A sermon preached on March 22, 2009 based upon John 3:14 – 21, entitled “Why the Good People Killed Jesus”
Last week I talked about the ultimate reference point in our moral decision making. This morning I want to again ask about our “ultimate reference point” when it comes to answering that most basic of questions: specifically, “How do I say ‘yes’ to my life?” How do I find the capacity to get up out of bed in the morning and embrace my particular life with its unique mixture of burdens and opportunities?
The standard reference point in answering this question is so broadly practiced, so unquestioned, so commonly practiced, that it can be difficult to even imagine an alternative reference point. It is, of course, me, myself. I take the place of the judge, the value-assessor of my life.
In the role of the judge of my life, where do I look for evidence to render my verdict as to whether or not my life is worth saying yes to? Well, I look to other people, and I compare myself to them. Comparisons become everything. I render a positive verdict when I look to at other people and what I see leads me to conclude that I am smarter, better looking, more successful, just plain better — whatever the particular criteria that seems to matter most in the present moment.
I render a negative verdict about my life when I look at other people and they seem to be “better” than me — again, in terms of the particular critieria of the moment.
When we function out of the standard reference point, there is a tendency for us experience a fluctuation in our judgments. At one moment we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, but then something shifts in the evidence being considered, and suddenly we find ourselves feeling really bad about ourselves.
Over time, though, as we function out of the reference point of ourselves, we tend to gravitate towards either seeing ourselves basically as a “winner”, or, as basically a “loser.“ The “winners” have moments, of course, when they question the verdict they have pronounced upon themselves, but generally speaking, they do what they can to distract themselves from dwelling for very long in such thoughts.
Generally speaking, neither the “winner” verdict or the “loser” verdict is very reality based; the lives of all of us are a great deal more ambiguous than that.
We take it for granted that the mark of a successful life is when a person can compare themselves with other people as come to the conclusion they are one of the “winners” or the “good people.” When we raise our kids, effective parenting is generally considered manipulating our children’s life in such a way that they get abundant opportunity to experience themselves as a winner so they can cultivate that “winner” identity.
So it turns out there is a “dark side” to being what is generally thought of as a “winner.” If I rely on being a winner in order to say yes to my life, then there will be this sinister way in which I will need others to be “less than” me; I will need others to be “down” so I can feel “up”. On the one hand, Jesus just wouldn’t buy into the distinctions that the successful people relied upon to feel good about themselves. In Jesus’ mind, there weren’t any“good people” who had the right to look down on “bad people”; in Jesus’ mind, we’re all in this thing called life together. (Once, in response to someone calling him “good teacher”, Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘good.’ No one is good but God alone.”)
On the other hand, the transparency of Jesus to the light of God was so extraordinary that he did in fact walk on an altogether different plain in regard to “righteousness.” His goodness was the real deal; there was “no play acting” involved for Jesus. He was the embodiment of God’s love, and in comparison, everybody else’s love paled in comparison.
Jesus was, as John says, “the light of the world” and light is a funny thing. It is, of course, good and essential. We’d be lost without light. But light also reveals the darkness we would rather keep hidden away.
There is this strange story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is teaching from Simon Peter’s boat, and when he is done, he commands Simon to lower his nets into the sea, which he reluctantly does. To his astonishment, Simon catches this tremendous load of fish overflowing his nets, at which point he falls down at the feet of Jesus and cries, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” In other words, in the moment in which Simon recognizes the holiness he is in the presence of, he simultaneously has his own darkness revealed to him as well.
The greatest surprise of all for Simon when he quickly realizes that this holiness isn’t rejecting him; no, it is calling him — wants to use him, despite the fact of that there is yet much darkness within. (Apostle Paul discovered the same amazing grace on the road to Damascus.)
So 2000 years ago you had these “good people” feeling pretty pleased with themselves, feeling like “winners” in the righteousness competition. But when Jesus comes to town, they felt this distressing pressure within themselves to look at parts of themselves that they would very much prefer looking at — their self-righteousness, say, or the ways in which they were deceitful, or hardened their hearts, and their feeling was, “If we go to these places in our hearts, we will lose the capacity to say yes to our lives which we’ve worked so hard to build.”
So without thinking through what they’re doing, they conspired to put out the light, which is exactly what John is getting at when he tells us in this morning’s Gospel lesson that although “God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save it, the verdict was nonetheless this: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light.”
The coming of Jesus really was good news, which John sums up by saying,
“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
There is wonderfully good news expressed in this famous verse, but I think the good news often gets obscured. First off, when John says, “whoever believes in him,” we miss what he is talking about if we reduce this to “knowing the creed”, knowing the formula, and being able to recite it like a parrot, which too often is what Christianity has been reduced to.
No, what is being talked about here is that we are given a gift — an unconditional love which gives us an altogether different reference point, out of which we are empowered to say “yes” to our lives. To “believe in him” a willingness to receive the gift — to put our trust in this gift.
Another way this verse gets misunderstood is by interpreting the words “perish” and “eternal life” as referring to an after-life destination of either hell or heaven.
Eternal life, as John refers to it, is a quality of life that begins right now, and yes, it will continue beyond death, but it begins in the here and now. It means being delivered from the vicious death trap of self-justification, of never quite being “good enough”, and being dependent on putting others down so that we can be up.
How many marriages, work places, churches families, etc. etc. have been torn apart by this compulsive need to negate others so that I can affirm myself?
There is this weird verse that began our Gospel lesson that you probably responded to with a “huh?” when you heard it:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believed in him may have eternal life.”
It references a bizarre story in the Old Testament in which the people sin and God punishes them by having snakes bite them with a fatal venom. As an antedote to the poison, God has Moses hold up a bronze snake for the people to look at, the sight of which brings healing.
It’s a bizarre little story indeed, but John uses it to make the point that when Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we are allowed to see the inevitable outcome of all our vain attempts to justify ourselves through the bottomless pit of comparison with others, and thereby saved from this destruction.
Moving into this wholly-other reference point by which we find the power to embrace our lives isn’t something we can just think our way into. Nicodemus got frustrated when Jesus used the imagery of being “born from above” to describe this shift in consciousness: “What am I supposed to do, climb back inside my mother’s womb and get myself ‘born again’? He had that much right. You can’t birth yourself. It is a work of the holy spirit, that blows where it will.
All you can do is to know of the possibility of this shift in reference point, and be open when the spirit starts to move in your life.
I went to a district gathering of clergy this week, and at one point the speaker had us turn and share the story of our calling to ministry with a neighbor. A woman I hadn’t know shared how when she was just seven, she had fallen out of a car driving at a high speed, and amazingly survived without sustaining any serious injury. The experience had been a trigger for her, leading to a great deal of reflection on the meaning of her life.
This in turn led me to share the story I have told a number of times before, regarding how when I was nine, I went one summer afternoon with a friend to swim in a “man made lake”. I wasn’t a very good swimmer. At one point I was swimming alone, with my eyes closed because of the murky water, when I somehow crossed over the rope that marked the sharp drop off into the deep water. When I went to stand up, there was no bottom beneath my feet, and I proceed to sink into the deep water. I panicked, thrashing my arms about, which simply made the situation worse. I would have drowned, except for the fact that a stranger saw me and saved me, grabbing hold of me and taking me to the shore where he deposited me. He disappeared, and I sat there coughing out the water. No one seemed to have noticed, and finding the experience so distressing, I told no one about it either.
In some ways the worst part of the experience was the weeks and months that followed. Whenever I would be alone with my thoughts, I would obsess over the fact that I had almost drowned. At night, lying alone in my bed, waves of anxiety and dread would flow over me, as I thought about the fact that I had come so very close to having my life snuffed out and my body buried in the earth in a coffin.
And then one night in a cold sweat, not being a particularly religious kid, I cried out in desperation to God, and suddenly the anxiety and dread left me, never to return. At the time I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about who it was that had answered my cry — I was a kid and just relieved to be able to get back to being a kid, free from anxiety and dread. But I thought about it as the years passed.
In that moment, I caught a glimpse of that ultimate reference point. It’s not all about me. There is this God who made me and along with the sparrow and every other living being, has his/her eye upon me. This God loves me, and whether I live, or whether I die, I’m in the hands of God.
We sang this old verse before I began preaching this morning. The imagery speaks of Christ being a solid rock. It declares that apart from the love that he reveals, we will ultimately sink. Let’s finish with that verse again:
“When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”