What Can We Learn from Jesus? sermon 4 – Giving Up God for Lent – John 3:16

Part I                                             We worship as we live

in the midst of the MYSTERY we call God,

a MYSTERY that IS LOVE.

May the Spirit of LOVE

breathe wisdom and passion

into this gathering.

The appointed Gospel reading for this the fourth Sunday in Lent includes the passage from John 3:16. This verse has been dubbed by many evangelicals as “the gospel in a nut-shell.”  So popular is this verse that in certain parts of rural North America you will still find billboards that read simply John 3:16.  “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.” Traditional interpretations of this verse have painted a particular picture of who Jesus was and why Jesus died.

Traditionally, the season of Lent is a time of repentance. So, let us repent. Repent from the Greek word metanoia “to think new thoughts”. Let us metanoia – Let us think new thoughts about who Jesus was and why Jesus died. Repent Metanoia – let us think new thoughts so that we might ask:  What can Jesus teach us?

The way that the Jesus story has been told has crafted, molded and shaped the idol that masquerades as the MYSTERY we call God. The stories about Jesus have been told in ways that paint a particular picture of what it means to be human.  According to these traditional interpretations humans were originally created in a state of perfection to live in a perfect creation. These perfect humans enjoyed a perfect relationship with their Creator. Then one day that perfect relationship was severed when for one reason or another the humans disobeyed the rules established by the creator.

You all know this story. This story provides the raw material for the idol that we have created to serve as our god. According to the story humans are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. Humans were cast out of the perfection of the garden and alienated for their creator. Humans have tried in vain to get themselves back into the garden, to restore our oneness with our creator. But try as we might we are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. We need a saviour to rescue us from our sinfulness. And our Creator needs us to pay for our sinfulness. We must be punished.

Traditional interpretations of the life of Jesus insist that Jesus sacrificed himself, took all our respective punishment onto his shoulders, died for us, upon a cross, so that our relationship to our creator could be restored. We’ve heard these interpretations of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection so many times that they have almost become indistinguishable from the idol that we have created to stand in for the Mystery that we call God. The trouble is, we all live in the 21st century and we know that the definition of what it means to be human that these stories rely upon no longer rings true. We know that humans have been evolving over millennia. We know that humans were not created as perfectly formed creatures who fell into sin. We know that humans are continuing to evolve. Humans are incomplete beings.

We are not fallen creatures. This knowledge has to change the way in which we see our relationship with the MYSTERY that lies at the very source of our being; our Creator if you will. This knowledge has an impact on how we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

If we look at the stories that have been told about Jesus, the stories that have contributed so much to the creation of the idol that masquerades as the Mystery we call God, we discover a narrative that seems preoccupied with Jesus’ death. It occurred to me the other day, that it is quite peculiar that most of what has been written about Jesus in the New Testament and indeed our liturgies, even the hymns we sing about Jesus they tend to shift our focus to Jesus’ death.

Imagine if you will, trying to understand the life of Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi simply by focusing upon their death. Imagine trying to understand who Dr. King was and focusing your attention upon his assassination.  Imagine knowing everything there is to know about that final day in Memphis, about the motel, about the people who were on that balcony when Dr. King was shot, about the shooter, the gun that was used, about the funeral procession, the grieving, and about the people who tried to go on walking in the ways of Dr. King. Imagine all the information you would miss if you simply focused upon Dr. King’s death.

You wouldn’t know very much about the civil rights movement, about Dr. King’s dream, his vision of equality, his struggle for inclusion, his cries for justice for the poor, his vision economic equality, or his passion for peace, and his commitment to non-violent resistance.

So, this morning I’d like us to take our focus off Jesus’ death and all we may have heard, or learned about why Jesus died so that we can see what it was about Jesus life that endeared him to his followers. What can Jesus teach us? What can we learn from Jesus life about who, or what the MYSTERY we call God is?  What can Jesus teach us about God?

Part II

Repent: Metanoia: “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts.

Take a few moments to walk across the sanctuary and have a word with someone about who Jesus was?  What do you know about the life of Jesus that sheds some light on who and what the MYSTERY that we call God is?

 Part III

Repent: Metanoia: “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts.

Share as a whole group some responses: What do you know about the life of Jesus that sheds some light on who and what the MYSTERY that we call God is?

Part IV

Repent: Metanoia: “to think new thoughts”. Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts.  The Gospel this morning comes to us from the anonymous Gospel storyteller that we know as John. This gospel was written some 70 years after the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The storyteller writes: 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.”

Today, when each of us is coping with the loss of an hour’s sleep, perhaps it is easier for us to understand that the way in which we describe reality does indeed change over time. Yesterday, when the sun was in the same position in the sky as it is now, we insisted that it was an hour later. Today, thanks to daylight savings time, the earth hasn’t quickened its course around the sun. The sun is in the same place at the same time as it was yesterday, but today all our clocks insist that it is actually 11:00 and not 10:00.

When we focus upon the life of Jesus of Nazareth rather than the death of Jesus, we can begin to hear some of the things that Jesus was passionate about. Jesus’ passions reveal to us the image of the Mystery that we call God that Jesus worshipped. When we set aside the institutional narrative of atonement that the church has relied upon to interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the idol that masquerades as god, the idol whose contours are reinforced in our worship services, by our hymns, prayers, creeds, choice of scriptures, and rituals, this idol begins to crumble. When we forgo our obsession with Jesus death and open ourselves to the passions of Jesus life, we begin to see new ways to understand the new images of the HOLY ONE that Jesus encouraged his followers to see. Jesus’ life reveals images of God that point far beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to the Ultimate MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of all reality. The apostle Paul who was the first to write about Jesus, portrays Jesus as a doorway into the ultimate. For Paul, Jesus was not God but a human in which God was revealed.  For us, Jesus can be the medium through which the Mystery we call God can be imagined. Continue reading

Beyond the Serpent. Beyond the Idol Jesus. Beyond the Beyond and Beyond that Also: a sermon Lent 4B – John 3:14-21

bronze serpentA sermon that attempts to peer beyond the mess we have made of John 3:16. Listen to the sermon here

I don’t like snakes. No. Let me make it perfectly clear, I hate snakes. I hate snakes because I am afraid of snakes. Snakes terrify me. I know that my fear of snakes is unreasonable. But when it comes to snakes, I could be described as a biblical literalist, because thanks my mythical fore-mother Eve, there shall be enmity between this particular woman and the serpents who are confined to slithering about the dark corners of my imagination. So, perhaps it is my fear of snakes that has prevented me from seeing beyond the literal words on the page when it comes to this morning’s gospel text. That a snake could lead me to a new understanding of the words put into the mouth of Jesus, by the anonymous gospel story-teller that we call John, comes as a complete surprise to me.

You might be able to tell that I am struggling to fight off a cold; the full effects of which hit me during the course of our congregational retreat on Friday night. So, when I arrived home late yesterday afternoon, I took a decongestant and went straight to be.  Decongestants have a strange effect on me. Sometimes they zone me out and sometimes they send me to this strange place where my brain races around at a million miles an hour. Yesterday, I was hoping for the latter, because all week long I have been struggling to figure out what to do with this gospel text and try as I might, I’d been stymied by a wall of doctrine that I simply couldn’t see my way past and despite all my hard work I had no idea what to do with this text.

I was kind of hoping for a bit of a medication buzz to get me past the wall of doctrine so that we could move beyond the line of text that strikes fear into the heart of this particular progressive Christian preacher. “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.”   John 3:16, or as it’s popularly known: THE GOSPEL in a nutshell.

These days, ardent fundamentalists don’t even bother writing out the words of the text, they just wave about their signs emblazoned with the mere mention of John 3:16 as a kind of declaration of what it takes to judge the content of one’s character. Either you believe John 3:16 or you don’t; one way or another you will be judged. Bow down before the Gospel accept that 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. Bow down and worship, believe or else.

Believe what you say? Believe that God sent his only son to die, to die for you, to die for your sin, to die a horrible death on a cross, so that God your heavenly Father, could be satisfied, and muster up the grace it takes to forgive you, you wicked sinner that you are. Bow down and believe or face the wrath of the Father. Bow down and believe John 3:16 lest ye be judged. Bow down and believe John 3:16 or face the fire torment that awaits you in Hell; damnation! Bow down and believe.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only song so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Untangle that one, you progressive Christians, wangle your way out of that particular piece of Good News.

In my drug induced haze, I considered the possibility that the wall of doctrine is just too high to climb and far to wide to go around. Maybe I should just give up, surrender and stretch out in the shade provided by sheer size of a wall that seems impregnable. Lying there in my bed convinced that the walls of my room were actually closing in on me; I began to wonder if I’d made a crucial mistake. Could I be that stupid? Oh, my dear God. I’m an idiot. I found the strength to get out of bed and there on the bathroom counter was the proof of my stupidity. I hadn’t actually taken the daytime cold medication. No buzz for me because I’d taken the nighttime dose. Just burry me beneath the wall of doctrine, cause I am done for. Help me Jesus, Help, Help, me Jesus! Help me Jesus, yeah get me out this mess! Where oh where is the great sky-god when you need him?

There was nothing left but to sleep. Sleep, sleep perchance to dream. Lord let there be a way through that wall of doctrine. Wall made of bricks, bricks forged in fiery furnaces of hell, fire and damnation. Bricks and mortar, plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is. Continue reading

Beyond the Serpent. Beyond the Idol Jesus. Beyond the Beyond and Beyond that Also: a sermon Lent 4B – John 3:14-21

bronze serpentA sermon that peers beyond the mess we have made of John 3:16. 

Listen to the sermon here