A sermon preached on March 18th, 2012 based upon John 3:14 – 21.
I have this running joke I share with Fred Coleman, our office minister, who comes in three days a week to answer the phone and be a hospitable, gracious presence. There are days when he comes to work dressed far better than I – me being a dressed- down-kind of guy. On such days Fred looks a lot more like what most people think a pastor is supposed to look like than I do.
So I call Fred my “Pastor decoy.” I conjure up this fantasy of a deranged man bursting into the church office one day with a loaded gun, which he aims alternately at Fred and me. For some reason – maybe the man’s angry with God, I don’t know – the deranged man is intent on taking out a pastor — (I know, it’s a really weird fantasy.)
“Which one of you is the pastor?” the man demands. And I point at Fred dressed in his suit, and Fred gets filled with lead.
I find the pastor-decoy fantasy funny for a couple of reasons. One, it expresses the gap I know there to be between the goodness people often project on me as “the pastor,” and the broken, sinful creature that I know myself in fact to be. In the fantasy, I am quick to give Fred up when the madman points his gun.
But I also laugh because the fantasy expresses something else – the fact that I really do feel loved by Fred, and I suspect that if a deranged pastor-killer ever were to come crashing into the church office, if necessary, Fred actually would take a bullet for me.
It was Saint Francis who said to his friars, “Go out into the world and preach the Gospel. Use words if you have to.” The idea being — actions speak louder than words.
For instance, the reason St. Patrick could single-handedly bring the people of Ireland to Christ had less to do with the words he spoke, and more to do with the power of his actions – specifically that he, born an Englishman – would return to the people who had made him a slave, not out of revenge, but out of the great love that possessed his heart.
It was St. Francis who was willing to risk his life by crossing into so-called enemy lines during the travesty of the Crusades, in order to go directly to the Sultan to tell him of the love of Jesus. His words were worth listening to because his actions had already spoken the Gospel.
John 3:16. It has been called a sound-bite for God – the verse Tim Tebow writes on his face – a succinct summary of the Gospel:
“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 can stand up here and tell you of the great love God has for the world, and by extension, for each one of you, and that I want nothing more than for you to know this love for yourselves, and maybe by the grace of God my words register within you, but then again, words, as they say, are cheap.
If I were to come down from the pulpit and bathe each of your feet, perhaps such a demonstration of love in action would move you more, though it might rather just make us all uncomfortable.
But if somehow the moment actually came where I was called on to take a bullet in order that you may live, and I did so, well then, I suspect you would be pretty stirred by such a testimony to a very deep love. And the fact that I was able to live out such love in my actions would make my testimony to God’s love all the more persuasive.
In Bob’s reading, just before the oh-so-familiar 3:16 we heard a reference made to an obscure Bible story that it would be safe to say most of us probably don’t know.
It hearkens back to a time when the Israelites, having been delivered from their captivity to Pharaoh by God are now wandering in the wilderness, and they begin to act like bratty little children, wining and complaining against God and Moses, saying – and this is a direct quote – “we detest this miserable food.”
God’s response is rather other the top, but the feeling behind the response is probably understandable to any parents who have been trapped in a car with winey children.
God sends poisonous snakes to attack the Israelites. Many are bitten, and some have already died.
The people repent of their ingratitude and impatience and come to Moses to ask him to pray to God for relief, which Moses does. In response, God tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it up on a stick and then hold it up high, so that when the people gaze upon it, the sight of the snake will provide a healing from their snake bites.
It’s a strange story for sure, presenting an image of God that – from the perspective of what we know of God in Jesus – many of us would have a lot of trouble with.
But the Gospel writer John creatively conjures up this image of the poisonous snake lifted high and the healing brought about by the sight of it as a way to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ being raised up on the cross.
“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.”
There is nothing quite so healing to hardened hearts as the sight of Jesus hanging on the cross.
A French Bishop once told the story of three young university students in Paris who were walking through the streets on Good Friday when they came upon a church. The most outspoken of the three began to talk with great bravado about how the church was a dying institution and Christianity was nothing more than superstition.
On a whim, one of the other young men puts a challenge to the one who spoke with such conviction. “What you say is true, but I bet you won’t go inside this church and tell the priest himself what you just told us.” And the third young man chimes in, “Yeah, I bet you won’t either.”
The young man is momentarily taken aback by the dare, but not wanting to appear the coward by his mates says, “Well, I should, shouldn’t I? It’s the truth isn’t it? The priest might as well face up to the truth!”
So he heads inside where he finds the old parish priest. He asks the old man if he could have a word with him. “Certainly, my son,” says the priest, sitting down with the young man in the pews.
“Father, I have come to tell you that the Church is a dying institution, and that Christianity is nothing more than superstition.” The young man says this and more, and the old priest listens intently, without speaking.
When the young man finishes speaking, the priest speaks softy. “It must have taken you quite a bit of courage to come in here and tell me what you just had to say. I admire that. I have one thing to ask you to do before you leave, and I wonder if your courage will allow you to do this.”
“Any thing, Father. Within reason.”
“I want you to go up to the altar and gaze upon the crucifix. And then I want you say again the essence of what you just told me. I want you to say, “Jesus died for me and I don’t give a damn.”
Once more the young man is taken aback, but having come this far he isn’t about to back down now.
“Very well,” he says, and proceeds to the figure of Jesus hanging on the cross. “Jesus died for me and I don’t give a damn.” He hurries back to the priest. “I did as you asked. Farewell, Father.”
“You are truly a man of your word, and I admire that,” says the priest. “If you don’t mind, do it once more to indulge the request of an old man.”
“If you insist,” says the young man. This time he stays a bit longer before saying these words: “Jesus, you may have died for me, but I don’t give a damn.” Once more the young man retreats to the priest, anxious to be on his way.
“That is quite remarkable that you could do what you just did,” the old priest says to the young man. “I admire you greatly. Please, just do it one more time. I promise, I won’t ask you again. Afterwards you are free to be on your way.”
Reluctantly the young man once more approaches the altar, and gazes up at the figure of Jesus dying there on the cross. He stays there longer this time. Finally, he returns to the priest, walking slowly.
“Father,” says the young man, “I’m read to make my confession.”
The Bishop telling the story then said this: “I was that young man who stood before the crucifix; it was I who made his confession that day.”
What I find so striking about this story is that it wasn’t any intellectual argument – any doctrines or ideas, nor any words at all – that convinced the intellectual young man of his need to repent and turn back to God’s great love. No, it was the image of Jesus acting out the Father’s great love hat bypassed the barrier of the young man’s intellect to speak directly to his heart.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that when he is lifted up – lifted up that is on the cross – he will draw all people to himself. The love demonstrated there intends to draw all people – not just some.
And yet there is often a lot of confusion about the cross of Jesus, and it is words spoken about the cross that get in the way. The is a common notion about what Jesus did on the cross that runs something like this: People were so bad and so mean and God was so angry with them that He would not forgive them unless somebody big enough – that’s Jesus – could take the rap for the whole of them. It’s the idea of a God who is so pissed that it’s easy imagine Him sending poisonous snakes to bite us.
But as Richard Foster puts it, “Nothing could be further from the truth. Love, not anger, brought Jesus to the cross. Golgotha came as a result of God’s great desire to forgive, not His reluctance.”
As John expresses it this morning’s reading, Jesus did not come to condemn the world.
It is true that gazing upon the cross – if we really let ourselves contemplate what is revealed there – will reveal our own brokenness and sin to ourselves – that we all had a hand in a certain sense in putting him up there.
Here’s how Adam Hamilton put it: “Jesus suffering and death is meant to be a mirror held up to our souls; a reminder of the jealousy, pettiness, self-centeredness, spiritual blindness and darkness that lurks in all our souls.”
We recognize that there is a problem inside ourselves that we can’t fix; we need to reach out to the grace and mercy of God.
Thankfully, I am not likely to ever have to take a bullet for you, nor you for me. So we are left to resort to less dramatic ways of acting out the Gospel.
In our church we talk a lot about kindness. “Reaching out with acts of kindness,” we say. The thing about kindness is that it’s so down to earth. Nothing fancy.
But true kindness, if we’re paying attention, is hard to miss, and hard to ignore.
Warmly greeting strangers… Holding the door for somebody… Getting a cold class of water for somebody who is thirsty… Sitting with somebody who is scared, or sad, or lonely.
Nothing fancy. Nothing terribly dramatic.
The Gospel of John talks a lot about light and darkness. Light is one of his ways of talking about God’s love and grace. A true act of kindness reveals the light.
And whenever a true act of kindness is offered – that is, with no thought for what the person will get in return – it is as if the recipient of the kindness stands at a crossroads.
Will he or she embrace the light or not?
Kindness isn’t fancy or dramatic, but in every simple act of true kindness, something very important is at stake. Will we choose the light, or flee to the darkness? Which will it be?
In the course of our lifetimes, it the choices we make in this regard that ultimately matters.