When I was five years old, I was sent to the school nurse by my kindergarten teacher, who was very concerned that I was ill. The school nurse concurred with the teacher's opinion. My face was flushed. My core temperature was elevated. My mom was called to take me home. What no adult seemed to see, however, is that my outward condition was simply the result of an inward secret. Underneath my school clothes, I was wearing a one-piece, fleece pajama suit, a pair of tighty-whitey underpants over them, and a terrycloth towel for a cape. The heat came from the fact that beneath my mild-mannered exterior, I was a superhero! And I've got pictures to prove it!
A lot of us begin our lives that way, I think. Beneath our ordinary exteriors, at the start, there beats a passion to be and do something extraordinary. No kindergartener, when asked what he or she wants to be when they grow up, ever answers, "I'd like to be an average American consumer. I'd like to drive a minivan and spend my days cleaning the house and paying the bills. I'd like to go to work every day, answer emails, and push stacks of paper around my desk. My great ambition in life is to retire early and improve my short game." If your kids are saying that sort of thing, pull them off their medication immediately!
Most of us, when we start our journey, have dreams of doing something "super"—literally "above and beyond"—with our lives. We want to fly high and right wrongs and leave a mark and help people in life. This is one of the reasons why there still remains such a market for superhero films in our day. People flock to see Spiderman or the X-Men, to watch Catwoman or Batman, because there is a part of all of us that thrills at the thought that somebody's ordinary life might suddenly be transformed into something extraordinary—that he or she, and even you or me, might secretly have within us or suddenly be given the gifts needed to do something super.
And we can also see how badly superheroes are needed today. Can't we? We can see how much the world needs new kinds of leaders, those with a vision of truth and justice even purer than the American Way. We can see the need for people who look beyond their own interests, who can rise above the temptations and trivialities that drag so many down, whose very presence rallies the best aspirations of those who meet them. We know how badly our homes and workplaces, our schools and societies, our environment and elective offices need more than ordinary characters. Where is "the One" who will redeem what has gone wrong, who will set right what is broken, who will provide the power to transform all that needs turning around? It is why we keep looking up to the sky.
We cannot save ourselves.
At the start of life, some of us wonder if we might be "the One" ourselves. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," we sing as children. As teenagers or young adults, we resolve with our peers that we'll be the heroes that make the difference in this world. And then, slowly, the cape begins to come off. Life presses in around us. Day-to-day requirements weigh in upon us. It becomes harder to defy gravity.
Like David, whom we studied last week, we begin to recognize that there is much about our own character that is far from heroic. We can't seem to leap over our own bad habits and ingrained patterns, much less a tall building. We can't seem to outrace the demands of our own schedules and the consequences of our past actions, much less a speeding bullet. We feel increasingly powerless before the locomotive of a changing world and its institutional engines. If we ever had a body of steel, it too soon becomes a body of flesh, wearing out, breaking down, and no longer performing the way a superhero's should.
As the cape slips off, we start looking beyond ourselves for something or someone to be our Redeemer and that of our world. Maybe science and schools will save us, we may come to think. Perhaps we'll be able to overcome mortality through medicine, imperfection through genetic engineering, social ills through better education. Surely humanity is on an escalator of progress that eventually, with more knowledge, will save us all.
Or perhaps, sex will save us. Margaret Sanger, a social psychologist of the early twentieth century, taught that many of the problems of contemporary life were simply the result of the suppression of our natural sexual impulses. Destroy "the cruel morality of self-denial and sin … Remove the constraints and prohibitions which now hinder the release of inner energies," wrote Sanger, "and most of the larger evils of society will perish."
Or maybe stuff will save us. How many advertisements have you seen that present a man or woman in distress who is suddenly presented with a new car or appliance that seems to usher that person into a state of newfound bliss? Perhaps the redemption we all seek is as near as Costco. Maybe the hope of the world is a Wal-Mart in every town.
Or will it literally be "from the sky" that our help comes? My college graduation speaker, Carl Sagan, hoped that space will save us. He believed that one day an advanced race would come to earth and, as Sagan put it, teach us "the laws of development of civilizations" that will enable us to evolve and control society the way the laws of physics and chemistry give us a handle on the development of physical nature. His final movie, Contact, declared his ironic faith in a rescue from the stars.
Do these approaches to salvation seem sufficient to you? Those who've studied history carefully over the last century have noticed that scientific knowledge and schooling haven't ushered in the utopian era its prophets expected. Lacking a moral center to guide the use of our discoveries, our brilliant technologies have instead ushered in an age of unprecedented terror, stupefying speed, and accelerating fragmentation.
Our sexual liberation has also failed to deliver what its enthusiasts promised. We now have a world where one in four women suffers from a sexually-transmitted disease, where marriages dissolve 50% of the time, where AIDS devours entire countries, and abortion, fatherless homes, and all the social problems that proceed from this now mutilate lives by the millions. Where are we going to find the standard of "love" or the image of "covenant" that guides the healthy use of our bodies?
As helpful as free enterprise is, our capacity to produce and market stuff has also failed to birth the contentment we seek. Instead, it has bred a world in which the emptiness of the affluent is epidemic and the resentment of the have-nots has become a plague of crime and class division. Can we afford to wait for a spaceship to come teach us a better way—to create a capacity for heroic living that goes more than pajama deep?
From whence cometh our help?
Three thousand years ago, the psalmist asked the question that all of us must sooner or later ask. "I lift up my eyes to the hills," he said in Psalm 121, "from whence cometh my help?" And then David went on to make a statement of faith, borne out in the experience of his life. "My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."
The great Russian intellectual, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to the same conclusion in our time. "If I were called upon to identify the principal trait of the 20th century," he said, "I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than this statement: Men have forgotten God." If humanity in the 21st century is to put the pieces of life's puzzle together again, then we must lift up our eyes to the God who alone provides the means for our redemption.
Once, long ago, a community of human beings lost their faith in what the world was selling them as the solution to the problems of their souls and society. We grew weary, as Paul says, of being "mired in that old stagnant life of sin. [We] let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell [us] how to live … We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, [God] embraced us."
God reached out across time and space and entered human history. He came as a babe in his mother's arms in order to take us into his arms. As an adult, Jesus stretched out his arms upon a cross to embrace the whole world with his self-giving love. If you read through the rest of Paul's writings, or those of the other apostles, you can see the difference this embrace made.
God is willing to save us if we are willing to obey.
These people stopped trying to hide their fears and failures and started to confess them to God and one another, resting in the forgiving grace of God. They stopped simply trying to be good and started training to be good by practicing disciplines of prayer and fasting, of Sabbath and service, of silence and solitude that reconnected them to God in a way that allowed His goodness to fill them up. They met together every week in small groups to study Christ's teaching and to celebrate the work of God's Spirit in each of them.
In other words, they took steps to arrange their lives daily and to align their lives personally with the life of the only Superhero, the only Savior of our race. And mysteriously and undeniably, Jesus poured his life through them in a way that revolutionized their world. Paul says: "[God] took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ … Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish!
God has not stopped giving his gift and the world has not stopped hungering, even amidst its present amnesia, for what only God can do. So what I want to ask you, in closing, are three brief questions:
First, does God have you where he wants you? Are you at a point in your life where you are tired enough of trying to be the superhero, tired enough of waiting on the world's version of salvation to work for you and the people you love, that you will let God do what he longs to do in you and through you?
Secondly, will you trust God enough to let him do it—to forgive your past sins, to renew your present character, to reorder your future life—as a gift of his grace to you from start to finish?
Finally, will you express that trust in a practical way? Trust is more than a mind-game. I think of the story of the man who once stood at the edge of Niagara Falls, watching in wonder as a high-wire artist performed his art on a cable stretched across the rim of the falls. When, at long last, the high-wire man dismounted at the end of the cable near the spectator, the enthusiastic watcher was among the first to rush over and begin gushing at the daring man. "Why, that was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," said the spectator. "You really think so," said the performer. "Oh, yes," replied the man in the crowd. "I've never seen anyone as gifted with balance as you are. You are super. You could do anything up there." "Do you think I could make it across the wire pushing that wheelbarrow over there," the high-wire artist asked. "Oh, certainly," said the man, "you could probably do it blindfolded." "You've got that much confidence in me?" the artist inquired. "I do," said the man. "Great," said the artist. "Climb into the wheelbarrow."
When the New Testament speaks of trusting in God, it is not a mind-game the writers are describing. It is a wheelbarrow-faith. In fact, when John's gospel speaks of those who believed in Christ, the Greek preposition that we translate as "in" is actually the preposition "eis," which literally means "into." The call of Scripture is to believe into Christ—to climb into his wheelbarrow, in a sense.
Christ wants to save us. He came to be our Redeemer. But in order for him to take us where he wants to, we have to trust him in that active sense. Will you rearrange your life's rhythms, your family's patterns, so that you can climb into a deeper relationship with Him? As Paul says, will you do so, so that you can "join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for [you] to do, [the] work we had better be doing" in this world that God so loved that He sent His only begotten Son?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.