Passion Play: Living the Story of Christ’s Last Days
The Power of a Vow
1 Samuel 1:9b-20
Over a year a and half ago I was asked by the United Methodist Publishing House to write a resource churches could use as a Lenten study based on the world’s longest running passion play performed in Oberammergau, Germany. The result of that work is this little book and our series this Lent will based on this study.(pic of book cover) Now because our small groups will be using the discussion based on the book I will not have separate outlines on Sunday mornings, but encourage you still to take notes as there will be material in the sermons not in the book or DVD.
(pic) The Oberammergau play is performed just once every ten years in the first year of the decade. Over the months between mid-May and early October this year over 100 performances will take place and this small town of 5,000 people located in the German Alps will welcome over half a million visitors from around the world to attend. (pic) The performances are spoken in German—so those who are going from St. Luke’s be ready. Each performance is 6 hours. 3 hours in the afternoon, then a 3 hour meal break, and the second half in the evening. It is a demanding effort that involves every person in the town.
The question is, Why? Why do they do it? It all started with a vow the people made and that’s where we begin our journey this Lent.
The year was 1632. Fear was sweeping across Europe because of a deadly plague that was killing people at an alarming rate. Its interesting that we are doing this series in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. We understand the fear such news can cause and we wonder what we can do to protect ourselves. In Oberammergau they decided to quarantine themselves. It wasn’t that hard. They had a wall that went around the village and they were very remotely located. (pic) It would be easy to monitor who came in or out.
But a man who had been working in another village came home for an annual festival. Some stories say he bribed the guy guarding the gate. Can’t you imagine him saying, “Look at me. I’m not sick. Believe me I would know if I am.” It reminds us of how sin works. None of us knows the potential of the things that lurk within us. This man had no idea he was carrying the disease. Within days he was dead and soon after his whole family. By this point Oberammergau’s precautions were useless. By the summer of 1633 84 members of the village died, more than one out of every seven people.
The town elders called for a prayer meeting at the church. They gathered in front of the crucifix that is still in the church today. They made the following vow: “Every ten years the devout representation of the sufferings and death of Christ should be given, so that God would have mercy and free our village from the appalling sickness.” The deaths ceased and the next year, in 1634 on Pentecost Sunday, the people of Oberammergau put on their first Passion Play on an outdoor stage next to the church, built over the graves of the 84 people who died.
(pic) To this day, they put on this play. I got to be in Oberammergau on a Saturday in October of 2018, the most important day in the life of the village. It’s the day they announced the cast for the upcoming season more than a year and a half away. It is a big deal. Children grow up wondering if one day they will be selected. To be the person chosen to play Jesus is huge. I’ll share next week about standing next to the person chosen to play Jesus. (pic) It all begins with a service in the theater attended by the whole town. Some of the names of the 84 who died are read again and then everyone joins together in saying the vow. They are a people who have come to be defined by a vow. Their tradition is an example of the amazing power a vow can have in our lives.
How has your life been defined by vows? What are some of the important vows that shaped your life? Vows your parents made? Vows you made to God? Vows you made to other people? Vows are powerful because they change the direction of our lives and those who come after us.
One of the great examples of this truth in the Bible is the story of Hannah. Hannah was a devout woman married to a man named Elkanah. Now Elkanah also had another wife, which is interesting because of the way some people quote the Bible so fiercely when it comes to marriage, but don’t mention that the Bible doesn’t seem to have a problem with polygamy! But that’s for another sermon. The point of this story is to notice that Hannah couldn’t have a child while the other wife could, and the other wife used to make fun of her for that. And whenever the whole family went to the temple to give thanks for their blessings, it made Hannah even more aware of this grief.
Have you ever had an experience like that? You are going through a painful time and find it hard to worship? Sometimes just getting close to God makes you even more aware of the hurt.
Following the Ash Wednesday evening service this week a woman came out and introduced herself. She had tears. She explained that she had watched last Sunday’s service on the internet and wanted to know if she could get in touch with Rudy Rasmus who preached. She said when he started his sermon and said the date Aug. 14, 2017 and that he thought about ending his life, she was floored. That was the day her sister ended her life.
Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all. It is downright hard, because getting close to God can make us aware of our hurts and pain, But God never confronts us with a hurt without wanting to do something about it or something with it! If God confronts our hurt it is do something about or with our pain.
So Hannah prays. She makes a vow. She says, “LORD Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD…” Note a couple things. First the promise is made to God. This is what makes a vow different from an oath. An oath is an agreement or promise between people. A vow brings God into it. A vow may be just between a person and God or it may be like a marriage vow, it’s between two people but also with God as well.
And then notice how the vow has an if/then quality. If God will give Hannah a son, then she will devote him to the Lord. Some people say this sounds more like bargaining with God. The vow of the Oberammergauers sounded like that. If God would spare them, then they would perform a Passion Play. Some would say that is not exactly an example of faith, but this leads to an interesting issue about their vow. The dates don’t quite work. The deaths in the village occurred between November 1632 and July 1633.
But the date associated with the vow is October 1633.
Think about that. More than 80 deaths in seven months. Then after a gap of three months the people finally make a vow asking God to spare them any more deaths? It doesn’t make sense. But I have a theory. The date of the vow was not the first prayer meeting of the people. I believe they had a gathering in July sometime around the burial of that 84th person. They made a promise to God. Then three months later they had another gathering where they made their promise official.
Can’t you imagine someone recognizing that it had been three months since anyone got sick or died and saying, “Hey folks. God showed up for us. We need to come through now!” How easy is it to forget a promise to God once the blessing is in hand? Its like the fellow driving through the park lot. He can’t find a space. He prays, “God, if you’ll show me a space I swear, I’ll start going to church.” Right then someone backs out of a space at the very front. He quickly pulls in and says, “That’s alright God, I just found one.”
A sincere vow, however, is always a response to something we could never do for ourselves. Just think for a moment. When we bargain we bring something to the table. We have something someone else needs or wants, and they have something we need or want. If they give us this, then we will give them that. But Hannah didn’t have anything to bargain with. Neither did the people of Oberammergau. They were vowing what they would do IF God blessed them. Besides what could we possibly have that God needs? We never really bargain with God. We can only vow to be faithful with what God gives us.
Royce Reynolds is a wealthy United Methodist who has given away tens of millions of dollars in his lifetime. He’s give to his church, his conference, various missions and ministries, but he didn’t grow up with money. He grew up dirt poor. He credits the change in his life starting the day he made a vow. He was a teenager walking down a road near his home in Alabama. He said, “God, if you will get me out of poverty I vow to give you a tithe of every dime I make.” And he has.
That’s the power of a vow. It gives you something to live up to.
That’s what a vow does. It calls forth something within us. Rather than an obligation a vow summons the best within me.
There is a scene from the movie Lord of the Ring where Frodo feels the need to carry out his assignment of destroying the ring by himself. He knows this journey will be dangerous. He runs away from his friend Sam and gets in a boat and starts paddling away. Sam stands on the shore begging him not to leave, and when he doesn’t Sam jumps in the water and starts swimming to Frodo even though he can’t swim. He goes under. Frodo has to return to save him. He pulls him in the boat and Sam says, “I made a promise Mr Frodo, a promise! Don’t you leave me, and I won’t leave you.”
That’s the power of a vow. It calls forth the best in us. It gives us a why to live for. The philosopher, Nietzsche, was right when he said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
So let us sum up these thoughts. A vow is our commitment to be faithful in advance of receiving blessings. It calls forth the best within us. But still, the key is keeping it. A vow is powerful only if it is kept. What keeps us faithful to our vows? Somewhere in this idea of the power of vows is staying dependent on God. It is keeping fresh in our minds that were it not for God we wouldn’t be where we are.
Think about that in the life of the people of Oberammergau. So many of them are descendants of those early families who made the vow. If the plague had killed their ancestors they wouldn’t even be here today to carry on this vow. They carry it out nearly 400 years later because they understand God intervened in their past. God is the reason they here today and why they have what they have.
You see, when we enter into covenant with God, our faithfulness is not just up to us. God gives us what we need to be faithful. We welcome God’s partnership into our lives. And God never quits. God never gives up on us. Even when we falter, God stays strong. God is faithful to the end. We stay faithful because we know that we are dependent on God’s faithfulness.
Years ago I heard a pastor friend from England offer a definition for the word covenant. A covenant is like a vow in that it is not just between people. It brings God into the agreement. I believe his definition equally applies to a vow. Let me offer this as a definition of a vow: A vow is a promise to God that is made in a moment of strength so that it cannot be broken in a moment of weakness.
We are feeble creatures. Sometimes we break our vows. We struggle to live up to our promises. But a vow is not defined by our strength. It is defined by God’s, and God never gives up on us.
Close by inviting people to take out inserts…