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
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.