Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who is unpredictable
but always present and always faithful. Amen
probably the most well-known Bible verse in the world
and as such probably the most misused Bible verse in the world.
Seen on signs at sporting events,
or at protests,
sadly usually held by people advocating hate,
scrawled as graffiti or on billboards by the road
John 3:16 has become shorthand
for the idea that unless you believe in Jesus
you’re going to hell.
Frankly, I’ve never understood this evangelistic strategy
using God’s ultimate act of love
to inspire fear that leads to someone “accepting Jesus as their personal savior”
so that the evangelist can add another tally mark
in the “souls saved” column
and all this happens because eternal life
has been come to be understood as the reward of the next life
after this life has been endured.
I don’t know about you
but that doesn’t sound like particularly good news to me.
So what are we to do with John 3:16
and it’s offer of eternal life
especially if that doesn’t mean going to heaven
while everyone else goes to hell?
We have to revise our understanding of what God’s love does
and what is meant by salvation,
that big loaded church word that gets tossed about all the time.
When we take these questions to the Bible
and begin to look through scripture
we find this:
that salvation is not seen as a future reward
but a present way of life,
to be saved is to live life in the presence of God.
Each of our readings for this morning
illustrates this view
which can be summarized as:
some ways lead to death,
God’s way leads to life.
Take for example our first reading from Numbers,
this is the time in the story of the people of Israel
where they are in between,
God brought them out of Egypt
but they are not yet at the promised land,
they are wandering in the wilderness,
and in the wilderness they’ve quickly forgotten
just how hard life was in Egypt
and they find ways to complain about everything
to God and Moses
culminating in this story
where their complaints no longer make sense,
there’s no food, there’s no water, and we hate this food that appears everyday they whine.
And this seems to be the last straw for God,
who sends poisonous serpents among the people
who when they start dying from snake bites realize that they have sinned against God
with their complaining
so they go ask Moses to pray to God for them
to take away the serpents,
they wish to be saved from the serpents.
And God delivers them,
but not in the way that they expect,
God tells Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole
and when someone is bit, if they look at the bronze serpent they will live
and the thing that has been an instrument of judgment
is now the instrument of salvation.
God does not undo the snakes
that the Israelites let loose in the world with their complaining,
but God gives them a way to endure the consequences
and now whether the snake means life or death
depends on the actions of Israel,
turning away from God leads to death,
turning toward God leads to life.
This still happens
when we indulge in self-involved complaints
or speak ill of another person,
we unleash the poisonous serpents of words into the world
that come back to bite us
and when we realize our mistake
and we confess to God and ask for forgiveness
God does not undo what we unleashed on the world
but God does forgives us and shows us a way to live
that leads to healing and life.
Some ways lead to death,
God’s way leads to life.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians
approaches things a little differently,
Paul defines alive and dead not based on whether our heart is beating
but on our relationship to God.
Paul considers death being apart from God
and life to be in the presence of God.
The trouble is as humans
we can’t seem to stop sinning
and separating ourselves from God.
In fact God knows that it is impossible for us
to do and say all the right things
that would lead to being in the presence of God,
of bridging the gap between human and divine,
so God takes care of it all for us.
God works through Christ to make us alive,
and through Christ brings us into the presence of God as a gift,
and that gift becomes a reality for us
when we trust that it is so
and begin to live in the presence of God.
We are saved by grace through faith.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” adding John 3:17 makes a difference
God wants the same quality of life for all creation,
abundant life lived in the presence of God
and God offers this life to all, freely,
it becomes a reality in our life
when we trust the promise
and begin to live in the presence of God
and even this trust is a gift of God
who continually reaches out to us,
turning us toward God.
But there’s still the talk of judgment in John
and in this talk
the point that John is trying to make
takes us back to the image of the bronze serpent,
remember how it became both an instrument of judgment and of salvation at the same time Depending on how the people related to the bronze serpent?
That’s how the judgment John is talking about works
Jesus lifted up on the cross an instrument of death
becomes the way to life lived in the presence of God
and whether Jesus means life or death,
salvation or judgment
depends how people relate to Jesus,
turning to Jesus means life -life lived in the presence of God,
turning away from Jesus means death- life lived apart from God.
Salvation and judgment are present ongoing realities,
and God is always reaching out,
offering life abundant,
to us and all creation
and the way God reaches out is through us.
When we share the good news of life lived in the presence of God with others,
the loved God has for the world
and we share it because we have experienced the gift of life that God has given us,
we share it because we know that God offers that gift to everyone,
no matter what snakes we’ve unleashed on the world,
we know God will find a way for us to live with them
and while that way is unpredictable,
God is always present and always faithful.
God’s way leads to life. Amen
2nd Sunday of Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3: 1-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who descended and ascended because of love. Amen
Jesus, what are you up to?
I think this is the root question
behind Nicodemus’ visit and conversation with Jesus.
What are you up to?
You’re a teacher with incredible insight into God,
you’re doing all these signs so you must be from God,
what are you up to?
And Jesus’ response
really only serves to confuse Nicodemus more.
Well, says Jesus, first off,
you can’t know that I’m from God because I do signs,
that’s not good proof
and actually, I don’t really trust anyone who believes in me because of my signs,
the only way you can sense the presence of the kingdom of God,
which I represent
is by being born again, from above.
Say what now? Nicodemus says,
uh born again?
I don’t think I’ll fit back in my mother’s womb
No that was a metaphor Jesus says,
try thinking of it this way
born of water and spirit,
remember spirit and wind, intimately connected,
you can see the effects of the wind but not where it starts or ends.
Uhhh what? Nicodemus is still confused,
and Jesus wonders out loud,
are you really one of the best, wisest teachers in Israel,
and you don’t get it?
This is big stuff here,
and if you can’t figure out earthly stuff
how can you figure out heavenly stuff,
try it this way, it’s like Moses and the bronze serpent,
you know that story right?
I’m going to be the bronze serpent for the whole world.’
And if you still don’t get the how,
try the why,
God loves the world,
the whole world,
God wants to save the world.
I’m the way God has decided to save the world.
Nicodemus is on the path to becoming a disciple of Jesus,
through his appearances
John marks the various stages on that path
and in this scene uses Jesus’ teaching
to communicate the heart of John’s gospel and approach to Jesus,
that salvation is not a distant future
but right now in the present,
it is life lived in the unending presence of God,
and when we live in the unending presence of God
our lives are no longer defined by flesh and blood but by God.
there’s a reason discipleship takes time,
it is a completely different way of being in the world.
Jesus uses several images in his conversation with Nicodemus
to try to convey the transformation that leads to this way of being.
He starts with the image of birth,
that transition that marks the beginning of life in the world,
we need a similar transition into the world of the kingdom of God Jesus says,
that transition is marked by water and spirit,
in a word baptism
a moment that is both symbolic and transformational,
through the visible act of the splashing of water
we are joined to the community,
through invisible the work of the spirit
we are transformed into children of God
joined to Christ, made members of the kingdom of God.
For some Christians being “born again”
is a moment of human decision,
you’ve probably heard the language
or had someone ask you if you’ve accepted Jesus,
in the Lutheran understanding of what happens in this transformation
that approach gives way to much credit to us humans,
rather transformation is a gift from God
through the workings of the spirit.
Jesus uses the image of the wind to describe the spirit to Nicodemus
for whom this was a familiar image
in Hebrew the word for spirit “ruach”,
is also the word for breath, wind.
In Genesis God is described as creating with breath
speaking things into being through the spirit.
The earth creatures that God molds
only become living humans
when God fills them with breath, spirit.
This is something that Nicodemus gets.
But in this conversation,
Jesus says the spirit is like the wind in another way,
we only sense its presence by the effect is has as it moves by.
We are quite familiar with wind in Nebraska,
driving along if I feel a gust move my car
I look to the grass and trees along the side of the road
to confirm that it is windy,
if I pause I can determine the direction the wind is going
but that knowledge only helps me adapt to the reality of the moment,
I cannot change anything the wind is doing.
we cannot control the wind
just as we cannot control the spirit,
we can move with the spirit,
make use of the wind
we can be stubborn and walk into the wind
the opposite direction of the spirit
but that only makes the going harder for us
the wind and the spirit do not consult us as to what path to take
Finally Jesus uses an image he knows Nicodemus is familiar with,
that of Moses and the bronze serpent,
we heard that part of the Israelite’s journey in our first reading for today,
the Israelites have a habit of complaining to Moses,
but this time they include God in their whining
and it is a step too far,
God sends poisonous serpents among the people
and many are killed,
the people repent and God provides a way for them to be saved,
God has Moses make a serpent out of bronze
and put it high on the pole in the center of the camp,
from then on
when someone is bit by one of the serpents
all they have to do is look at the bronze serpent
and they will live.
I am going to be your bronze serpent Jesus says,
predicting his death
when he will be lifted up on the cross
in an act that will save the world from separation from God.
Birth, wind, serpents,
these images are used to explain something
that ultimately I don’t think can be fully explained,
in one sense they are descriptive
in that they point to a reality of life,
they give us words to use
but they all fall short in communicating the complexity
of the relationship between God and humans.
In some ways they lead to more questions,
questions that begin with why,
questions that cannot be fully explained in this life
but Jesus does answer the big why question.
Why is God working through Jesus in the world?
Because God loves the world,
the whole world,
everything in the world,
God loves women and men and everything in between,
God loves the poor and the rich,
God loves the people we find hard to love,
God loves the people that don’t acknowledge God,
the people who are fearful because of who they are,
the people who have been told that God doesn’t love them
and the people that told them that,
God loves the created world,
God loves you.
What are you up to Jesus?
all expansive, inclusive love.
God’s actions through Jesus are made out of love,
they are an invitation to live life in the presence of the source of life,
the source of love,
and through love transform the world. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.