Last Sunday was the birthday of celebrated poet W. H. Auden. Had he not died, he would have been 114. His work habits were simple. He started his morning with strong coffee and toast. Then he smoked cigarettes while doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. When he completed the puzzle (quickly, I bet!), he read the obituaries. After that, he went to his desk and started writing.
One morning, after folding up the obituary section, having just appraised himself of those who had shuffled off the mortal coil, he stubbed out his cigarette butt, straightened his tie, and wrote these words from his masterpiece, For the Time Being: “We who must die demand a miracle… Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.”
You’ve likely heard that Auden quote before in some Christ Church context. It’s one of our favorites because it gives poetic language to bible truth. And the bible truth served up by the lectionary this 2cd Sunday of Lent comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Paul speaks about Abraham’s and Sarah’s extreme old age and their yet unfulfilled hope for a child. In fact, the child was more than just a hope; an heir had been directly and specifically promised to them by God. I love the vivid language Paul uses here to describe the situation. Abraham “considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old).” He also considered the “barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” The bible, apparently, is not squeamish about the sex lives of people on the cusp of being centenarians!
So, despite all the evidence, despite all the crushing experience, despite all the physical deterioration, despite all the decades of unfulfilled promise, despite the layer upon layer upon layer of disappointment, Abraham, the bible tells us, hoped against hope. Hope against hope. Isn’t that a strong phrase? How on earth could he, after all he’d been through, still hope against hope?
Well, he hoped against hope for one reason and one reason alone. Abraham hoped against hope because he knew he was in “the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Do you hear how powerful those words are? Gives life to the dead? Putting your trust entirely in a God who brings into existence the things that do not exist?
I wonder if you’ve been there before? To a place in your life where you have been bereft of any way forward? In your marriage or in your singleness? In your career or in your lack of a career? With your young children, when all you want to do in when you wake up in the morning is get to the end of the day when they go to bed and you can pour a glass of wine? Maybe just in your life in general, where the monotony of the days piles up, one on top of the other, until those days become walls that have hemmed you in on all sides?
You know the descriptors: All options exhausted. Every idea tried and found wanting, brick wall, dead end, no gas left in the tank, when all hope is gone. Or, as in Abraham’s case, as good as dead. Now, here is the question I want to pose to you. I wonder, is this a bad place to be? Or is it maybe – just maybe – a good place to be? At least from God’s perspective.
Like much of the world, I’ve been thinking about and praying for Tiger Woods this week. Praying that he has the time and space to fully recover from his horrific car crash. The recent HBO documentary on Tiger is deeply compelling. Even those who disliked Tiger for his aloofness, his seemingly mechanical victories, or his well-documented exploits had to have been moved to compassion by what this man has been through. A child prodigy in the national spotlight since he appeared on TV with a golf club at 2 years old. Intense pressure from his father. Global scrutiny. And a ridiculously prodigious talent with all the attending pressure that goes along with such a rare gift.
That pressure to produce was described by baseball agent Scott Boras on a podcast with basketball coach Steve Kerr and football coach Pete Carroll. Speaking about working with extremely gifted athletes, Boras said, “They know it, they feel it, they have expectations, and then they have a dedication to it. And often they have an edge, and that edge causes really a lot of issues in their lives. …Because there is fear that goes with it, and the greatest fear is, ‘I have got to be what I should be. I’ve got to be that guy that I should be.’ And that wears them out.”
“Because once they have the great season, the most difficult season is always the next season, because the expectation, the ease of their performance and the brilliance that the fans see, it’s like they should be able to give it and give it every day. And there is almost an internal anger about what they have to go through to repeat that greatness.”
Obviously, you are not like Tiger Woods and I am not like Tiger Woods. But you don’t have to possess prodigious gifts to understand the pressure to produce. You don’t have to be on the world’s stage to understand the gap between what is expected of you and what you actually are. That gap is filled with pretense, anxiety, anger, and pain. And all you seem to do is mind the gap.
So, back to my question. What if life – or even God? – brings you to a place where that gap doesn’t exist? Not because you have achieved the top (which demands a next season) but because you are at the bottom – as good as dead. What if you are brought to place where you can honestly say, “I who must die demand a miracle, nothing can save me that is possible.”
Luther reminded us that we must be brought to a place of despair in ourselves before we are ready to receive the grace of God. Then and there you are ready to believe in a God that calls into existence the things that do not exist. Then and there you – when nothing possible can save you – are you ready to believe in a God who gives life to the dead.
Because, you know what? That is exactly what God did. Not only did he give Abraham and Sarah a son – He also gave up His only Son. Jesus was not as good as dead. He was dead. Nothing possible could save Him. And then the miracle happened. Up from the grave He arose! The walls came tumbling down. The gap is gone. As Paul says in our passage, Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Let us pray. Bring us, dear Lord, to a place of real belief in You, the God who calls into existence in our own lives the things that do not exist, and the God who gives life to the dead.