Second Sunday in Lent
For most of my life, I have been a sports fan. I will readily admit that I’ve spent far too much time watching games, reading articles and updates about my favorite players (although my means of doing so has changed dramatically—I used to watch the mailbox for the arrival of Sports Illustrated for Kids; now I simply check my Twitter feed), and listening to the so-called experts argue loudly about sports-related topics on ESPN and on various radio call-in shows.
Last week, as the professional basketball season reached its halfway point and conversation began heating up around various players’ contracts and potential trade deals, I heard a lot of discussion about a topic that I’ve probably encountered a million times but never really thought about: the “opt-out clause.”
I don’t have the mind of an agent or an accountant, so I don’t pretend to understand the complex mechanisms involved in the contracts of high-profile athletes, but as far as I can tell, the opt-out clause states that a player can have the freedom to maneuver out of his contract early (say, after five years of a seven-year deal) if he thinks that he will be worth more on the open market than he is currently being paid.
In return, the team gets to pay the player less on the front end of the deal than they might otherwise be required to do. It is, in effect, a sanctioned opportunity to minimize the commitment that a player is making to his current team. It allows that player to trade money for freedom, purchasing the right to walk out if a more appealing situation presents itself.
While I hadn’t ever thought much about the opt-out clause before, the idea stuck with me for a couple of reasons. First, the dollar amounts being thrown around in this discussion were staggering—one player was considering walking away from 23 million dollars a year because he thought he could get more.
Second, I couldn’t help but think about all the people for whom there is no opt-out clause. I’m thinking about the single mother who works long hours for just enough to keep her kids fed, for whom the option of moving up the corporate ladder or choosing from a buffet of offers is nothing more than a daydream. I’m also thinking about the husband caring for a wife with Alzheimer’s, pouring out his energy and love for a woman who doesn’t even recognize him. Or the small-church pastor who wonders if her sermons, her prayers, the hours that she spends with the members of his congregation make a difference in a world where attendance numbers and offering totals are all that anyone looks at.
For these people, and for countless others like them, the notion of an “opt-out clause” simply doesn’t exist. In its place, instead, is something far more challenging: a call to persevere.
Perseverance isn’t the most attractive of virtues. It is a challenge to embrace commitment within a disposable society that usually focuses on the quick fix or the shortcut to self-fulfillment. But perseverance is a virtue that we in the church would do well to recover. As Eugene Peterson has reminded us, Christian discipleship is “A long obedience in the same direction,” a call to persevere even in the midst of hardship, to do the faithful thing even when it is not the easy thing.
This is a realization that resonates with us especially during the season of Lent, as we prayerfully fast and meditate on the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, the desert temptations of Jesus, the road to Calvary, and the hardships that face us as pilgrims in the midst of a broken and sin-scarred world. In our lectionary passages for this week, we see two New Testament examples of this kind of perseverance, unwavering commitment that persists even when the temptation to opt out looms large.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges the church to look to him and other leaders as examples; specifically, he seems to be referring to his statement a few verses earlier, when he said “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” He is calling his brothers and sisters in Christ to press on, to persevere, even in the midst of a culture that follows another path.
Paul goes on to describe those whose “end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” In other words, they cannot see beyond the momentary pleasures of this world to something bigger or greater than themselves.
Paul calls these people “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and makes it clear that those who follow the way of Jesus are to live for something more substantial. We long for, and eagerly await, the one who will “transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” We await a savior who will change us, so that we will be more like the Lord whose name we bear.
But lest we think that Paul is advocating an escapist fantasy or an easy road to redemption, a passive longing for a deus ex machina to swoop in and make everything okay, the gospel passage reminds us that the way of Jesus, the way in which Paul tells us to stand firm, is anything but easy. Instead, at the center of the kingdom into which our lives, our identities, and our bodies are being drawn, is the cross. And the way of the cross calls for perseverance.
Jesus is warned by some religious officials that Herod wants to kill him, and his response is surely surprising to them, even if it is not surprising to us: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
Jesus, the one who came to seek and save, the one who came to pour out his love and his life, is not going to opt out of his vocation. He is not going to abandon his mission because one of the political power-brokers of his day is seeking to snuff out his influence.
“On the third day I finish my work,” Jesus says. The work of healing a broken world. The work of suffering for the sake of those who suffer. The work of bringing new life and resurrection hope into a world of death. The work of embodying perseverance even when it leads to a cross.
Remembering these things does not always come naturally. Embracing these realities sometimes seems all but impossible. But as our Old Testament reading demonstrates, these virtues—perseverance, commitment, faithfulness—have been a part of God’s story from as far back as anyone can remember, because they are at the very heart of who God is.
When God speaks to Abram in the book of Genesis, God’s speech comes in the form of promises, the covenant that will come to define the relationship between this God and this family that is being separated out from all the families of the world. And if embracing these promises will not always be easy for Abram—years of waiting for the son of the promise to be born, years of wandering, sojourning, living in tents while he yearns for the fulfillment of the covenant—neither will it be easy for God, who will remain faithful to the covenant even when abandoning it would seem like the most reasonable option.
It’s in the context of this committed, covenantal love that Jesus’s mission to the cross unfolds, and that Paul’s exhortations toward standing firm become intelligible. The gospel of the kingdom doesn’t come with an opt-out clause. The God of our salvation will always persevere. Because of this, and only because of this, we can persevere as well. As we say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”