The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 7, 2017
In India they hold a very different kind of bicycle race, which might strike us as backwards. In this race the victor’s prize is awarded, not to the cyclist who goes the fastest or the farthest, but to the one who goes the shortest distance within a specified timeframe without losing balance and touching the ground.
At the sound of the starting gun, all the competitors begin inching forward just fast enough to avoid tipping over and becoming disqualified.
When the gun sounds at the end of the race, the cyclist furthest from the starting line finishes last, and the one nearest to it wins the first-place prize.
Suppose you enter this bike race without learning how it works. You’d naturally assume a winning strategy would be to outdistance everyone else. So you pump your legs with all your might and leave the others behind in a cloud of dust. But all you’d be accomplishing thereby is insuring you lose out on the prize.
In life we all want to win the prize of happiness or (to use the biblical term) blessedness. By presumption, and perhaps some default setting with which we’ve been programed, we think we know how to pursue the prize.
But Jesus says the winning strategy is the opposite of what we think. He says that if we choose to come in last, we end up coming in first; and if we choose to become broken, we become blessed and put together best.
At a concrete, practical level Jesus’ way involves putting a higher priority upon owning up to our shortcomings than upon building up our self-confidence and impressing others; upon looking out for neighbors than upon looking out for number one; upon admitting our need of God (and others) than upon indulging the illusions of self-sufficiency; upon doing whatever it costs to fulfill righteousness than upon doing whatever it takes to push forward our personal agenda.
Jesus says that His way, as backwards as it may seem, is the only way to the deepest happiness. He also says that to keep to His way we have to reorient our mindset for obtaining the prize we seek. We have to decide, again and again, to depend first and foremost on God’s superior wisdom, strength and grace.
In pursuing happiness and dealing with the challenges to gaining it, we rightfully resolve to bring our best to the task. Applying ourselves with everything we’ve got plays its part in self-improvement and the attainment of our goals. But, if that is all we will rely on, even those of us with the most potential will be confined to limits far more severe than we’d have by availing of help from beyond us, especially One of infinite strength.
The danger with relying on ourselves is that, as Frederick Buechner has observed, the human best can keep us from the holy best. Doing for ourselves the best we have it in us to do disables us from letting something be done for us that is more wonderful still. If we have steeled our intention to make something happen by our own efforts, we have erected a steel-strong barrier against being carried by the holy best of God. If we are wrapped up in bringing to bear our diligence and competence, we have wrapped ourselves in a dense cocoon of self-dependence whose prideful refusal of outside help God will, unhappily but dutifully, respect.
It is of course those of us with the greatest ability who are in the greatest danger here. We are so effective at getting for ourselves everything we are aware we need that we do not see that what we need, more than anything else, is beyond our reach and can only be had if received as a gift. Further, we do not see that hands clenched in determined effort cannot take hold of a helping hand – even when that hand is the Almighty’s.
Thus, to obtain the first-place prize, we have to come to the end of ourselves. We are then blessed when we are cursed with those things that bring us to the end of ourselves: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for what we can’t achieve on our own…when we are knocked on our backsides by running head-long into the limits of our human best and made aware of our need of the holy best…when we become sufficiently broken to be put back together again by God better than before.
Therefore, we need not fear brokenness or seek to evade it. We can trust in Jesus’ promises to the broken, provided we receive His message and act on its truth.
In his book What Good is God?, Philip Yancey draws an analogy from what happened thirteen years ago in the Ukraine when the reformer Victor Yushchenko won the nation’s presidential election but whose election was denied by the government’s fraudulent suppression of the vote.
Election evening the state-run television reported a lie: that Yushchenko had been “decisively defeated”. As always, the government provided a translation for the hearing-impaired. On a small screen inserted in the lower right-hand corner of the TV’s big screen, a person would translate the message into sign language. Only this time, unbeknownst to government officials, the translator was a brave woman who knew the truth and wanted it broadcast. She signed, “Don’t believe what they say. They are lying. Yushchenko won the vote.”
The authorities in the studio, not being conversant in sign language, failed to notice her radical repudiation of the party line. But the deaf viewers understood her perfectly, and immediately took action to lead what was later called the Orange Revolution. They text-messaged friends and family members about the fraud. The word got out to independent, freedom-loving reporters who themselves took up the cause of setting the record straight. As a result, over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded the capital city of Kiev to protest the fraud and demand new elections. The government eventually buckled under pressure and consented to a new round of voting. This time, with an honest election, Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner.
Yancey makes the point that, like the sign language translator in a little corner of the screen, Jesus is giving us the straight story by scripture and Spirit, saying, “Don’t believe what they are saying on the big screen of this world. They are lying. The blessed are the poor, not those who have it all. The blessed are the mourners, the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Give up on your way. Give yourself over to my way. Embrace your brokenness, that I might put you together and bring you into a better life than you could ever create on your own. Come to the end of yourself, and come thereby into my blessedness.”
Let us pray.