Sermon, 5th Lent B, March 29, 2009, John 12:20-33

it's black and white
it's black and white

Jeremiah 31:31–34
John 12:20–33

Finding Life: Lights On

I have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John.  I love all those stories and teachings that John  gives us that  the other gospels don’t have: the woman at the well, the water changed to wine at the wedding, the huge teaching on the Holy Spirit as the comforter, the help, and much more.  But John was written a long time after Jesus’ earthly life – time to do a lot of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings, time to distill the essence, see the implications, and time to draw conclusions – all of which make his story-telling awkward:  everything is black or white, and the chronology seems whimsical.

In John’s gospel, odd things happen; people ask questions that seem legitimate and direct, like “who is the son of man?”, but get cryptic answers like “The light is with you for a little longer.”    People come to see Jesus – like these Greeks – and John tells us, in an oddly detailed way, to whom they ask first, which is Philip.  Then John lets us see to whom he reports, Andrew, and we see both of them telling Jesus about the Greeks.  Then the Greeks disappear from the page.  In fact, Jesus’ following comments do not have any obvious connection with those Greeks.  It’s irritating.  So, my love-hate relationship with the gospel of John.

Did you notice what I just did?  I did what the gospel of John does: I characterized my relationship with John’s gospel as black or white, love or hate; surely it’s more complex than that.  And when I gave examples of stories I love in John, I did not list them in chronological order.  So I should be easier on John for arranging his gospel as he did; he knew what he was doing, and we are meant to understand.

So, instead of thinking of this text as a documentary film, let’s think of it as a collage – very carefully constructed, but not according to a linear sequence in time or space.

We are going to see that John made this elaborate collage because he was passionate about issues of vital importance: life and death, meaning versus meaninglessness.  These are exactly the same issues which are critical for every one of us here today.

Nearly all of us here have fewer days ahead of us than the number of days we have already lived.  We do not have time to loose.  It is of vital importance that we can say, “my life had meaning; I was put on this earth for a purpose, and I am fulfilling that purpose.”

The gospel of John presents us with only two options; find or lose your life.  Walk around in the darkness, lost, or go to where the light is and live in it.  Love your life or hate it.  John’s collage of Jesus’ teaching uses mostly black and whites; vivid contrasts; either-or with no middle ground.

Maybe that seems naive; simple-minded, but we live that kind of life all the time.  We make choices – and every choice in favor of one option forecloses another.  We decide to marry – and suddenly the single life is over.  We become home-owners, suddenly responsible for everything about the house.  We move, we become parents, we vote – and each time we decide for one option the alternative ceases to be a choice.  There are many either-or choices.

Find life or lose it; love your life or hate it; be in darkness or light; one or the other; both is not an option.  The difference is not a secret mystery: it is summed up in Jesus.  Follow Jesus, or don’t; it makes all the difference.  Following Jesus, in this black and white collage, involves exactly one choice:

26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

Where I am”  may initially sound peaceful and calm – but if so, all that is shattered quickly.  Where is Jesus?  Where will following lead?

24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This whole picture, from the Greeks who want to see Jesus to the crowds who are confused, is about one thing: the meaning of life is lost if it is consumed with self; the meaning of life is found if it is given away.  We are not here for ourselves; we are here to lose our lives on behalf of others.  This is the great paradox.  Hang on to that single grain of wheat, keep it in the closed fist, guard it against all risk – and it remains alone.  But let it go, let it fall to the ground and get buried – and suddenly you have it back, only multiplied.

This is exactly the path Jesus showed us.  He poured out his life – to the point of being lifted up on a cross – and considered the hour of his crucifixion as the hour in which he, the Son of Man, was most glorified.  He was the seed that was buried, and look at the fruit that has sprung up – a huge harvest.

Where Jesus is, we follow; yes, even to the cross.  Whenever Christians lay down their claims to living for themselves, it is an act of judgment on the selfish, materialistic values of the world.

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

This is not a future event: “now” right here, today, in the middle of a global recession – (or worse), the perspective that says, “life consists in having; in accumulating;  possessing” is judged as false.  The world’s idea that the goal of life is to maximize comfort – our comfort, that is – and minimize our pain is simply false.  The world that operates by those values is indeed a dark one; a directionless one.

But the life that is lived embracing the darkness and pain of others, the life that dives in to the soil like a seed and buries itself in the ground on behalf of a dark and suffering world “bears much fruit.”

The ultimate test of meaning for our lives is not what the world says about us.  The ultimate test is what God says about our lives.  That’s why John brings into this collage the picture of the thundering voice of God from the heavens.  The people hear it and know that this path – the path that led Jesus to the cross, is the very purpose Jesus lived for – and the voice of God affirms: this is the life that glorifies God!

The crowd still needs more convincing:

34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”

Their perspective is so typical; “Isn’t the goal to hang on to life forever; to escape from mortality itself so that we can keep forever what we have managed to acquire?

No; the path to meaning is to follow the one going to the cross, to give his life away on behalf of others.

We are followers of Jesus: we are disciples; we are learning more and more everyday what it means to give our lives away for others.

This is not a fantasy.  What happens when you feel upset and depressed about your 401k and then do some volunteer time at the Christian Service Center or with a homeless person in Family Promise?  What happens when you knit a prayer shawl or pick up the phone, write a card, or spend time in prayer for people in need?  How to you feel after you have delivered a meal or provided transportation for someone else?  Do you feel more depressed and empty, or do you feel that you have contributed some of your life for someone else?

The great pay-back of a life given away is that it is a found-life, not a lost one.  Give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, and your thirst is quenched.  Cloth the naked, and suddenly your closet feels full.  Visit the prisoners, and suddenly you don’t feel so lonely.

It is hard to capture the significance in words – I’m aware that the examples I have given of return on investment are pathetically psychological – it is so much deeper than that!  It goes to the heart of a meaningful life itself.  Look back on your life: do you regret one dollar or one minute you have spent on behalf of other people’s pain?  No, in fact it is just those dollars and those hours that we think of most when we try to answer the question, “what has my life meant?”

The answer is not that I lived with the Greek ideal of the golden mean – never anything in excess; but rather that I dove headlong into the earth, into the soil of humanity, got dirty, spent myself recklessly; and heard God say, “Your life has glorified me! You are a child of light.”

27…what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.

For this reason we are here: not to glorify ourselves, not to watch more hours of television, not to obsess about the economy, but to live meaningful lives that bear fruit.

36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

Sermon, 4th Lent B, Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9 

John 3:14-21

by ♥ { ๓คtเl๔є's
by ♥ { ๓คtเl๔є's

Snakes on a Pole

It is tempting to let that Old Testament text go by without comment and be forgotten, but since it comes up in the New Testament, on the lips of Jesus, how could we” But it is anything but easy – and how it relates to us today is not immediately obvious.

But it does relate to us today in a significant way, as we will see. So let us begin.

Long ago, in the world of ancient Israel, it was natural to think of God as a great king. In that world everyone knew what Great Kings were like. A Great king conquered weaker kings and made their people his vassals. He had absolute power over life and death of his vassals. He required submission and respect, even obeisance. No one questioned the correctness of this role: it was simply a given.

Unless they went too far. Pharaoh went to far. It was one thing to make people your vassals, another to make them slaves. Bricks without straw was too far. There were limits. Pharaoh was bad.

So as Israel struggled to tell her story it was natural and unremarkable that they thought of God as the Greatest King and themselves as his vassal. The Great King liberated his people from the bad Pharaoh of Egypt who had gone too far – who had enslaved them. So these newly liberated people owed God, their Great King everything – their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” (as John Hancock might say). They certainly owed him their gratitude – and all the more so since they were all living off of public aid out there in the desert. But the manna got old – and the vassals complained. Great Kings do not tolerate ingratitude, nor suffer complainers. So the Great King sent them some fiery snakes which killed a bunch of the in-grates. No problem; a Great King could do that.

Except that it is a problem; a big problem. I read some books which discuss this story from a scholarly perspective this past week; nobody wants to talk about the problem. How in the world do you justify killing people for merely complaining about boring food? If it’s horrible to throw your own children off a bridge – and it is! – how is it not horrible to send venomous snakes into a population of men, women and children to kill them? They never explained this to me in Sunday school, but this is one of the reasons people abandon the bible: it seems to promote immorality!

And it doesn’t help that God who sent the snakes also sent a solution: the snake on a pole concept. That only makes it worse. Were not the Israelites forbidden from making graven images of anything, including, specifically, of things that creep on the ground? Yes they were forbidden – by Moses himself (Deut. 4:15-18). Did not good king Hezekiah have to destroy that snake on a pole because people were doing the predictable thing: venerating it? Yes he did (2Kings 18:4). And anyway, isn’t that what we call sympathetic magic: a symbol of the disease is the talisman of cure? And what about Asclepius: the Greek god of healing – whose symbol – a snake on a pole by coincidence(?).

OK, we are in deep waters. Let us take a step back. Israel did struggle to tell her story – the story of her life with God. And yes, her telling of that story was framed, unremarkably, in the common language of her times. “Great King” was as close to an almighty, omnipotent power as a human could conceive – so God must be like the Greatest Great King.

And God is like that – in some important ways; more powerful than Pharaoh, able to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery, able to provide for their daily needs even in the wilderness – what power! God is like the Greatest Great King.

But Israel’s story grew over time, and layers of complexity were added as she reflected on various experiences of her Great God.

Everyone of us has lived a story of life with God. Everyone of us could tell of times we felt utterly protected and rescued, and maybe other times we felt abandoned in the wilderness. I am aware that some of us in this congregation are in wilderness times right now. Our story of God would have to be multi-layered; complex. God as Great King might work for some parts of our story, but might not be adequate for other parts.

There are times, like in an economic crisis, that we all rely on God to be like the Greatest King who has the power over nations, over economies, and over markets. But there are other times we need God to be more than just powerful. There are times, like when we go “through the valley of the shadow of death” that we need God to be the Good Shepherd who cares for his little sheep; who guides them to green pastures and still waters; we learn from Israel; she could think of God as Great King and as Shepherd.

But there is still a missing piece in the puzzle; the picture is not complete. What happens when the sheep go astray? What happens when the vassals revolt? What happens when we slip in to the “loving darkness” mode? If we run from the shepherd, he cannot reach us. Is there any alternative than for God to be the Great King and send us some fiery snakes to punish our presumption? Is there a third way?

Israel, in her struggle to tell her story of life with God hinted at another way, but only briefly. The prophets (like Hosea) spoke about Israel as God’s child – of God reaching down and teaching Israel how to take her first baby steps, learning to walk; this makes God more than mere shepherd and different than a Great King: this makes God the parent – the Father (in this case – though Israel could use the mother metaphor too – but also, rarely – which is also unremarkable given her time and place).

God as a Father is even more intimately connected to the life of his children than a shepherd is to his sheep, and is far more emotionally connected with his children than a Great King ever was to his vassals.

And this is why we need this text so much today; how do we connect with God? What does that silent, invisible, power of the universe, mean to us? What is he to us, not when we are good, but when we are not good? What is God to us, when we have delved into the dark side – in our thoughts, in our words, in our flagrant actions of rebellion, and in our passive indifference and apathy? What is God to us when we are wrapped up in this world, as it is, with its materialism, its decadence, its entertainment-ism, its whatever-it-takes-no-matter-what-the-rules-are perspective?

The answer is right here:

16For 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.”

If God is not just Great King, but Father, then the snakes stay in their holes, even when the people grumble. The Father is not happy about his children turning off the lights so they can delve into the dark side unseen, but his solution is not just to condemn the evil; His solution is to send his Son to the evil, to redeem it.

17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

So, let’s take a moment to go back to the old picture in the old story of Israel’s life with God and make some adjustments. The people of this world are not like nice little compliant sheep; we are more like those ungrateful people complaining against the God who is feeding us. But let the picture be like this: God, the heavenly Father still loves his children, so he comes into the camp in the wilderness among the rebels, and he says,

I will be the snake on the pole for you. I will be your source of healing. I will be raised up, so that all you need to do is to look, and believe: I am here for you right now, saying, “come back to the Father who loves you. Come out of the darkness – it never gave you what you wanted anyway. Come into the light.”

This is what Jesus does with Israel’s story; he transforms it from a “King and bad people story” into a “Father and his wayward children” story. There are no snakes slithering with fangs dripping at our feet. Instead, the evil has all been gathered into one place, in one body; the body of one lifted up, transformed from the source of our destruction into the source of our salvation.

God so loved the world – even this world – the world as it really is – to the point that God’s own son came to this world to absorb its evil, its darkness, its pain, and to offer himself back to the world not for condemnation, but for forgiveness; for salvation.

Now the question is simply this: where is the darkness in your life? Where is the brokenness? Where is the pain?

Lift up your eyes; look at the cross; see there the one who came to bring you into the light of God’s Fatherly, (motherly) love. He hates it when we suffer; he hates it when we cause suffering; he hates it when we ignore suffering; he came to take all that upon himself.

Now let us take a moment in silence: look at yourself sitting here today. Picture yourself at home; picture your life – look at the painful places. Now bring them in your mind to the cross where Jesus is lifted up. Lay them there. Believe in him, the son, sent by the father, looking at you in love, saying, “leave it with me; I forgive you. Go as my beloved children into a dark world that needs the light that you have found.”

Prayers for 3rd Lent B

I think this prayer says it all:

his is a prayer based on the gospel lesson for the Third Sunday in Lent, John 2.13-22.

Holy God, in Jesus Christ you have built for us
an eternal house, a temple of righteousness,
a place of gracious plenty for the hungry
and abundant life for the poor in spirit.
Fill us with zeal for the body of Christ.
Overturn the tables of corruption and greed
and upset the imbalance of injustice,
so that we may worship you in spirit and truth;
through Jesus Christ, who is risen indeed.

David posts at his blog “Linen Ephod” – I would make the link convenient, but for some reason when I try, it locks up the whole page and I have to re-set it all.  Is it because I just changed to Safari 4 (beta)?  Perhaps; it used to work for me before I “upgraded”.

Sermon on John 2:13-22, 3rd Lent, B

John 2:13-22

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Jeffrey Weston
Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Jeffrey Weston

Say it isn’t so

I remember the feeling I had one day when, probably in church, I was old enough to realize for the first time that Jesus was capable of doing what we just read about; that Jesus could get angry – really angry – I thought Christians were not supposed to get angry. That Jesus could get violent – turning over tables in the temple! I haven’t even done that! That he made a whip and drove out – what? the animals, right? Not the people – he would not go that far to use a whip on people, surely! Say it isn’t so! (John is unclear: Matthew Mark and Luke show us whip-welts on the people too).

Why do we even have this story the bible? Couldn’t they have left it out to spare us the embarrassment? Apparently not; unlike many stories of Jesus, this one is in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They apparently thought we needed to hear this story – and although this happened near the end of Jesus’ public ministry – in fact helped to provoke the plot to have him killed – John brings the story to the very front of his gospel – not to mess with the chronology, but to give us a lens through which to view all the rest of Jesus’ life – it is that important.

And I agree: I think that this story is important indeed for us, today, and we do need to hear its message; so let’s dive in.

First, the place; the story happens in the temple and ends with a cryptic statement about destroying and rebuilding it. Whatever the meaning of this story, it is about the temple.

But by the time John put pen to parchment to tell us his version of this story, it was gone. There was no temple there. It had been destroyed. The Roman army came and crushed it as punishment for an attempted rebellion of the Judeans in 70 CE.

John admits that Jesus’ words about the temple were cryptic – no one really understood what he meant in that moment – in fact not until after Easter did they realize what he was talking about. Hindsight is 20/20.

But it was the Romans who destroyed the temple about 30-odd years after Jesus said those words; what did he mean by saying to the very people who were officiating at that temple “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”?

Simply this: even without any prophetic powers, Jesus saw the path they were on and believed if they continued, they would destroy the very temple they were running. “Keep on doing what you are doing, and you will destroy this temple.”  And they did; and they did.

So what were they doing that was so awful? It couldn’t have merely been exchanging money – they had to do that. If you lived a long way from the temple and wanted come to passover and offer an animal sacrifice, the OT allowed you to simply bring cash and buy an animal there. But how could you use the money in your pouch: it had an engraved image on it: the emperor? Simple – an exchange service was provided: trade your Roman coins for Tyrian coins without a an engraved face, and then buy your sheep.

Could the problem have been simply that the rates of exchange were skewed, even to extortion levels? Probably that was involved, but Jesus did not say a word about fairness, he was upset at the very presence of that business going on there, within the temple precincts. His words say it all:

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!

The word he used is the source of our word “emporium.” That temple was all about money, and it was set up to benefit a wealthy few at the expense of everyone else. The whole system was corrupt and unjust, causing great suffering and hardship for most of the people. To cap it off, the temple was not helping people get closer to God, but rather became an obstacle in their path. It was the combination of these two issues that got Jesus angry enough to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt and send everyone diving for cover.

Jesus took his cues from the Old Testament scriptures in which the prophets predicted that in the future,

Zech. 14:21 and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts… And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.

No traders in the house of the Lord; that’s the vision of a future that God wanted.

There was a long tradition in the Old Testament of two days of waiting and then a dramatic action by God on the third day. Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egyptian slavery to Mount Sinai where, it says,

The LORD also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” Exodus 19:10

In keeping with that tradition, when they asked him to authenticate himself as a legitimate prophet with a sign, Jesus announces to the people who are in the process of destroying the temple:

19 “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

There is double meaning spilling out all over the pages here. Jesus believes these people are destroying the temple itself but he knows also that what he has just done will provoke an attempt on his life. As the disciples remembered only after the fact, it was true that “passionate concern (zeal) for God’s house consumed Jesus: cost him his life.

But his life in fact is the new temple – the location of the presence of God himself. It will be raised up on the third day, on Easter, and from then on the powerful presence of God will be found in Jesus.

21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

In fact the resurrection was the confirming sign that they had asked him to show. The resurrection is God’s exclamation mark on Jesus oddly angry, violent actions that day.

There are two reasons why this text speaks powerfully to us today.

First, just like in those days, we are surrounded by gross injustices and great suffering one every side, and it is not OK. Following our Lord, we are authorized to be passionate about the destructiveness of evil. Evil causes suffering, and we care! Deeply!

This economic crisis was of human origin. People made a lot of money on commissions and returns on investments  – a lot of money. From loan officers at the local mortgage company to hedge fund managers, they made money leveraging their companies at 300%, and now we are all suffering for it.

And of course the suffering is worse for those at the bottom than it is for us in the middle. There is an 8% unemployment rate in our country – unless you limit the statistics to black Americans: as a group they have a 15% unemployment rate now. We are not blase about that.

I just saw again more video about the Invisible Children of Uganda that have to leave their huts at night and walk several miles to the towns where they sleep in huge groups – just to escape the brutal militias who abduct children. This is horrible! This arouses our passions. We are not content to turn away; we are Christians. Christians are disciples – followers and learners. As disciples, just like our Lord we are upset when children suffer.

And when investment and pension funds like Fidelity are invested in companies like PetroChina that fund genocidal regimes, as in Sudan in the name of their “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” we say “No! I’m a shareholder and I do not need blood money to support my lifestyle. Jesus has led me to have quite different values and to be passionate about injustice and evil!”

So yes, we actually do need this disturbing story of Jesus, red-faced with a whip in his hands and furniture flying. We need to be passionate in our battle against evil.

But a word of caution is required. There is almost nothing more seductive to us frail human beings than a cause we can get angry about. We seem to love to be right and be ready to start swinging cord at people who disagree. We must therefore be extremely suspicious of our own motives when we feel a righteous rage coming on; it better be about a clear, evil injustice – or maybe we ought to chill.

The second reason we need this story is quite different. We need this story because in it Jesus says so clearly what his whole mission is about: Jesus came to de-centralize the presence of God. Jesus came to make a way so that everyone sitting in this room has access to God, just like a priest in an ancient temple. Jesus came to be Emanuel, God with us: a walking temple.

But Jesus does not walk the earth as a temple, Jesus has gone back to the Father in heaven – and now he is present to us everywhere, all the time. Jesus is present here and now, and so, God is present. We as believers, in fact, are the body of Christ: God, through his Holy Spirit, now dwells in us! And Jesus has told us to see him in the faces of the “least of these” who are hungry, thirsty, naked and in prison (Matt 25). Jesus is present to us, and where Jesus is, there is the temple: the presence of God.

These are difficult, frightening, alarming days. What is ahead, no one knows. It is in times like these that we need to know that God is with us. He is present to us. He is there to cry out to, he is there to support us along the journey. Everything for us depends on this story: the temple, the dwelling place of God, is not distant nor obstructed; God is here: Jesus has brought God’s presence to us in a new and powerful way.

As disciples, we do just what Jesus did: we take the time to come to the Father in prayer. We ask him for the sustaining power of his Holy Spirit every scary day, relying on his presence.

So we see we did need this story: we need to be passionately engaged in God’s struggle against evil, injustice and suffering, and we need to know that the temple is here: God is here, and he will never leave us. We will be disciples: passionately engaged in mission, passionately engaged with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christians are disciples: disciples are followers of Jesus, students of Jesus. There are times when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. And there are times when the evil is so destructive that we must take up the whip of direct action against it. At both times, he is the temple: God is here with us.

Prayers for 2nd Lent, 2009

Prayer of Adoration

Eternal God, holy and faithful,

what can we give in return for our life?

Teach us to take up the cross of Christ

with grateful hearts and humble spirits,

offering all for the sake of the gospel,

so that we may receive life in fullness;

through Christ, who is coming in glory.



Call to Confession

Our Lord calls us to deny ourselves,

to take up our cross and follow him.

The denial we are good at

is denial of our own culpability

for our self-interested actions and in-actions.

But we are here, now, to end that denial by confession:

we acknowledge our sinful condition,

and rely on God’s mercy and Grace.

Assurance of Pardon

Hear the Good News:

Jesus Christ came to bear the cross for,

embracing our human condition,

redeeming us from its curse.

He died for us,

he rose for us,

he reigns in power for us,

he prays for us.

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.

Believe the good news:

in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

Prayer for Illumination

The worse things get in our world,

        the more we need to hear your voice, O Lord.

Speak to us directly, deeply, and powerfully by your Holy Spirit,

        as we read your word

                   and as the message is proclaimed,

that we may learn what it means to follow you

          as disciples of Jesus Christ.