Lent 3C Sermon (2022)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
Isa 55; 1 Cor 10

WAR IS HELL

[This sermon was preached as an elaboration of the following extensive notes.]

‘War is hell.’ We can’t watch the news these days for long without seeing the truth of this for ourselves, or hear someone in Ukraine actually say it out loud.

Last week, I introduced the suggestion that the biblical journey is one where God needs to journey with us for centuries in order for us to finally get the truth about sacrifice. I’m not talking about what Jesus turned the word sacrifice into for us. We sacrificed him on the cross. But Jesus turned that into self-sacrifice, so that when we use the word sacrifice, we actually mean self-sacrifice. No, when we say that the Bible is helping us to understand sacrifice, we are talking about the original version where selfish people make others die for them. We are talking, first of all, about the ancient forms of ritual blood sacrifice that human beings practiced all across this globe for many centuries and millennia. This Wednesday night, I will share the story of how this came to be — ritual blood sacrifice at the center of being human.

Largely due to the Cross and the Christian revelation, human beings no longer practice ritual blood sacrifice. But that stubborn part of being human hasn’t yet gone away. It’s gone underground, so to speak, and appears in our other human activities and institutions. In our legal systems, for example. Jesus was wrongly executed. It was a ritual blood sacrifice in an updated form. As we sing on Communion Sundays, Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. It’s the perfect time to sing that because Jesus intentionally gave us Holy Communion to replace ritual blood sacrifice as its opposite.

Let’s be very clear about this: the logic or structure of ritual sacrifice in our human social DNA is this: that those at the top of our societies are propped up by the rest of us, with those at the bottom of the pyramid being sacrificed for everyone else’s sake. This was ritually represented for centuries through sacrifice, even human sacrifice. Today the remnants of it still persist in our politics and economics and institutions. Learning to see this is the most important lesson I learn from the Bible, and it is one I hope to share with you along the way.

This morning I want to make the connection with what we are seeing on the news. War is hell. It is also an updated form of ritual blood sacrifice, manifesting its logic and structure. Vladimir Putin is clearly the most extreme case of someone who still expects an entire society, and even world, to bow to his needs and wants, no matter who at the bottom or margins gets sacrificed. We watch the news, and our hearts break, as we watch children being sacrificed in the sense of ritual blood sacrifice.

Let me actually tie the threads of ‘hell’ and ‘sacrifice’ together. In the New Testament, the word Jesus uses which we translate as “hell” (e.g., Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 18:9) is actually the name of a place near Jerusalem, a valley called Gehenna. Gehenna is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew ben Hinnom, which is important because you will especially find ben Hinnom in the Old Testament as an infamous place of ritual child sacrifice (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:2, 6; 32:35). For Jesus, the epitome of hell is child sacrifice. In Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, we are witnessing the hell of children being sacrificed for his benefit.

Why are we talking about this today? Because we can’t really understand today’s Gospel Reading without knowing the hell of the Jewish-Roman War that happened a generation after Jesus in the years 66-70. Luke’s Gospel was likely written shortly after this war. It was fresh on their minds and hearts — the utter devastation of Jerusalem. All the people ‘sacrificed’ to the power of Rome, including many children. Today’s Gospel Reading cannot be read and understood without seeing Jesus’ prediction of that war in the background. When he says that they all will suffer the same fate unless they repent, he means that unless they choose his different path of nonviolent resistance, their violent rebellion against Rome will be crushed. They will experience the hell of war.

Let’s conclude with a word from St. Paul from last week’s Second Reading: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Even as war continues to wage around us, we are called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, by God’s very different response to our violence. We are called to, following Jesus, turn the sacrifice of others into self-sacrifice, learning to live in loving service to all people, especially those at the bottom or margins. It’s what we pray for every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 20, 2022

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