Until An Opportune Time


My favorite play is a little two-act musical fairy tale called “The Fantasticks,” (music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones). In the first act, two best friends, pretending to be bitter enemies, forbid their children (a son and a daughter) to see one another. Sure enough, just as the friends had planned, the boy and girl fall in love. Next, the fathers stage a phony kidnapping, with the boy “rescuing” the girl and so winning her father’s “grudging” approval. The first act curtain closes on a smiling, hugging tableau, the cast frozen, as in a photograph, in a moment of elation: happy ending!  When I first saw this play, I turned to my wife Wendy and asked, “What could possibly happen now?”

Act two begins with the characters still frozen in their happy-ending poses. But they cannot hold the pose for long. Soon the group hug breaks apart. The best friends discover, now that they are in-laws, a dozen little things they cannot stand about one another. The boy and the girl lose their infatuation and break up. In short, life goes on. “The Fantasticks” turns out to be about what happens after the happy ending.

I thought of that play this week as I read Sunday’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13), the biblical basis for the church spending these forty days in prayer and fasting.  Jesus, in the wilderness, triumphs over the devil, and the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13, NRSV).  The enemy would be back.  Like “The Fantasticks,” Luke reminds us that there are no closing act curtains in life or in history.  The action continues–something always comes next.  We are never “finished.”

There is a reason that Lent—like Easter, like Christmas—is not a moment, or even a day, but a season.  Jesus came to his moment of victory over the enemy after 40 days in fasting and prayer. Of course, this is a problem for our culture of instant gratification!  But it is also a problem for my own Christian tradition, which has so stressed making one’s “decision for Christ”—as though once for all. Paul, wisely, says not that we have been saved, but that we are being saved—we are on the way.

In this life, we are never “finished”—for good or for ill.  No matter how good it gets, no matter how often we succeed, the enemy will return, “at an opportune time.”  The danger of our ever thinking, self-righteously, that we have arrived is that when trials come, as they will come, when the enemy returns, we will be unprepared, and may be undone.

In Luke, the “opportune time” does come.  The enemy makes another personal appearance: when “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (Luke 22:3). This time, the enemy appears victorious: Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured to death.

Yet even this is not the end!  As we will celebrate when these forty days of preparation are ended, Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, hell, and the grave, and is alive forevermore!

In this life, we are never “finished”, friends–no matter how bad it gets, no matter how often we fail.  I have been learning this through the past week, following the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. There, we voted not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons but also to double down on enforcement, trials, and penalties.  After that vote, I posted a screen shot of the tally on my Facebook page, and wrote, “That is that.”  But my former student and colleague in ministry BT Gilligan told me “No!  That is NOT that.”  It has taken me days to realize that of course he is right!
We are not finished.  God is still at work–in me, in our church, in our world.  Confident in the power of Christ’s resurrection, we need never lose heart!  For while on this side of eternity, there are no closing-act curtains, ultimately, finally, the victory belongs to Christ Jesus.  Thanks be to God.

AFTERWORD:  I preached this message yesterday in Chapel at PTS.  Thanks to Kendra Buckwalter Smith, who invited me, and to my liturgists and co-celebrants at that service, Cici James, Hattie Taylor, and Shawn Weaver.