Sunday, March 11, 2018

So Loved: Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

We are here today to talk about blessings.

It may be hard to think about blessings on the day that Daylight Savings Time starts, when we’ve all been deprived of an hour of sleep, but here we are, we the proud, the brave, we who are planning on a nap later on today.

Last week we heard Jesus compare his body to the Temple, and we were reminded that God blessed and sanctified us in our bodies, too. In taking on our flesh, our human life, God continues to tear down the walls WE build to separate ourselves from God, and to remind us that God lives and loves within each of us right now, and through Jesus God keeps reaching over those walls and pulling us all over the top and never giving up on us.

In today’s readings, we hear about the blessings of light, of healing, and especially of love.

Light and darkness are important signs or symbols in John’s gospel, which makes sense, because they are important symbols to us. Our gospel today starts in the middle of Jesus’s conversation in the middle of the night, in the darkness, with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes in the night also because he lacks true understanding of who Jesus is, but at least he is straining toward the light. When Nicodemus first approaches Jesus, in verses we don’t get to hear to help us understand the context, it is clear that Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus. Nicodemus is beginning to be drawn to the light of Christ, for at that start of chapter 3, he states: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who is coming from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

As a Pharisee and yet a seeker, Nicodemus is a man torn between two worlds, just as the church members in Ephesus were, and frankly much like many of us are. He recognizes the delicate situation he is in. Following Jesus will probably cost him everything that has been important to him thus far in life, including his reputation and position within society. And Jesus doesn’t make it easy for him, speaking and what must’ve seemed like riddles, as Jesus is prone to do throughout much of the Gospel of John, in particular. It must have been a long, humbling night for Nicodemus.

Yet thinking about being born to a new life in Christ is a fruitful metaphor. We are born with an abiding hunger for connection, and for meaning even from the time we are infants. Babies want to be embraced, and they want to be fed. God helps this along by making babies helpless and also adorable, which goes a long way toward making up for the smell. With our poor eyesight, as infants experience the world as infants mostly through out hearts, and our bellies. Babies get anxious when either of these are not full—and I am persuaded that frankly, those feelings of hunger, especially spiritual hunger, remains one of the driving forces in our lives—one that we ignore or misuse at our peril. 

Nicodemus feels a spiritual hunger, and rather than ignore it, he sets out to try to find what would fill it. And so, he is drawn to the light of Jesus. I wonder if many of us don’t identify with Nicodemus’s hunger, with his search for understanding that will lead to peace? It’s what we all want. Yet, another truth about sudden bursts of understanding is that they change you. They open you up in ways you hadn’t anticipated. And the knowledge Nicodemus and all of us are being asked to take hold of promises nothing less than to change the entire orientation of our lives, from inward to outward. We are being asked to embrace Jesus as our Savior, as the source of life—right now.

Our hunger for God within us brings us to this point, and calls us to repentance, to change. That change is scary. It means letting go of the familiar. But what will we gain?

How is a Christian’s life changed when he or she embraces Jesus as Savior? In our epistle, Paul states here that it is the difference between death… and life. We are asked to embrace our brokenness, and allow the light of Christ to wash over it. Paul equates sin with death and that can scare us as only Paul can—he’s really good at it. But when we are weighed down in a life of sin, we are dead to all the beauty of the world, and dead to living a life of love and faithfulness to something outside ourselves. And that means being honest about our own sinfulness, both individually and collectively.

As famed preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has noted, “We spend a lot of time in the Christian church talking about God’s love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them…. When we confess our sins here, we do not simply confess our own personal sins. We kneel and talk to God about the sins of all humankind—all the things we, as people, have done and failed to do, all the ways we have fled from the love of God because we are afraid to be seen, known, and changed.”

We are afraid to be seen.
We are afraid to be known.
We are afraid, especially, to be changed.

Yet all our fear aside, we ARE seen by God. We are known by God. Psalm 139 beautifully reminds us of this when it begins, “Lord you have searched me out and known me!” and goes on to recount God’s intimate love and intimacy with each of us. It’s the change thing that requires our active engagement. To fully step into the light of Jesus, we need to leave behind those things that tie us to darkness, and that, in the end, don’t nourish us.

Too often we concentrate on how we are separate from others, and fearfully seek to protect ourselves against the perceived threats that others may pose to us through competition in seeking to fulfill their OWN desires. This, to me, seems to be the ultimate crisis in our modern western society. For every passage like this, Paul also usually provides another passage reminding us that we are part of the Body of Christ and thus part of each other (such as 1 Corinthians 12-13). When we look at THOSE passages, we are reminded that the gospel of Christ is one of abundance: abundant mercy, abundant grace abundant kindness, and abundant healing. And that abundance is found within community, not against it.

As both our gospel and epistle attest, Christians are saved by faith and through grace, given to us by God’s immense love for us. We have not done anything to earn this salvation from death to life. And yet, Paul’s words attest to the abundance of God’s love—abundant beyond our imagining, especially. Listen to the words again! The description of God in our epistle is borne out in our gospel today. Paul states that “God is rich in mercy,” bearing us “great love” as we benefit from the “riches of his grace,” --even when we have completely rejected calls to repentance.

And here we see the blessing of healing that runs through all our readings, as well. Living as one of us, and dying as one of us, Christ in particular can reach into the shattered places in our spirits, and restore us from the shadow world in which we have lived into newness of life. Sometimes those wounds we bear were inflicted on us. Yet, other times, our own choices have wounded us. But God is always there.

Our psalm reminds us that God hears our cries in trouble, and reaches out to heal us. Sometimes, when we consider the pain our choices have brought ourselves and others, we cannot believe that God loves us that much. Yet our gospel addresses this too, in probably one of the most quoted verses of all time.

John 3:16 is probably one of the most quoted verses in all of scripture, but it is also an important link that holds together all of today’s readings. God’s gift of Jesus to the world, as God’s son, can draw those who truly see Jesus’s light to a life with God if they believe in Jesus—only through faith (vv. 16-17). Yet that same verse can be misused, and can become a magic talisman—kind of like that serpent on a pole in our first reading, which eventually was destroyed hundreds of years later, because the people had started worshiping it instead of seeing it as a reminder of when they had once again responded to God’s love with muttering.

One of my personal, petty frustrations is the commercial that sometimes come on TV with this goateed, jeans-wearing preacher intoning that, if you feel lost, all you have to do is pray something similar to the sentiment in John 3:16, and you shall be saved. And then presumably go about your business, having checked off that box to keep your soul from hell, but the implication is that nothing else is required. Our readings from Paul and from our gospel specifically make clear that merely stating a formula is NOT enough.

Too often, people use John 3:16 to talk about condemnation, or worse, to put off accepting God’s main blessing for us. Too often, people use it to focus on the afterlife, rather than talking about our lives right now. And that’s not the case: the English teacher in me wants to point out that Jesus is talking in the present tense.

Eternal life is within us right now. We don’t have to wait for it. But we do have to allow it to take root in our hearts and change us. The problem with the usual use of verse 16 is this: It reduces being a Christian to the fulfillment of a formula, and leaves out repentance and discipleship. That’s why John 3:17 must also be included to complete the thought: “Indeed, God did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus then again identifies himself with light—light that enables us to see, and choose the path of salvation—not salvation in some distant time in the future, not eternal life some distant time in the future, but salvation—starting right now, right where we are.

That change leads us to this wonderful knowledge: that God’s presence is within us. We are called to open ourselves to that knowledge, acknowledging that we need God’s healing presence in our lives, and allowing that healing to work within us to change us. It means taking seriously the amazing gift of God’s love for us, as flawed and worn down as we can sometimes be, and let that light of that love pour over us. 

Eternal life starts right now. It starts with understanding ourselves as living—right now-- in the presence of God. Right where we are. God loved us in this way, that God gave us God’s only Son. And why? So that NO ONE feels hungry, or empty, or lost—so that everyone can have a whole and lasting life. That Son didn’t come into the world to condemn us, but to save us, and remind us of who we are: Beloveds of a God who loves us and longs for us so much that God continually reaches out to us, asking us to align ourselves with God’s economy of abundance, grace, and peace.

We are Beloved of God.

And as God’s Beloveds, we are called to bear God’s light into the world.



(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, in “The River of Life,” in Home By Another Way, 36.

(1) Crijn Hendricks (1616-1645), Jesus and Nicodemus, from wikimedia.
(2) A random sports fan holds up the ubiquitous John 3:16 sign at a sporting event.
(3) Welcoming Jesus, statue at Mission de Carmel, California. Photo by Leslie Scoopmire

Preached at Church of the Transfiguration, Lake St. Louis, MO, on March 11, 2018 at 8:00 and 10:15 am.

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