Message from Sunday
First Reformed Church of Little Falls, NJ
On Wednesday, we marked the beginning of Lent, many of you physically marking it by stopping by for ashes to be placed on your bodies. For this year’s Lenten worship series, we’ll be looking at questions—specifically seven questions asked by various figures in the Gospels—and considering together how these questions might be ones that we could ask in our own lives and in our own church context. Here are the questions, and perhaps you can identify the story or context from which they came, perhaps not: “Why are you afraid?” “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” “Who are my mother and brothers?” “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders?” “What is truth?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And finally, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Lent is a time for questioning. Lent is a time for self-examination, for having a deep and honest look at the man, the woman, the person, in the mirror. Lent is the time to ask deep questions of the self—why do I do the things I do? Am I living right before God? What have I done to contribute to humankind’s violence, humankind’s greed? Whom have I hated? How can I change? Lent is the time for a solemn and sober questioning of the self, and then a time for earnest, deliberate change-making.
Luke 2: “Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.” What are questions? Questions are among the most primitive parts of human communication; they are embryos of language. Human children know how to ask questions without instruction. They need only one word, with the correct inflection: “Food?” “Help?” “Mama?” Questions are necessary to human relationships—what a strange world it would be if language only consisted of assertions, commands, statements, and exclamations! There would be no way to get outside of self in relationships—there would be no way to engage in a conversation or to build one’s knowledge of another person.
Sometimes the Bible is referred to as a book of “answers;” we often want from the Bible statements of fact—we want rational, neat statements. But when we actually read the Bible, especially the Gospels, we find that the authors are not so interested in modern, factual, rational, neat truths. But they were very much interested in showing, persuading, encouraging, reasoning, and warning the reader.
This is where questions come in—for while statements excel at communicating truth claims, questions excel at reasoning and persuading, which is where New Testament goals lie. Questions encourage the hearer or reader to think deeply—think of wedding vows: “Do you take this woman? Do you take this man?” Questions open up new possibilities and territories that weren’t there before—think of Jesus’ teaching style: “To what can I compare the kingdom of God?” The Gospels have the highest number of questions in the New Testament (St. John has the most), for we see that very often, Jesus communicates by asking questions and letting his hearers ruminate and come to their own conclusions. On the other hand, the letters known as II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, II John, III John, and Jude contain no questions at all! This of course might be characteristic of St. Paul, whose strong personality and Greek sensibilities lead him to be, like us, more anxious for authority and authoritative “final” answers and statements of fact.
But let us not be anxious for authority and authoritative statements, at least not now--not in Lent. Let us take a Sabbath rest from pronouncements of fact. Let us live in the gray areas for these weeks; not so much craving answers but instead wrestling with the questions of the Gospels. Why?
Well, first, because questions are the building blocks of full maturity. “Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” This is a wonderful picture of the twelve-year-old Jesus, the hunger for knowledge of God’s word so strong that he’s defied his parents to linger in the Temple of Jerusalem, not for just a few hours but for three or four days. The twelve year old Jesus is not the thirty year old Jesus—though he is wise beyond his years, he doesn’t know everything; he desires knowledge and has lots of questions, and has figured rightly that the place in which to ask these questions is the house of the Lord. Thank goodness these teachers of the law accept this young one into their midst and into their deliberations—thank goodness they don’t yell at him or chase him away. It is a lesson to the Christian Church as well, a reminder to listen to children and to take their questioning seriously, to not stifle their hunger for knowledge.
Secondly we must wrestle with questions because, as I read it, questions are a form of worship. What did King David write in that psalm? “One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing will I seek after: to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his Temple.” King David’s dearest wish is to spend an eternity “inquiring” in God’s temple. This psalm can teach us that questions, and even doubts when wrestled with, are not a shameful sign of weak faith or apostasy, but are in fact a form of worship, and a hopeful sign of strong faith. Pat Wellema bravely shared with me a traumatic story of her childhood, when, as a nine-year-old in Catholic school, she was listening to some teachings about the Trinity and had some questions. When she raised her hand and asked, the nun teaching the class told her that if she kept asking questions like that, she would “burn in her bed.” She sat awake on her made bed for three nights running after that, terrified that God would kill her, and for years afterward, kept her questions to herself. Of course, this illustrates that questions are themselves a threat to established powers. But good news, Pat! Questions are not a sign of weak faith or apostasy, but are a hopeful sign of strong faith, and in fact a form of worship.
Thirdly, questions are a product of passion and freedom! In the early church, which was still very much in formation, women especially knew that Jesus had changed things for them, and thanks to the work of Jesus, women were just then entering into spheres that previously had only been open to men, and thanks to the teachings of Jesus, suddenly had access to knowledge that had previously only been accessible by men. And women had questions! Their new freedom in Christ produced an energy and a passion, and they wanted to know! Their energetic questioning, it seems, was disruptive to the house-church’s worship experience in Corinth, such that Paul has to address it in one of his letters—in I Corinthians 14, he writes that “if there is anything that women desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.” But let them ask! For this new-found freedom opens the floodgates of knowledge, and there will be questions. It is the same for any person of new faith. There are questions—we hunger to ask them, we simply must.
So let each week’s question bring you deeper into your true Lent. “Why are you afraid?” “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” “Who are my mother and brothers?” “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders?” “What is truth?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And finally, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Let us by these questions become more mature. Let us also worship God through them. Let us also express the energy of our new-found freedom in Christ. Let us pray.