March Madness Salvation
We’re right in the thick of March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
As an alum, I am a diehard Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan, and Kansas has created a remarkable March Madness tradition in the last ten years.
I don’t have any stats to back this up, but just from anecdotal evidence, KU seems to be the most highly ranked team that chokes the hardest every year in the tournament.
The higher seed we get, the lower seed we lose to with the most humiliating upset.
Sports analysts around the country have wracked their brains trying to explain this phenomenon, how Kansas can lead the nation in multiple categories for an entire season and then have a sustained nervous breakdown on national television for two hours straight during March Madness.
Well, I know the answer.
It’s all my fault.
The most intense phase of March Madness often coincides with Holy Week, and my priorities that week have often gone badly off track.
The reason Kansas keeps choking in the tournament is because I am engaging in gross blasphemous idolatry of basketball during Holy Week.
That’s the awful truth.
Every year the Jayhawk fight song and the Rock Chalk Chant start to blend with “Lift High the Cross” and “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” in my head, and the moral battle is on once again.
If you’d like a halftime report on how it’s going this year, so far the score is Whitney’s Jayhawk Idolatry 1, Whitney’s Priestly Integrity, 0.
Scorekeeping is something we tend to do in all areas of our lives, and our spirituality is no exception.
But everything in our scriptures today is about reimagining our religious priorities.
I don’t know if it is hardwired in our human nature, or is a product of our combined heritage of Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt, but we seem to think that God’s highest priority for our lives is racking up an endless list of perfect moral achievements.
This is how the deadly habit of spiritual athleticism begins.
What do I mean when I say spiritual athleticism?
The quest, subtle or overt, to rack up good deeds and earn God’s favor.
It’s a strange conundrum we’re in, because although we know that God’s love is unconditional and we can neither earn it nor destroy it, that doesn’t mean that God wants us to go out robbing banks and shooting people.
The knowledge of the security of God’s love should motivate us to love our neighbors more fully with every action we take. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
I don’t know about you, but I seem to fall back into the same old anxieties of wondering if I am measuring up to what I think I should be doing for God, and usually I’m not.
What is revealed to us in our scriptures today is a simple truth that we already know but need to reexamine over and over until it sinks in at an ever deeper level.
Obedience to God can never be attained through our own efforts, and neither can salvation.
Both are secondary to and a result of relationship with God.
We begin with our text from Jeremiah. God has already discovered by this point that human moral obedience is a fickle and fleeting phenomenon.
God says that although God’s previous covenant was broken by the Israelites, God wants to try again.
God is not going to say, “Well, clearly these people can’t keep up their end of the deal, so I’m not going to be a part of this. I’m leaving.”
God values relationship over obedience.
As an aside, this is why David is called a man after God’s own heart. David was no great shakes at moral obedience, but he returned to God over and over again, repenting of his sin and asking to be healed and renewed.
And this is what God offers in the new covenant in Jeremiah.
The Israelites will not have to spend so much time studying the law of God and assessing one another as to whether or not they measure up.
There will be no more scorekeeping, either by each other or by God.
Instead, God will be so deeply rooted within them that they will act out of their new selves, the selves that are united with and transformed by God.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
In our lesson from the letter to the Hebrews, we have a fascinating reflection on Jesus and how he changes over time.
It is easy when we think of Jesus to imagine him as a static figure, unchanging.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the author of Hebrews says a few chapters after our reading for today.
But in this passage, the writer seems to indicate something different.
Jesus “learned obedience,” we read. He “became perfect.” He “became the source of eternal salvation.”
That would indicate that at some point in time, Jesus was not perfect and was not obedient and was not the source of salvation.
Well, in his divine self he may have always been perfect and obedient and the source of salvation, but his human self had to learn all those things.
And how did he learn them?
Through relationship with the Father.
He “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” Hebrews says.
And here we don’t mean being saved from literal death, because that obviously didn’t happen.
But Jesus’ mission could have died if he didn’t open himself to be changed and helped to grow by God.
The human side of Jesus had all the same fears that we do, but his relationship with God enabled him to go far beyond what any human could imagine doing.
So if even Jesus Christ had to learn moral obedience, I feel a little better about my own habitual trips and falls in to pride, ego and vain ambition that seem to happen every five minutes.
Then we come to our gospel story, which if you pay attention to how things are happening, is completely staggering.
Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
This is the trigger point, the beginning of the entire drama we will commemorate and experience during Holy Week.
This is the start of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
And pay attention to what starts it. What is the catalyst?
Some Greeks “came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”
The trigger point and catalyst for the events that will change the world and save the world is a group of human beings reaching out for relationship with Jesus.
Jesus entering into his crucifixion is his response to these people saying they wish to see him.
Remember last week when we talked about Jesus being raised up on the Cross so we could see him and be healed?
It all starts here.
And the remarkable part about this is that we are no longer passive observers but utterly necessary participants in the crucifixion and resurrection.
We started it.
Our spiritual hunger for Jesus is what made him decide that now is the moment to offer himself up.
We say, “Jesus, we need you,” and he says, “Here I am.”
And not one part of this has to do with our good deeds or lack thereof.
Who knows what kind of people the Greeks in the gospel story were?
Maybe they were upright, ethical community leaders. Maybe they were thieves and scoundrels.
It didn’t matter.
They asked, and we ask, for relationship with Jesus, and he gives us his body, his mind, his heart, his soul, his life.
Salvation is the overall miracle that undergirds the slow and often painful process of lifelong conversion, of growing up into the full stature of Christ one mistake and one hard-earned lesson at a time.
We don’t get into heaven through moral scorekeeping.
We live heaven right now and into eternity by letting ourselves be seduced and won and transformed by the radical love of Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t mean that morals don’t matter.
What it means is that until we abandon ourselves and our moral efforts to being in transformative relationship with Jesus, we’re simply stuck on a joyless hamster wheel of condemning ourselves and condemning others.
As much as I love the road to the Final Four in March Madness, I am so glad that God doesn’t use the same type of scorekeeping system, because I wouldn’t even make the NIT tournament, much less the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight.
I think instead God’s kingdom must be like a reverse March Madness.
The number one person is Jesus, and then you have the round of twelve which is the disciples.
But instead of battling against each other and being eliminated, more and more people keep being added to the team and to the victory over sin and death.
After the round of twelve you have the seventy who were sent out by Jesus, and then the whole early church, and the Church Universal through all times and places, and then the whole communion of saints, and then all people everywhere, and then all of creation.
More and more and more being welcomed in, more and more love being spread and multiplied, more and more God and goodness and love.
That’s my kind of March Madness, and is a bit crazy, isn’t it?
It’s enough to make a girl remember there is life outside Kansas basketball.
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For a Lenten devotional on forgiveness, please click here.