life, one, ironically, reminiscent of life in the now-lost Eden. Israel, the heirs of this message, thus find themselves in the midst of life in transition, having left one way of life in Egypt as they move towards a wholly new, God-centered life to be known in the Promised Land.

Here we see just how difficult this transition from old to new can be. It’s not easy letting go of comfortable habits and circumstances, even maladaptive ones. It almost invariably causes suffering, even deprivation.

One result is that we sojourners are required to live on FAITH, on HOPE, on that which is “not yet seen.”

For, if truth be told, we’ve all known times when all we had was faith, times when our life-circumstances seemed otherwise all but God-forsaken, and when fear and anxiety threatened to overtake us.

At such moments, the tendency is to turn back, to give up, to retreat back into the known and comfortable, regardless of how unsatisfying those circumstances may have been.

At these moments, if we are to move forward, it cannot be by sight, only by faith. When everything around us seems confused and disorientating, our faith asks us to TRUST solely in God’s seemingly elusive promises.

This is where Paul’s words in Romans 5 add to our understanding. I would like to read Eugene Peterson’s transliteration of verses 1-5 from his The Message:

“By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us – set us right with him, make us fit for him – we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

“There’s more to come. We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary – we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit.”

So here we have the alternate reality to Israel’s murmuring in the wilderness. The wilderness has become their new home, and that home, Paul tells us, is not empty, as they and we suppose, but filled with the richness of the Holy Spirit, who is eager to fill us with God’s blessings and empower us to proceed confidently toward the Promised Land.

The sermon title is: What Is the Meaning of Life? The simple answer is that the meaning of life is God’s PROMISE OF GLORY.

Just before Lent began, on the final Sunday after Epiphany, we read the Transfiguration story. At that time we discussed the importance of the Transfiguration in readying us for the impending journey to the cross.

Down in the “valley,” as opposed to the mountaintop, amidst the realities of human suffering, we are to remember why we do what we do, why we have chosen to leave our old life in order to embrace a new, unfamiliar, albeit glorious one. In this remembrance we are fortified for the journey, knowing that at journey’s end is God.

The purpose of life, therefore, in a nutshell, is preparation for the fullness of God’s glory to come. As long as we set our sights on that, and trust (have faith), we can withstand any momentary hardship, even out in the wide-open spaces of the wilderness. Amen.