God’s Confounding Love – a sermon

Due to technical difficulties, today’s sermon can not be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.


Have you ever noticed how sometimes the Bible makes absolutely no sense?  I can’t be the only one.  I mean, snakes on sticks is just crazy talk.  Am I right?  Of course, in some cases, the nonsensical nature of God is precisely the point, which might be what we are dealing with this morning.  But, in order to get a grasp on what we are supposed to take away from this strange Gospel passage that coincidentally includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible, we need to take a step back and figure out some context; we first must understand when, where, and to whom Jesus is talking.

Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a larger story about a man named Nicodemus.  It follows on the heels of Jesus cleansing the temple, which, if you’ll recall from Kellie’s sermon last week, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel, and not the end, like in the other three.  It is right around the Passover, the annual festival in which the Hebrews remembered God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  It is a time in which many faithful Jews came to the holy city of Jerusalem to offer prayers and sacrifices to God.  With the broken tables of the money changers still in the background, we hear the story of Nicodemus, who John describes as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people.

Nicodemus knew that coming to see Jesus was a dangerous decision.  He had certainly seen what had happened just a day or two earlier in the Temple.  He was, no doubt, aware of the many miracles that Jesus had performed during Passover Week.  The city was teeming with excitement over this new Rabbi who had burst onto the scene, and Nicodemus wondered what it was all about.  So, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus.  “Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Before Nicodemus can even ask his question, however, Jesus interrupts, and says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was well versed in the Scriptures and in the Law, but like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he knew nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.  Still, Nicodemus was sure that what Jesus was telling him made absolutely no sense.  Whatever he came to talk with Jesus about was flung far out of mind when suddenly, Nicodemus found himself engaged in a deep theological conversation over what it meant to be born of God, apart from being born of the flesh.  Jesus is clear, if you want to understand what he is talking about, you’ve got to give up your old ways and be born of water and the spirit.  Nicodemus, as smart and as well educated as he was, had no choice but to throw up his hands and say, “how can this be?”

It is from Jesus’ response to the confused and frustrated Nicodemus that our Gospel lesson comes.  Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus that as long as he continues to look for the Kingdom of God to be well ordered and to follow the constructs of human beings, he will remain lost and confused.  To prove his point, Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch his Biblical knowledge a bit. “Do you remember that story about Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness?  It is in the Book of Numbers, one of the five books of the Torah.  You’re supposed to be an expert in the Torah, right?  Remember how the people complained bitterly against God and Moses?  How they wished they had been left as slaves in Egypt?  How they lamented that there was no food to eat, even as they complained about how bad the food they had was?  God got so fed up with them that he sent poisonous snakes to teach them a lesson.  As they cried out in their pain and torment, Moses begged God to do something, and do you remember what God did?

“I’ll tell you what God didn’t do.  God didn’t take the snakes away.  That would have made too much sense.  That’s what the wisdom of the world would have suggested, but that’s not what God did because sometimes, God just doesn’t make sense.  Instead, God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze, and to put it on a stick, so that when the people got bit, and they would continue to get bit, they might look at that bronze snake and live.  Talk about crazy.  Well, Nicodemus, that’s exactly what God is up to in me.  The Son of Man will one day be lifted up so that those who look on me will gain eternal life.”  You can almost feel the uncomfortable silence as Jesus then goes on to utter the most famous line in the Bible, John 3:16.

“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.”  More than snakes on sticks, this line might be the hardest bit for Nicodemus, or any of us, to fully comprehend.  There just isn’t any logic to how much God loves creation.  There seems to be even less logic in how much God loves you.  And don’t even get me started on how it could be possible that God would love me that much.  Yet, that is what Jesus wants Nicodemus to know, God’s love is so much bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend, that its ultimate form looks like the utter humiliation of the Son, lifted high upon a cross, that will, paradoxically, also serve as the exalted throne of the King of kings.

In this encounter, Nicodemus is unable to wrap his mind around the utter illogicalness of God.  He leaves Jesus to return to the same darkness from which he originally sought him out.  For Nicodemus, this love is too big.  His worldview is based on judgment rather than grace.  Here, Nicodemus is not unlike many Christians I have come to know over the years.  They read John 3:16 and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.

Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to hear the promises of John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of condemnation, but rather, Jesus entering the messiness of this world was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  If it is based in love, then the measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy; it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

Sometimes, the Bible just doesn’t make any sense, and that Jesus would let a confused Nicodemus walk back into the darkness seems like one of those moments, but the story of Nicodemus doesn’t end in the darkness of that post-Passover night.  A few years later, Nicodemus will once again seek out Jesus.  This time, it’ll be as the sun is setting on the day before the Passover.  Nicodemus will come with a hundred pounds of precious myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial: the body which he had no doubt looked upon, lifted high like Moses’s snake on a stick, in order to be saved.  No, none of it makes any sense, but that’s just how it is with the love of God.  It might be too big for us to grasp, but thanks be to God, it is so big as to carry each of us to eternal life.  Amen.

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The Way of Life

If John 3:16 is the most popular passage in the New Testament, I would guess that Ephesians 2:8 is probably in the top ten.  At least, this is true for those of us who spent any time in more evangelical circles.

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God…

For those who didn’t have Ephesians 2:8 drilled into their hearts and minds at one form of church camp or another, it is probably easier to read the entirety Ephesians passage as a whole.  Those who accomplish such a task, are blessed when they reach the final verse of Sunday’s Epistle Lesson and read, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  In the NRSV, unlike some other translations, the passage ends with a delightful idiomatic double entendre.  By choosing to translate a Greek phrase that essentially means “for us to walk in” as “our way of life,” the authors of the NRSV have invited us to see God’s creation of us through Christ for good works in two distinct ways.

First, and most obviously in the English, this phrase plays on the idiomatic expression of ones way of life as a typical pattern of behavior.  That is, those who follow Christ will, by their very nature, be driven to good works, toward charity, toward acts of mercy, and toward being ministers of compassion.  That this is not the case is a testimony of our sinfulness and our predisposition toward selfishness.  Or, as John puts it, our love of darkness.

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in search of a way

It is with John’s Prologue as well as Sunday’s Gospel passage in mind that I find myself reading the end of the Ephesians lesson not descriptively, but prescriptively.  That is, what if the translation way of life isn’t so much about our normal patterns of behavior, but an actual way?  As in, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  The good works, which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus are the way of life, the path of life, the road map we should follow toward eternal life.  This reading, I think, follows more closely the Greek, which suggests that God has created good works for us to walk in.  As disciples, then, our task is to have our eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, looking for opportunities for good works as pathway markers, like a cairn in the woods, toward the Kingdom of God.  In spite of our way of life being aimed towards selfish desires, in Christ Jesus, God offers us a path to follow that is the way of life.

A Weighty Text

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This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question looks back at the text the Good Book Club had assigned for Sunday.  In it, we find Jesus caught up in several different theological confrontations.  It began with some wondering if Jesus was harnessing the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons, and somehow, devolved into a series of “woe to yous” against the Pharisees and canon lawyers.  Our question comes from Jesus’ strong rebuke of the lawyers, “Woe also to you lawyers!  For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not life a finger to ease them.”

What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

This question came to mind last night and again this morning as I reflected more and more on that most famous line in motor racing the Bible, John 3:16.  It seems there are two starkly contrasting ways in which this passage can be used.  One camp reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.  It is, I would argue, the burden the church has carried since the Enlightenment.  As knowledge became the idol and the ideal, more and more religious leaders have focused on the modern equivalent of hand washing routines; getting bogged down, most often, in a specific theory of atonement as the means-by-which-Jesus-saves-us-hands-down-and-to-question-is-to-be-of-Beezebul.

Others choose to read John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  The action of God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of judgment or condemnation (cf. John 3:17), but was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  The measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but rather one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement  Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life, then, isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy, but rather, it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

So, what burden does the church carry or load on people that it needs to ease?  Well, it seems in a tradition that prides itself on having learned clergy and a well-educated laity, is to get out of our heads, roll up our sleeves, and believe the Kingdom of God into existence wherever God has called us to be.


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For the love of darkness

It is almost unfair to make John 3:16 part of a lesson that can be read on Sunday morning.  It has become such a cultural Christian trope that it is basically impossible for us to hear anything other than “For God so loved the world…”  We miss, in my opinion, the far better verse that immediately follows.  The RCL hivemind has tried to help us out, by including Jesus’ passing reference to that really odd story from Numbers 21, but honestly, what preacher in their right mind is going to the “God killed people with snakes and then saved them with an idol of a snake” story?  It seems the best option for this week might be to help people get past the snakes and forget about the man in the rainbow wig and preach the reprise of John’s light and darkness motif.

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The judgment that Jesus came to save us from is this, that the light had come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of the light.  For all the good that Christianity has done in the world, for its music and art, for its (occasional) embrace of peace, for its (purported) sharing of the love of God, this statement about our love of darkness is as true today as it was when Jesus first said it.

It doesn’t take long to see what Jesus means.  A quick scroll of your Facebook newsfeed will show that Christians on both sides of the American political divide have decided to live in darkness, addicted to anger and worshiping the idol of being right.  Some are obvious: the racially motivated meme or the picture intended to poke fun at someone’s appearance.  Other instances of the darkness that we choose to love are less conspicuous.  It is the veiled dig at those who disagree with us; the passive aggressive comment about fellow children of God.

As we enter the middle week of Lent, it seems appropriate that things are as dark as they will get ahead of Good Friday.  Perhaps this week, rather than being enamored with John 3:16 or grossed out by snakes, it is probably a good opportunity to take stock of where we have decided to choose darkness rather than light, to repent of those decisions, and to ask God to help us walk in the true light of grace.

John 3:16 NRSPV – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When it comes to language and its ability to convey meaning beyond the words on a page, Greek and Hebrew are like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel while English is more like the finger paintings my two year-old brings home from pre-school.  Both have their inherent beauty, but one speaks deep to the soul.  Even in arguably the most famous sentence in all of Scripture, the English translation leaves us lacking.  I’m talking, of course, about John 3:16.  I’m told Martin Luther called it “The Gospel in a nutshell.”  I found a picture on the internet this week of a walnut-turned-locket that had John 3:16 written on one side and an acrostic for GOSPEL “God’s Only Son Promises Eternal Life” on the other.  Thanks to “Rainbow Man” Rollen Stewart,[2] John 3:16 has, for decades now, been the favorite passage of every major sporting event in America.  Even, and maybe even especially, in this era of growing secularism, John 3:16 is for us the great summation of the Good News of Jesus.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Many of you know it by heart, probably in the King’s English, but as I dug into this verse this week, I began to realize that the beautiful message of love and mercy isn’t exactly what Jesus was saying.  He was saying something even better.  With a lot of help from Luther Seminary New Testament Professor, Sarah Henrich,[3] I began to look at John 3:16 in Greek and saw new levels of deeper meaning opening up right before my eyes.  The King James Version is much more flowing, but here’s the New Revised Steve Pankey Version. “God loves the world thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The first thing I noticed was that the word translated as “love” is agape.  You’ve no doubt heard before that in Koine Greek, there were at least four different words that can be translated as “love.”  “Eros” is the passionate love that we most often associate with an intimate partner.  “Storge” is the natural affection felt within families, as in the love a parent naturally has for their child.  “Philia” is the catchall type of love: the love that friends have for one another or the love I have for the Pittsburgh Steelers and crawfish boils.  Finally, there is agape love.  Agape love is used throughout the New Testament.  It is the type of love that Paul writes about in his famous love poem from 1st Corinthians 13: it is patient and kind and it seeks the needs of others.  Agape love is the type of love that defines who God is as the author of First John boldly proclaims that “God is love.”  It is the type of love that Jesus commands us to have for God, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.  Jesus says agape love is the hallmark of the Christian discipleship, “they will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”  We learn agape love from the example of God who sent his only Son.  God loves the world with a deep, self-giving, abiding sort of love.

The next thing I noticed was that this agape love is a verb in John 3:16, and not just any verb, but a verb in the aorist tense.  We don’t have the aorist tense in English, so my Greek professor, Tony Lewis, explained the it by way of the refectory’s occasional use of a sausage lunch buffet.  There’d be hot dogs, kielbasa, and Italian sausage to choose from, and all the way at the end was this strange, Mexican inspired, sausage looking thing called the “fiesta dog.”  “Some of you will have your curiosity piqued,” he’d say, “and you might avail yourselves of the fiesta dog and soon you will understand the aorist tense: an event that begins at a particular moment in time, but goes on for eternity.  You will eat the fiesta dog once, but its effects will be long lasting.”  God’s agape love for his creation is in the aorist tense.  It started at the beginning of time and it will continue forever into the future.  God’s agape love is active and ongoing.

Third, we most often hear about how God so loved the world, but it really isn’t about how much God loves the world, but about how he shows it.  God shows his love for the world thusly, he sent his only Son to restore it.  All. Of. It.  From the amoebas in the sea to the Billy goats on the mountain side, from the baby asleep in a mosquito net in east Africa to the CEO in the corner office in mid-town Manhattan, from me in the depths of my sinfulness to you in the heights of your hopes and dreams, God sent his only Son as sign and symbol of his love for everything he created.  The love God has for the world is deep and self-giving, active and ongoing and it drives God to work toward restoring all of creation to right relationship with him.

Finally, the natural response to God’s deep and abiding love for us is not belief as it has been co-opted over the past five hundred years or so.  God doesn’t invite us to check off a series of boxes about things we intellectually assent to: Creation in 7, 24-hour days – check; A flood that covered the whole earth – check; the Virgin Birth – check; Water into wine – check; the anti-Christ of Revelation – check.  Instead, the response God seeks is a relationship with him.  We find our entrance into eternal life by entering into a trusting relationship with the one who loves us from the beginning of time.  “Whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  What makes us disciples, what makes us Christians, is that we’ve turned our lives over to Christ.  We’ve responded to God’s invitation into relationship and placed our trust in Jesus alone.

So often, John 3:16 is used as a weapon against those who do not believe in God in the right way.  Too often, it is used to define who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s love.  The truth of the matter is that God loves everyone and everything he has created, and desires to be in right relationship with all of it.  There are those who choose to walk away from the overwhelming love of God, and this passage tells us they have condemned themselves; there is no need for us to add to that.   They have chosen to walk in darkness, and God loves them enough to let them make their own choices.  Meanwhile, the millions upon millions of us who are trying to follow the way of the Kingdom, trying to walk in the light, trying to trust God and to love God, even when we fail to do so, eternal life is guaranteed.

The love of God was poured out in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit continues to work through all creation to impart grace upon us, to motivate us to faith, and to enkindle within us a deep and abiding love for our Creator.  It is all the work of God, the work of a God who loves the world and shows his love thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.  I guess that really is the Gospel in a nutshell.  Amen.

[1] http://www.aardpiggy.com/BibleChallenges/Nutshell.html

[2] Mr. Stewart’s story is the tragic tale of theology gone bad.  You can read more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollen_Stewart or watch an ESPN news piece here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot7J025JS5U

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=263

God’s Love for You

Evan Garner has convinced me.  This Sunday’s lesson may, in fact, be all about grace, but grace is a second level experience of God.  We only experience God’s grace because of God’s great love for us.  His love for me.  His love for you.  As I read through the lessons again this morning, the word “love” jumped out at me.

Ephesians 2:4-6 God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

John 3:16 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.

I had a suspicion about that word “love” and so I went digging to confirm it.  God’s love for us, in all three instances, is the Greek word “agape” which is used all over the New Testament to describe not only the love God has for his creation, but the sort of love disciples of Jesus are expected to have for God, for one another, and even for our enemies.  It is, according to the First Letter of John, the type of love that typifies God.

God is love

God is love – 1 Jn 4:8

Agape love is self-giving.  It is, as Paul writes, patient and kind, not self-seeking, and endures all things (1 Cor 13).  That is the sort of love that God has for you.  A love so deep, so great, so unimaginable that we have to hear about it over and over and over again, and even then, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around it.  God loves the world he created so much that he gave his only Son to restore it, all of it, from the amoebas in the sea to the billy goats on the mountain side, from the baby asleep in a mosquito net in east Afica to the CEO in the corner office in mid-town Manhattan, from me in the depths of my sinfulness to you in the heights of your hopes and dreams, he wants to restore all of creation to right relationship with him and with one another.

God pours out his mercy upon us.  His grace saves us through faith.  That is all true, but before all that, God loves you, and that is more than enough.

John 3:16

We’ve all seen the guy.  Whether it was on the Simpsons, in the stands at the Super Bowl, or any number of impersonators over the years, we all know the John 3:16 guy or at least we know his sign.

         

It is, of course, the perfect verse for a sign.  You don’t have to write it, just the scripture reference will take a person to the Gospel message par excellence.  I’ve written in the past about how I wish his sign added “& 17,” but seven years later, I guess I’ve softened some.  As I’ve read and re-read John 3:16 this week, I’m starting to think that perhaps it is enough.  Well, so long as we translate it properly and don’t use it for a weapon, which are both not insignificant caveats.

“God loves the world thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s how I think it should be translated (with a lot of help from the Rev. Dr. Sarah Henrich from Luther Seminary).  Note three changes.  First, God loves the world still.  It is active and ongoing; the aorist tense in Greek.  Second, he loved the world thusly, that’s what “so” really means.  Finally, the call to faith is not about intellectual assent, which we often associate with belief these days, but trust.  Those who follow Jesus might struggle with the intricacies of the Church’s Christological teachings, but what makes us disciples, what makes us Christians, is that we’ve turned our lives over to Christ.  We’ve placed our trust in Jesus and in him alone.

Translated this way, the most famous text in all of scripture loses its ability to be weaponized.  Instead, it is a statement about the grace of God.  God loves the world he created so much that when push came to shove, God chose to save us from ourselves through the saving grace of his Son.  That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.

                                                               Like I said.

Perhaps that’s enough for the preacher to tackle this Sunday.