26 March 2006

Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Lent (7:45am, 11am services)

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This is one of those verses of Scripture that sits uncomfortably with me. I think we all have one of these: something that makes us stretch and struggle and that we might even disagree with. This verse is right up there with “I am the way, the life, and the truth” for me.

When we read Scripture, we can’t simply turn off who we are, our history, our experiences. It’d be a whole lot simpler if we could just clear all of that out and just absorb what the Bible tells us. But that isn’t true to who we are as human beings. We come from families that shape us, from places that have taught us joy and sadness, from a whole range of experiences. We bring all of who we are before God each day.

So, I have to confess that when I read this Gospel passage, it provokes something deep within me. It strikes a nerve.

Perhaps many of you are in the same boat. Perhaps this is for you, as it is for me, one of those passages you hurry through because its implications are hard to contemplate, let alone accept without fighting it. This passage, and especially the over-quoted verse within it, are so tremendously difficult for me because of what they imply for those who don’t believe. As promises go, believers are pretty well off, but the picture seems grim for everyone else.

In a world where people of many faiths, nationalities, and cultures live and work together, this passage sounds harsh and closed-minded. It is challenging for me because I was brought up in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition, and my closest family – my mother, father, and sister – don’t share my Christian faith.

When I became a Christian, I struggled with this very passage. For years. What did it mean for my family? Would God really condemn my mother? How could God, who loves me, hurt those whom I love? And if he would, can I really put my trust and faith in Him?

At the time of the Gospel’s writing, this wasn’t any easier. Christianity was gradually becoming more distinct and separate from its Jewish origins, and this verse divide could friend from friend, father from son, and mother from daughter. Our culture has developed the idea that church and family are inseparable, but in the ancient world, faith could and did divide families.

For Jesus, for the Gospel writers, for the apostles, the disciples, and the crowd, this is a matter of life and death. It is the most important concern of their lives, and it went far beyond the ties of family. This was rather amazing in the context of the Jewish Law, where God commanded the Israelites to honor their fathers and mothers. Instead, it would prove divisive. But for the followers of Jesus, then and now, the presence of Christ among us surpasses even the most important relationships we have.

This is a demanding faith, but it is also full of hope. We look to Jesus, crucified on the cross, and that moment captures the whole of his life and ministry. He set aside himself for others. When we look to Christ lifted on the cross, we know what came before and what is yet to come. We can see the whole of his story in an instant. To believe in the message of Christ is to have hope, joy, and to know that, even in sorrow and doubt, something wonderful can happen.

This kind of deep joy and abiding hope is precisely what the Gospels are trying to convey, and it is the message that has called people to faith for two thousand years.

It is no trivial thing to convert from one tradition to another. It is one of those difficult processes in our lives, one that takes time and effort. We are a people, we human beings, who are defined by time and place, and by the experiences that are so habitual we can’t imagine anything else. We grow, like the trees that reach high above the ground, very deep roots. And as our lives go on, our roots go deeper and deeper. Entering a new faith, like starting a new family in marriage or losing a dear friend, forces us to uproot from where we have been, perhaps even from everything we’ve known. The world looks different, it has a different shape to it, because we have been wrenched out of place. When we are called to leave behind what we have known and enter into an unknown territory, it can be terrifying to put down new roots. It takes time, and it can be incredibly painful to grow into a new place when you’re still grieving for the old and familiar.

It is a trauma to be uprooted and moved. It is a time that requires greater care and attention. For us, our traumas can be either joyous or deeply painful – or even both at the same time. Either way, there is a time in which you and I have to grieve for what has been before we can enter fully into what is yet to come.

All of this is to say that I am still struggling with John 3:16, despite being baptized and confirmed eleven years ago, and I expect that I will continue to do so. In these struggles, I am reminded by the passage around this troublesome verse to look to Jesus.

We are, today, halfway through the season of Lent, and we are beginning to look with hope towards the Easter moment. Even though the Gospel challenges our sensibilities and makes us wrestle with it, it speaks of hope. The parts of Scripture that sit uneasily with us are exactly what keeps our faith from becoming rote and habitual. It keeps our attention, makes us think, and helps us to grow stronger in our faith.

And this is what I have learned from wrestling with this small piece of Scripture: God loved the world – the whole earth and all of humankind – from the beginning. It is because of this love that God walked with us in the Garden. It is because of this great love that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It is this same love that entered the world in the person of Jesus, called the Messiah. Because of this love, Jesus Christ brought a message of hope and life. It is because of this love that we look to the cross as a symbol of the power of God to transform our lives.

In the wilderness at Mount Hor, God offered a gift of life to ease the fears of the Israelites. And in first century Palestine, God extended an invitation of hope to the entire world. It is not a thing or an object, but a person – living, breathing, born into life just as we are. This is the greatest gift I have ever received, and it is one I share with each and every one of you. Even more, the gift of Jesus Christ is not only for those of us here today, or for those who share our branch of the Church, but for all who are created, because it comes from God, who gives all of us life and breath.

We put our trust in the God who loves us and in whom we live and move and have our being. We look toward Christ Jesus, in whom we have hope, not only for ourselves, but also for those we share our lives with.