DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
A sermon for 15 March 2015 – 4th Sunday during Lent
John 3:14-21 (text included below)
Before I read from one of the most famous parts of the bible, what with it being plastered all over signs at football games and thrown around as if everyone knows what this “God so loved the world” verse is all about. I want us to set aside everything else we know and love about that verse. I intentionally tried to do that this week as I prepared for this sermon and I invite you to do so now as well. Firstly because we’re Presbyterians. As Christians of the Reformed Theological Family of Faith, we sometimes get pulled off by the rest of the Bible Belt here in Tennessee. So many people around us get stuck in Christianity that’s hyper-focused on who’s going where at the end of it all. I saw a huge billboard in Alabama this weekend shouting it out. As if that’s all that really matters. Always waiting to get somewhere better instead of being present to where we find our feet each day – like Jesus was totally present to whoever crossed his path each day. As those in the Reformed Theological Family of Faith, we don’t need to worry about eternity. We believe God is sovereign and already has that all worked out according to the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t have to waste one more ounce of mental energy on our future. The Reformed tenets of faith talk about being saved from and saved for something here and now. All that being the case, we can dive a little bit deeper into texts like this one that too many have left to be just about eternity. It’s not that we have to give up any ideas we get about God, ourselves, and the afterlife from John 3; it’s just that as Reformed Theological Christians saved for a particular purpose in this world, I think we need to open ourselves to any other word God’s Spirit might be trying to speak to our lives today. So just for a moment, see if you can forget what we’ve always thought this was all about and listen. Wonder. Let God speak to us afresh today.
A reading from the gospel of John 3:14-21. Remember that this is only the second half of what Jesus is recorded as having said to a leader of Israel, Nicodemus, who steals away at night to see if he can’t figure out more about this Rabbi who is performing remarkable signs among the people. It’s John chapter 3 so it’s near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry according to the gospel of John, which is the only gospel that starts Jesus off with a big bang when his mother pushes him to turn over a hundred some gallons of water into a hundred some gallons of the finest wine at a wedding feast in Cana. From the start, the gospel of John frames the ministry of Jesus as one of abundance. The long-awaited feast of the wedding of the bride, which most any Jew should have heard as Israel, and the bridegroom, which most any Jew should have heard as God. The feast the prophets foretold has begun! . . . With all this in mind, listen: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (NRSV) This is the word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
By a unique turn of events this week, my path crossed ways with that of a young man. He couldn’t have been much older than twenty. I’d seen him before but never really talked with him. You know those people who have that magical twinkle in their eyes? That little sliver of joy and laughter and fun? Well, this boy had none of that. His eyes looked kinda like those of zombies, vacant. Plodding through life, with an aura of emptiness. Just to be friendly, I said I hoped things have been going well for him. Caught a bit off guard, he muttered, “Well no. They really haven’t been.” “O no!” I exclaimed. Sorry to hear that, not just because of whatever he might be going through but also because I felt an unexpected pastoral care session coming on and in all honesty, I really didn’t have the energy for it in that moment. Why I continued to speak – as some of you have experienced of me before, like why did that just have to pop right out of my mouth before my brain had time to catch up with my lips? Anyway, I found myself asking him what’s been going on. He didn’t give me much – just an evasive comment about his family which let me know he really didn’t want to speak of it – probably as shocked at his lips for letting out his worry before his brain had time to stop him. It made a deep impression on me. Because how many people are around us each day, living kinda like that? I’m not sure if some horrible tragedy had befallen his family or if he just had an argument with a parent that morning. It doesn’t really matter. What mattered was his sullen face. His sparkle-less eyes. That aura as if things just really are not ok. As I looked at him, he looked like a young man who was perishing right before my eyes.
I admit it’s one reason why I want us to listen for any other wisdom from the gospel of John today. That, and the fact that I also was reminded this week that neither in the Hebrew language or in Jesus’ native Aramaic tongue does a word exist for either eternity or infinity. They have a word for the ages (as was used in the Ephesians reading today), but nothing like our unfathomable concept of something that goes on forever and ever and ever – like eternal punishment from God. Furthermore, nowhere in the Torah (the first five books of the bible), or in the writings of Paul or of John is a word for hell ever used. The teacher I heard say this claimed he did his fact-checking with several biblical scholars and I know I always was taught of the gospel of John that the word translated into English as eternal – as in eternal life – actually has the sense of a quality of life here and now. More like abundance, life over-flowing with joy and love and peace right in this very moment. Concern for how people are living today. The teacher reminding of this went on to wonder how we ended up with a Christianity that is so incredibly focused on things like heaven, hell, and eternity. He even reminded of a conference in 1998 when the Roman Catholic Pope John Paul the Second wondered what needed to be done to reverse the prominent mis-understanding that heaven and hell are geographical places. Pope John Paul II insisted that both are states of consciousness – not places to be found somewhere in this great big cosmos. (Information from Richard Rohr lecture: “Hell No!” 2015. available from cac.org.)
It’s kinda like what Jesus was trying to explain right here in the gospel of John. That to enter kingdom life, we have to be born-again. Not literally coming back out of our mothers’ wombs as Nicodemus puzzled, but Spirit awakened – stirred, coming upon us – to be aware in a whole new way of the Way of God: the way of self-giving, freely for another. Our own desires dying, for something else to take over. A daily being re-born. It’s a different rule of life or way of living that looks exactly like Christ’s. The one who’s life is the Way – the pattern of the truth for how all life is to be lived. . . . The Apostle Paul will talk about it as a renewing of our minds – a taking on the very Spirit of Christ, which some have called a Christ consciousness; living a new way in this world – a birthing into a different life than before such Spirit-infusion began. Not perishing. Not living condemned already thanks to our own limited awareness. It’s what Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus – the here and now abundant life he’d come to show in full.
That’s the deep, deep love of God. The “For God so loved the world,” that God, in Christ, willingly took on human flesh among us to ensure not a single one of us go through life with sullen faces. Sparkle-less eyes. That aura of emptiness that things just are not and never will be ok – perishing each day as zombies who plod without an ounce of joy through it all. Unaware of how precious we are to God. The Triune God couldn’t stand to see such suffering. And so . . . God, in Christ was born among us. Self-emptying. To live with us to show us the Truth. . . . . It’s what this whole season we’re in now and the season we’re soon to celebrate again is all about. Everything lives and must die before any new life can come again. If we miss it in Jesus – or fail to believe that’s what he’s all about, then maybe we can be sure to see it in the very pattern of all things — God’s gift for us to notice throughout creation and even in ourselves each day and one final day at our end. Or should I say, at our final new beginning?
For God so loved the whole wide world, that God didn’t want us to miss this. God didn’t want us to live in this world as if there is no hope. As if we had to be afraid or always wondering if it all is ok. It’s the very good news we come to know in the living, dying, and living again of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In him, we are indeed set free for abundant life here and now and forevermore. All is well! All is well! It’s the word of Life we have to share with those among us who are perishing right before our eyes.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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