Number Your Days…The Third Day
As many of you know, I celebrated a birthday this week. As my younger sister helpfully pointed out, I am inching ever-closer to 50. A lot of you asked me if I planned to do anything special for my birthday this past Wednesday, and I definitely did. I spent the evening of my birthday with all my friends at our Wednesday Night Words small group, on the first night of our five-week class on the subject of…death. At the very least, no one can accuse me of not taking our Lenten theme, Number Your Days, seriously.
As an aside, I will say that every Wednesday night during Lent we’re having some frank conversations about dying well—the process of preparing for our own deaths. Though it may sound depressing, it’s actually something really important and helpful, and we’d love to welcome any of you who would like to join us. (How’s that for a quick week-night programming plug?)
Yes, that’s our theme in worship for this season of Lent, Number Your Days. We’re working with a phrase from Psalm 90, where the Psalmist asks God to. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain hearts of wisdom.”
Along with that call to mindful living, our Gospel texts throughout the season of Lent are peppered with references to time. Each one of them has some phrase mentioning a period of time, and as these gospel texts are leading us, along with Jesus, through the last days of his life, I am supposing that our Gospel passages are calling us, the readers, to thoughtful, intentional living, to taking each day of these lives we’ve been given and living it with forethought and careful attention.
Today’s passage is one of the more unusual passages of Lent. It’s not a parable of Jesus or a familiar story, really. It’s a recounting of an interaction Jesus has with his followers and with those who are standing and watching him from afar. It gives us some insight into what Jesus was thinking…why he would put everything on the line and end up, well, killed for what he believed in.
Today we read from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. For a quick review, you might remember that the Gospel of Luke was written by…Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts. Luke was a Gentile—not a Jew—and the perspective from which he recounts the story of Jesus is the perspective of the outsider. All through the Gospel of Luke we meet a Jesus who is a radical includer—women, the sick, the poor, social outcasts—the Jesus in of Luke’s Gospel is not afraid to include anybody who wants to know more about the message he is preaching.
And what a message it was!
In case you were imagining the Jesus of the softly glowing oil paintings, long hair blowing in the breeze, blue eyes twinkling, carrying a soft, white, fluffy, sweet-smelling baby lamb while surrounded by adoring children, you may want to adjust that mental image. Not only am I pretty sure that Jesus didn’t have blue eyes, I am also fairly certain that the sheep didn’t smell good and that Jesus was not quite as placid and popular as those nursery paintings would have us believe.
Jesus’ message was powerful and grating, unrelenting in its challenge to those who held power and misused it. He consistently spoke out for the inclusion of those who were outcast, and he made everybody nervous by challenging powers and systems that oppressed people and corrupted society.
His aim was to speak the truth that nobody else dared to speak, to risk whatever cost that endeavor would exact, and to consistently extend invitations to anybody and everybody to join this movement away from the brokenness and pain of this world toward the way of the kingdom of God.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus is on a journey toward Jerusalem. Scholars call this part of Luke—seven chapters through chapter 19—Luke’s Travel Narrative, the tension and intrigue mounting as Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem. Today we encounter Jesus at the beginning of that journey while he’s still in Galilee, preaching as usual, when some Jewish leaders with whom he had tussled previously, approach him to tell him that he’d better watch out, that the Roman ruler Herod was out to kill him.
It’s curious how Jesus responds. He begins by calling Herod a fox (and not in a good way!), then basically recounting his calendar for the following three days. I am around for the next three days, he says, casting out demons, healing people, going about my work. For three more days that’s what I’ll be doing—kind of as if he’s saying: just try to stop me!
He then goes on to talk about the city of Jerusalem. So many prophets have come to that powerful city and tried their best to preach a message of justice and peace, and one by one they were killed.
And then, as if he is talking to himself, Jesus says almost wistfully: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” He loves them. Jesus loves them, and he’s not willing to give up on them, no matter what the cost. Bringing a message of wholeness and hope to these people is the purpose of his life. While last week we found Jesus in the desert, tempted and wondering about what his life would mean, this week he’s steely-eyed and determined: he knows exactly what he’s meant to do with his life and he’s going to do it, no matter the cost.
Today I’d like to invite you to notice Jesus’ reference to time…in this passage, three days. Jesus was not checking his calendar and engaging in pithy conversation with his friends about his plans for the next three days. No, the time frame of three days means something, and we know what it means: Jesus was referring to his death and resurrection. Jesus is saying here that he knows full well what’s ahead for him; he knows that the message he’s preaching is one that is going to lead to his death.
But he has a purpose for this life, and that purpose is found in the salvation of Jerusalem, these people whom he loves so much that he will do anything—everything–to help them understand that there’s a better way to live, that the realm of God is coming to be in and among them. He’s on a mission, and that mission is all consuming and utterly defining for his life.
Three days. The reference becomes for us a symbol of the purpose we are called to find in our own precious and fleeting lives.
I recently read a fascinating article about Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, and author of the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which was published in 1946. In 1991 the Library of Congress listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the ten most influential books in the United States.
The book’s premise is based on an experience Frankl had during the years in which he and his family were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: Frankl’s thesis was that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the camps was one thing: purpose.
While Gallup polls show that Americans are happier than we have ever been, almost half of us report that we have not discovered a satisfying purpose to our lives.
Many of us can’t name anything that makes our lives meaningful.
This is a problem, because research shows that having a purpose in life ‘increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.’ Meanwhile, happiness is fleeting and, in fact, the single-minded pursuit of happiness can make us…unhappy.
Are you happy? Good, but happiness is not the same thing as meaning or purpose. Happiness and meaning, in fact, are almost opposites. While happiness is based on receiving benefits from others, meaning or purpose is always found in giving to others. Martin Seligman, a psychologist who studies this topic says that when you live a meaningful life ‘you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.’
Happiness is fleeting…it can change with a change of circumstances. Finding meaning and purpose, however, transcends circumstances and allows you to live for something bigger than yourself.
Which brings me back to Viktor Frankl, and how he came to the hypothesis of Man’s Search for Meaning. I quote, “In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s RothschildHospital.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, his parents would live through significant trauma of adjusting to camp life. Frankl felt that he should be with his parents, to help them. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
He was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, ‘Should I leave my parents behind? … Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?’ Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a sign.
When he returned home that day, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother.
With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps. His entire family, including his pregnant wife, died in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences in the camps, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then. He wrote, ‘Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.’”
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus had his eye on three days…three days that symbolized his purpose in life. He knew where living that purpose would lead him, but he was driven and determined. He lived his life with meaning and purpose.
What are your “three days”? Do you have something, anything, for which you would give up everything? Do you have a passion and calling that defines your life, that gives it meaning, that sets it apart from the hum drum, day in and day out rhythm of life that threatens to swallow us whole, to render our living inconsequential?
We may not end up having to put our lives on the line like Jesus did, but we certainly will face the question of what, if anything, our lives will offer this world. Finding our purpose is not the same thing as being happy; finding our purpose is living each day being and becoming what we were created to be, making our little lives count in the larger redemption and salvation of this broken world.
Because when you and I have lived whatever number of years we’ll live on this planet, and when our lives are over and we’re dead and gone, what legacies we will leave?
Three days. For Jesus they meant a purpose for which he was living. Despite what he would face, he knew what his life meant. This Lent, as we watch Jesus live out his meaning and purpose in life, we can’t help but as ourselves: What does my life mean?