Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Snakes, Grace, and Eternal Life: The Gospel in A Nutshell” – A sermon on John 3:14-21

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“And 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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21


When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

Everyone knows the best time to sneak around and get away with stuff is at nighttime when it is dark.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Mom and Dad said you can’t have, you wait until they are watching their evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

When you are not supposed to watch that R rated movie because it’s too violent, you wait until your parents go to bed before you quietly turn the movie on in the dark tv room.

When you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, close the door, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Or when your conscience tells you to befriend someone who isn’t quite so popular among others, but you fear that associating with her might affect your reputation, you only talk to her in secluded dark hallways and only hang out with her on the playground when it’s past dark and nobody’s around.

Most of us know that it is in the darkness where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

*****

And so I think this is why – at the beginning of John 3 just before our passage for today – Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night… It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he was going and find him out.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, Jesus did just that… by the 3rd chapter of John, he had already become a rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily driving out the money-changers and turning over the tables in the Temple.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spread to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they began to talk, as well. But as they voiced their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely didn’t speak too kindly of him.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus was curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus proclaims: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

What on earth could this mean?

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. How could he? He was born a Jew, is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? To those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? To just any old Jane or Joe? How could this be?

*****

Our passage for today begins here, as Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. Jesus says: “And 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.”

This story Jesus references takes place in our Old Testament lectionary text for today in Numbers 21. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. As they were getting impatient, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt – and they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain to Moses and against God. “Why haven’t we gotten to the Promised land yet? Why have you left us out here in the wilderness to die? We are sick and tired of this journey. We are sick and tired of this food, which isn’t good enough for our liking. Why!? Why!? Why!?”

So the Israelites are punished for their rebellion against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are now ready to refocus. They are ready to put the trivial things they were complaining about behind them and look upon the wilderness with new eyes. They are ready to put their trust back in God and to return back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punished God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would remember that evil is in inherent in all things of the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.

“And 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.”

“Ah,” Nicodemus must have thought as the light bulb begins to flicker on. “God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now I am starting to see.”

*****

Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [For example, it is] what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet [it] is also time-independent… [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

And as one scholar suggests, eternal life described in John is: “everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God through Christ. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe – and put our trust in – Jesus Christ, the One who manifests the greatness of God’s love and sets us an example for how we are to share that love with the world.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… A baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others and God.

Eternal life is a transformational life that is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God has saved us from the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. That God has saved us from our sin we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how sneaky and nasty it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but may have eternal life…

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

Here in John 3, Jesus is saying to this law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus: “Yes, Nicodemus. Your eyes are finally beginning to open. You are starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God I am talking about involves grace. It involves abundant love.

However, this grace is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. God loves the cosmos. God loves the whole world. And, while the current legal religious system is one that has been excluding those of other heritages, social standings, economic statuses, and those who cannot maintain obedience to the strict laws – God’s kingdom is one that is inclusive of ALL.

God loves the whole world.

God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

That God would save the whole world from captivity and oppression. That God would save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it. God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal and abundant life in God’s loving and grace-filled presence.”

*****

I think our New Testament reading from the letter of Ephesians explains this well:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… All of us once… follow[ed] the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. And [God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

*****

For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but may have eternal life.

“Yes, those who believe in me,” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in our text in John 3, “those who put their trust in me, those who follow me in sharing this love to the whole world will begin to experience this new eternal life. This new life – which is not of the flesh, but is from above. This abundant life – in which God’s love and grace is experienced and emulated to the whole world so that the whole world might be saved.”

*****

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later in John defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world, for God loved Nicodemus, for God loves me, for God loves you… in this way: that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with Martin Luther. This truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

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“Let Go and Let God: A Call to Discipleship for all of us ‘Mess-ups'” – Lent 2 Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

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Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38

Peter is a complete mess-up.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see his fear gets the best of him when Jesus asks him to walk on the water. In John, we see that Peter is the one who cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest. And in all four Gospels, we see that it is Peter who denies Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.

And so it’s probably no surprise to us that it is – indeed – this very same Peter who is the mess-up in our text for today in Mark. And as we watch this scene unfold, many of us may even roll our eyes at him, wondering whether or not Peter will ever learn.

But the thing is, I think that Peter tends to get a bad rap. Because – to be quite honest – I get Peter. I understand where he’s coming from.

You see, Peter is the first disciple to be called to follow Jesus. He is in the ultimate inner-circle. And he puts his complete trust in this rabbi, leaving behind everything he had and knew to become Jesus’ student and to follow him day in and day out.

And my guess is that it probably didn’t take Peter very long to realize that he put his trust in the right teacher, because in Mark’s Gospel, after he calls a few other fishermen to follow him, Jesus immediately begins to impress the crowds. He teaches on the streets and in the synagogues on the Sabbath day with great authority. He rebukes and commands unclean spirits, and they obey him. He performs many miracles, healing people with a wide variety of illnesses and ailments, casting out demons and forbidding them to speak, and even restoring a little girl on her death-bed back to life. While on a boat, he rebukes the winds and quiets a storm. He walks on water. He turns a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands. He gains quite the following of those without power and pushes the buttons of those in power.

This rabbi is not just like any other rabbi. This rabbi teaches, preaches, and acts with great authority and influence.

This must be the One the Jews had so long been waiting for. The One who would liberate God’s people from oppression and suffering. The One who would come to take on the worldly crown, claim victory over the powers that be, and turn the Roman Empire upside down, releasing God’s people from its captivity.

And it is this long expected Savior who chose Peter first! Peter can pat himself on the back a little bit, because that’s got to count for something!

And so, when Jesus stops the disciples on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and asks who they say he is: it is Peter – this first-chosen disciple, eye-witness to Jesus’ great acts, and Jesus’ close friend and student in the inner-most circle – who confidently and boldly blurts out the correct answer: “While some say you are John the Baptist or Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets, I say you are the long-expected Messiah!”

DING! DING! DING! And the prize deservedly goes to Peter, the first-chosen, most studious disciple who knows Jesus the best!

But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He explains that soon he is going to have to endure great suffering. He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And he will be killed. And after three days, he will rise again.

*****

I can totally picture Peter in this scene. I can see his confidence in who he believed Jesus to be immediately get squashed, and I imagine his doubts starting to kick in about whether or not he was right about this guy. I can feel the fear creep in as he starts to think about his teacher undergoing such rejection, humiliation, and suffering, and I can feel the pain shoot through his body as he starts to think about losing his dear friend to death.

In this moment, as Jesus reveals the impending tragedy to his dear friends, I can imagine this first-chosen Peter, as he grabs Jesus’ arm and angrily pulls him aside from the other disciples before Jesus gets the chance to say anything more. I can hear his rebukes to Jesus, as if they were my own: “What are you doing, Jesus!? You have been teaching and preaching with authority! You’ve performed miraculous acts before our very own eyes! You are the MESSIAH! The One with divine power that can dominate over all worldly powers! Why on earth would you allow these things to happen? There must be another way! We put our complete faith in you and gave everything up to follow you! Why are you choosing to forsake us now?”

I can relate to Peter so well in this text because I have been there before.

Like him, I have found myself thinking at times that since I have dutifully sacrificed a lot in my life to follow Jesus, it is only fair that Jesus calls me to do only the things that I want to do. And when Jesus suddenly tells me I need to let go of my traditions or my insecurities or what feels comfortable and I need to make a few more sacrifices or do some things that are out of my comfort zone, I feel Jesus has abandoned me.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times thinking that I am a first-chosen disciple, one in the inner-most circle, who knows Jesus and Jesus’ mind more than anyone else. And therefore, when someone disagrees with me, it is I who has the authority. I am the one who has all the answers about faith, theology, politics, what changes should occur or traditions should remain in the church, how one should choose a particular lifestyle to live. I am the one who is right.

Like Peter, I have patted myself on the back a few times, thinking that this call to following Jesus was all about me. What accomplishments I’ve made. How many people I’ve gotten to come through the church doors. How many twitter and facebook followers have liked my blog posts. How many times I’ve volunteered at the food pantry, attended church worship or events, or participated in protests and marches for justice. And so when Jesus all of a sudden reminds me that following him is actually just that: about following him, I just want to grab his arm, pull him aside, and let him know he’s got another thing coming.

Like Peter, there have been times when I have stood confidently before God and before others, boldly proclaiming who I thought I knew Jesus to be, only to be completely thrown off-guard when Jesus shows me I have gotten him so wrong.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times to put trust and faith in God’s existence only if God proves to be all-powerful. To believe that God is with me when things are going well in my life, but when things take a down-hill turn, to believe God has suddenly failed me and disappeared.

It’s easy to believe that the Gospel is all about us. That it is about our willpower and our accomplishments… How we can hold it together on our own. That it is about how many followers we gain. (And by golly, look at how much more faithful we are compared to those folks who haven’t accomplished as much as we have. Who don’t do as much leading, volunteering, worshiping, or justice-making as we do.)

And it is easy to believe that the Gospel is just about an all-powerful, quick fix God. One who will immediately come to our rescue when things go wrong and make everything okay. One who only came in the flesh to authoritatively and magically calm storms, heal people’s ailments, drive out demons, and turn a few loaves of bread into thousands.

I want this to be the Gospel. I want the Gospel story to end right then and there.

But it doesn’t.

*****

As we see in our text in Mark: Jesus tells the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi that the Gospel continues into Jerusalem and toward the cross.

I think we all have this tendency to want to avoid that dreadful journey and that horrific cross. To skip right over it and go from waving the Palm branches to singing the Halleluiah chorus.

But the thing is: we can’t have the resurrection without first going through the cross.

And Jesus knows this. So Jesus responds to Peter: “Get behind me, Accuser! Don’t try to get in the way of my journey toward the cross. For you are thinking, as humans do, on worldly things. You are not thinking on divine things, as God does.”

Then Jesus calls out to the crowds, gathering them in as he explains what it means to be his disciple: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Now, this statement has often been used to make a few particularly dangerous claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of herself or must give up her creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created her to be. And in this important statement, Jesus is not glorifying or condoning self-mutilation, abuse, injustice, or human suffering.  

Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.

He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us.

We must deny our constant desire to have power over others. We must stop trying to save our egos and pride by striving to always be first: to be the most successful, to have the biggest home, to be the smartest, to be the most faithful. We must give up our need to always be right.

We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.

But the hard reality is that we – as humans – were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.

To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross.

For the early disciples, the cross represented death. And as we now know… What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.

The old has gone, the new has come.

To follow Jesus, we must take up our own cross by following Jesus’ way of the cross.

As we saw while Jesus was wandering for those 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus, himself, had the ability to claim victory over worldly power and glory for his own benefit. But, despite Satan – the Accuser’s – strong persuasive skills, Jesus denied this temptation to have dominion over all. And we see later that as he continues toward the cross, he completely empties himself of all this glory and power, dedicating his life (and death) to one that was not for his own self-gain – but rather to one that was for others.

*****

Our text in Mark for today often reminds me of someone who was really special to me. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.

The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.

And I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

We must follow Jesus toward the cross by walking with others who are suffering and helping them carry their cross when it is too hard to bear. We must – as Barbara Brown Taylor says in the book we are reading as a congregation this Lent – learn to “walk in the dark” and begin to see God’s presence in those times when we – too – feel lost in our own suffering, doubt, fear, and failure.

But the thing is, when we travel this journey with our crosses on our backs, like Peter, we will continue to be mess-ups… No matter how much we give up to follow Jesus; no matter how far on the inner-circle we may think we are; no matter how often we go to worship on Sundays, pray throughout the week, read Scripture, volunteer, stand up for justice: like Peter – we will mess up over and over and over again.

But this is exactly why we cannot skip over the cross. Because we need the cross. Because we cannot save ourselves. Because we need our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer to rescue us.

So, no matter how much we may relate to Peter as we hear this difficult call to discipleship… No matter how much we may want this whole Gospel to be about us… How much we may want God to be in our own image… Or how much we may want to save ourselves and avoid the cross…

Let us deny our old selves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on this way.

Let us learn to let go. And to let God.