Wednesday, August 4, 2021

There is a happy ending

Re-posted. I've updated the introduction slightly.
A sermon I delivered on "Layman's Sabbath," October 17, 1970, during morning worship at the Milton, Wisconsin, Seventh Day Baptist Church. It was later printed in the December 14, 1970, Sabbath Recorder. The Recorder editor titled it "History's Most Important Event." It was submitted to the Recorder by the proud mother of the soldier whose letter I quoted at length, Pvt. Norman R. Burdick, who is now a retired English professor. I don't believe there is anything that he or I wrote more than half a century ago about which I have changed my mind since.
When the astronauts returned from the first moon landing, President Nixon, in the excitement of the moment of their return to the rescue ship, hailed that which they had accomplished as the most important event in the history of the world. Later, in a less exuberant mood, he might have reconsidered that statement, perhaps recalling other historical moments which were of great importance. Nevertheless, it seems to me significant that the President could have made such an unqualified statement and that it could have been heard and apparently accepted by so many without a second thought.

I doubt that any such evaluation concerning the preeminence of any such historical event could have been made with so little protest in any other century of the Christian era. For, of course, that act of reaching the moon as well as any other of the great accomplishments of man pales beside the actual preeminent event of history—what Tolkien has called the eucatastrophe of human history—the event which gives promise of joy, of happy ending (or at least the denial of inevitable, universal defeat in the universe for man); the event which we call the Incarnation—the moment when eternity invaded time, when God became a man and lived among men, a life, a death, and a rising after death—occurrences so great in their import that no conceivable event in history either before or since is even comparable, much less greater.

I'd like to read a letter that I received about two weeks ago from a friend of mine which impressed me a great deal. This friend is in the Army right now and for the last several weeks his reading has been largely restricted to the Bible as other books are not readily available. This is the letter:
I've been reading the gospels—and perhaps more forcibly than ever before, I've been struck with the pure drama, the unique tragedy with the happy ending, the sheer literary achievement in this play directed by the hand of God.

It is drama and tragedy in a higher form than any play ever written, life outdoing art, or perhaps the art of God outdoing that of man.

In ways, in its high drama and boisterous brutality, the story resembles Shakespeare, and nowhere more so than in the crucifixion.

The complexity of Shakespeare's characters is dwarfed by the sheer awe Christ's words and deeds create. And the others do symbolic actions with an exact rightness even Shakespeare might envy.

The Last Supper, with the presence of the traitor, his existence announced, but identity strangely not revealed, as if he were an Iago or Edmund; the strange scene of Christ praying in the garden, God asking God to let this pass from Him, while not far from Him His disciples cannot even "wake with him one hour" for His sufferings, then the line and transition, the most dramatic I know, "the hour is at hand for the betrayal of the Son of Man." The symbol of the Judas kiss, the washing of Pilate's hands, and the fleeing of all away from Him, brought to its height in Peter's threefold denial. All of this the complete rejection of Christ by man. Then there is the cruel treatment of Christ, the brutal and boisterous humor of the common man, from casting lots for the cloak to the crown of thorns and the vinegar.

Then, after the formal "Tragedy" ends, the only perfect happy ending to a real tragedy that I know—the hero triumphs in death and is resurrected. And it's a tragedy with an ending that means life not only for one, but for all.

And for me, one of the proofs of it all is that it is this perfect a tragedy. I do not believe in some unknown Jewish writer or writers that much greater than Shakespeare: I do not even believe in a mortal man able to write some of the lines of Christ. And most of all, I do not believe in anyone either convinced of Christ or trying to create a new religion, who could write those lines I still don't wholly understand, that render His isolation complete, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

That line in dramatic effect is greater than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. Its mystery is stupefying. And no spreader of any gospel would have invented it; only a man who was there and who heard it, and who felt compelled to tell all other truths would have put it in his account of the one he believed was his savior.
It is this real life drama, this perfect tragedy with a perfect happy ending, which really happened, which when accepted as fact, as Christian do, leads to a view of life and death altogether different than if those events had never occurred.

C.S. Lewis once wrote about an experience of his while patrolling as a member of the Home Guard in England during the Second World War. With him on patrol were two men, one of them like himself a man of educated background and the other a man of a rather more humble educational background. The third man was shocked upon learning that Lewis and his friend did not believe that the war was likely to end wars or even greatly contribute to the abolition of human misery. His reaction was that if this were true, if what they were doing was not going to effect great change in the world, then what was the use of the world's going on? And Lewis himself was astonished that any man could have assumed that there was good in the world going on. Lewis felt that the world is a place of futility. The world is falling apart all the time. Things are disintegrating, not unifying—the tendency is toward disorder, not order—and he was surprised anyone could have assumed that things were always getting better. Later he wrote a great deal about this fact. He said that the only way you can conclude that life is worthwhile is if you accept an importance in the actions of men which goes beyond the world; that they may not find their fulfillment in this life, but find their meaning on some greater stage than simply this world.

In the modern age it seems to me that we are confronted with two major attitudes on the part of a great many people. Either there is the assumption that things are always getting better, that the world is perfectible, that either through self-discipline, the discipline of societies, the elimination or reordering of social structures, we can accomplish an earthly paradise—and this is, I think, very unlikely given the sort of fallible people we all know we are. Or, secondly, there is the position that there is no direction in creation, that life is meaningless and therefore that we must act without rational goal, drop out, or find meaning simply in doing things, in acting without hope of achievement.

Christianity, I think, contains the answer to both of these positions. Christianity says, it seems to me, that, yes, it may very well be that meaning is not to be found in this life and in that which is accomplished on this earth, but that there is meaning, and that the actions which we take do have ultimate meaning, ultimate importance. It answers the utopians, the believers in progress, by pointing out the futility, the frustration which will necessarily come with the pursuit of their dreams and by directing them toward an achievable reality. All will be fulfilled. That is the message of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. There is a happy ending. All will be made right, but at the end of history, that is to say, not in history. Even so it is necessary that we act.

Christian action is necessary, because, although it may not save the world it will make the world a more tolerable place with less suffering. It will do this in two ways—by telling men that they can have a relationship with that God who died for them, a relationship which is real and which will give unity and fullness to their lives. That is one way and the way I think most important. But that way leads to another—to action which Christians may take in society to make life more tolerable. The early Church acted to eliminate such practices as infanticide, abortion, the practice of total war and to organize charity to improve the quality of life. The church today must also act, must continue to increase respect for life, both for life as such and for its quality by introducing people to Christ.

"But God so loved the world...", so familiar that we may never stop to consider how peculiar this statement really is. How could God love us? We are not really lovable, even when we do the right thing it is usually for the wrong reason—not because it is right but because by so doing we gain approval, or because someone will like us, or even in order that we may congratulate ourselves on our righteousness. Yet we are assured that He loves us, and, I fear, many of us accept His assurance with the assumption that this love is somehow merited. It is not. But we are still loved and we must respond to that love by showing it to others.

Sabbath Recorder, December 14, 1970, pp.5-6, 13. [pdf]

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