Too Late

March 27, 2022

Series: March 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Too Late"


41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Too Late

            A person goes to see their spiritual director. They’re wrestling with a decision that feels like it’s getting away from them.  They feel stuck.  The director asks them to give images of what it feels like.  “It like I’m on a train that’s left the station and there’s nowhere in sight to get off.” 

            Do you every feel like that, as if, to mix metaphors, you’re so far down the road that it’s too late to turn, much less turn back?  It’s too late.  It’s fated. The ship has sailed-3rdtravel metaphor.  In the time before planes, trains, or automobiles, there’s a story about a man named Jephthah who bargains with God.  If you give me victory over my enemies in battle, I will give you as offering whoever comes out of my house first to greet me.  This strikes me as extraordinarily poor planning, but perhaps it’s an ample illustration of how our vision becomes clouded when we pursue conquest.  Jephthah wins then loses, for who comes out to greet him, but his daughter.  

            We can be so eager for what we want right now, that we fail to appreciate the consequences, even when we are fairly warned, even when we design the game.  The examples of this are too obvious to point out.  If you do this, then that will result.  What do we do?  This, because that will come later.  Moreover, when later comes, many times we don’t accept it, resorting to blaming others, unable to face up to the consequences our own behavior has wrought. This is a story that says a lot more interesting about us than it does about God. God serves to reflect back to us who we are.

            Part of our trouble appreciating consequences is related to an inability to recognize what has true value.  Understanding value is a key component of the spiritual path, and it often involves departing from what the culture values.  In 2019, I balked when I read that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legendary basketball player, had put up four of his NBA title rings up for auction.  He wasn’t doing this for the money, well not for himself.  The money from the rings, along with some other memorabilia, was going to go to his Skyhook foundation to help kids “learn about science, technology, engineering, math.”[1]  These rings are emblematic of what every professional basketball player chases; they literally call trying to win championships “chasing rings.”  For Abdul-Jabbar, however, their value had shifted.  He was no longer attached to them for himself and instead recognized what they could do for others.  This won’t surprise you if you’ve followed Abdul-Jabbar.  In his playing days, he was engaged in Civil Rights and now is quite a thoughtful essayist on a range of topics.  He went through a religious conversion and one assumes that impacts his values.

            Our sense of spirit is supposed to shape what we value.  It helps us recognize what is precious and often right before our eyes.  When Jesus nears the holy city, the supposed spiritual and religious center of his people, where they are supposed to most see clearly what is holy, he is moved by how they have lost sight of it, and so Jesus weeps. He is moved to tears because they have failed to see what “makes for peace” (Lk. 19:42).  A couple asides are in order here.  Aside 1 - There’s a cuttingly relevant line – we fail to see what makes for peace.  I think of this often as someone who claims to be committed to nonviolence.  Often, we speak up for nonviolence only at times of violence, when the opportunities to invest in peacemaking have already been missed.  The time to work for peace is all the time, not just wartime.  Jesus knows time is running out and the people are not getting it. He foretells their destruction using battle imagery, warning of enemies surrounding them, crushing them to the ground, with not a stone left unturned, because they did not recognize the time of their visitation from God (Lk. 19:44). 

            Aside 2 - Given these two passages and what is happening in Ukraine right now, it’s important to unpack the notion of God-willed war or military violence.  Two major things need to be said.  First, though in the biblical world, or worlds, many believed things war or slavery or exile were divine punishment, it doesn’t mean you have to today.  Are we to believe Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is divine punishment for their unfaithfulness?  Many Russians and Ukrainians share the same faith, though sadly religion is playing a destructive role in this conflict.  Even if the invasion is rebuffed in some greater good, are we to accept the loss of life, the destruction, as anything but utter tragedy? Second, even if you do accept God has used war as punishment, as appears in Scripture, that doesn’t mean you have to assume this for every war.  We tend to universalize biblical texts.  I tend to tread very carefully on the territory of declaring God’s hand in war. I believe our concern should be in discerning our role in things, not fixating on God’s.

            Let’s return to Jesus’ central point – the failure to recognize divine visitation.  Do we recognize when the holy is right in front of us?  It sounds so easy on paper; in life it’s much harder.  Let’s use a smaller example, one about this big (hold out hands).  As you know, we lost our cat Sweet Pea recently.  As soon as she got sick the regrets came.  What if we had done this or that?  Why didn’t we spend more time doing this or appreciating that?  Why didn’t we cherish what was right with us before us before it left us?  Because in life, it’s hard. It’s hard.

            Now, to the other end of the spectrum.  In our “What are you watching?” series that we began when we were all more limited to our homes at the outset of the pandemic, we just discussed Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s satirical allegory for climate change and our stubbornness in facing it head on.  Near the end, as a comet is racing toward the earth, a group gathers around the table for a meal.  It’s a pretty obvious image.  One of them remarks regretfully, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

            The point of the comment was not that everything was perfect, but that it was enough, and it held within it the potential to get better, to move in the right direction.  They had, in other words, what they needed (on several levels). It’s a poignant remark, cutting because they blew it.  They didn’t fully attend to the consequences, and now it’s too late.

             Jephthah comes home from his God-bargained conquest victorious.  He’s promised as an offering whoever comes out of his house first—again, did he think this through?  Out comes his daughter.  He realizes what he has done.  I wonder if he thought, “Gosh, I had it all.”  Then he cries out, “Alas, my daughter!  You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble for me” - ever notice how we project our failings onto the innocent?  He continues, “For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:35). 

I have one simple question for Jephthah.  Why not?  Why not?  Because you have promised God?  What will God do?  Take your life?  Well, presumably that’s what’s going to happen to your daughter.  Why should she bear the consequences of your choices, of your bargain with God and the future?  Shouldn’t you assume the consequences rather than passing them on to the next generation?  Isn’t that what a responsible parent does, endure the consequences of their own actions rather than pass them on to their children as some kind of sick inheritance? Remember, from a couple weeks ago, Shane Claiborne reminding us that if our theology doesn’t make us more loving, we should get rid of our theology.  Either don’t accept that God should take your daughter as “payment” for your conquest or assume the consequences yourself for making such a bargain.  Do not pass them on to her because you think it’s too late.  

            The thing is, it’s rarely too late.  Even in something so grand as that to which Don’t Look Upwas written to direct us.  There’s been a helpful movement as of late from within the environmental community to point out that “doomers” are as unhelpful as “deniers.”  Both impede our ability to do what we need in the present.  Many times, with many things, it’s not too late.  There are often more choices than you see.  They may not be the range of choices you would like, but there are almost always choices if you can look around and recognize them.  We had one extra week with our cat after it had become painfully clear how precious she was.  She fell asleep in my wife’s arms nightly.  She was held.  She slept daily on a warm heating pad.  She was given a chance until her body said it was time.  At least for that window, she had our recognition.

            The spiritual director intervened in the image.  Picture the train coming to a stop, she said, it comes to a station, or even just in the middle of a beautiful field, the doors open, and there you find yourself with a whole range of possibilities.