3rd Sunday of Advent
Texts: John 1:6-8, 21-29;
Isa 61:1-4, 8-11, Luke 1:46b-55
Facebook live (sermon begins at 30:55): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/1112938133393436/
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS . . . REPENTANCE, PART 2
Last week (Advent 2B), we introduced the notion that the Gospel message about a crucified Messiah requires a very deep sense of repentance. In order for humankind to even hear a message about a Messiah — who’s supposed to be a king-like figure but is then executed by the Roman Empire — well, this takes a whole new way of thinking. It takes a radical repentance, a complete change of mind and heart. There’s no way in which a crucified Messiah makes any sense unless our entire human sense of what makes sense — let me say that bit again: unless our entire sense of what makes sense — is flipped upside-down and inside-out.
It also works the other way around. Not only does it take radical repentance to understand the cross; it takes the cross to undergo radical repentance. There’s no way we can achieve a change mind and heart without the historical events of a crucified Messiah, who is then raised from the dead, to jolt us into a new way thinking. Without the resurrection, there is no vindication of a crucified Messiah. All of humankind would remain trapped in their old way of thinking that keeps recycling a long history of conquest and fiery destruction. It requires the incarnation of God at Christmas to break into the darkness of our endless brutality against one another, against our earth home, and against the rest of the creatures God so lovingly made.
John begins his Gospel with the hope of light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not being able to overcome it. John the Baptist, as we read this morning, is the first to testify to that light. You and I are heirs of that testimony. We are called to witness to the light shining in the darkness at our moment in time. And, tragically, there’s a lot of darkness at this particular Christmastime, isn’t there? How can you and I make sure that we are up to the task? That you and I can call others to a repentance of nothing less than being human in a new and better way? How is it that we might undergo a massive change of mind and heart? Is it a hopeless task? Or for the sake of our children and grandchildren, can we get our testimony straight?
John the Baptist, all those many years ago, anchored his testimony with these words: “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The first thing we need to note about these words is that the word Sin is singular. John doesn’t say that Jesus is taking away the sins of the world, plural. He says that Jesus is taking away the sin of the world, singular. In other words, I believe there’s one sin above all others which Jesus came to take away from us. There’s one sin that is at the heart of blocking our undergoing a radical change of mind and heart — that repentance we need to understand how a crucified Messiah is saving us.
What is that one sin? Well, it’s the one sin which actually is behind our murdering him on the cross. It’s why it takes the cross to bring salvation. And it both requires and brings about a radical repentance because it’s a sin that goes all the way back to our beginnings as a species. I’ve come to see this sin more and more as a part of our evolution, so it’s really entrenched. Which is why we need a repentance that basically begins a re-evolution. And this sin is one that we can actually spot a little better today because of, perhaps surprisingly, the science of anthropology. (It’s getting into anthropology, an understanding of what it means to be human, that has made a huge difference in my own conversion and repentance.) Today, we have a lot more data about the beginnings of our species, right? Let me just ask straight-out, then, what I’ve discovered to be the most pertinent question. What is at the heart of our idolatry? What is at the heart of our getting things wrong about who God truly is? What does the data of anthropology tell us?
Let me put it this way. Modern anthropology has dug up loads and loads of evidence about archaic societies. And the mystery which has somewhat confounded even the professional anthropologists (there is one that I single who answers the confusion) is that in virtually all these societies, there’s one thing they all seem to have in common. They have myriads of vastly different gods, myriads of stories and myths about these gods, and even myriads of different kinds rituals through which to worship the gods. But there is one thing in common about the rituals, about the basic shape of worship. Do you know what I’m talking about? Can anyone guess? [Pause for any answers from the congregation, waiting for the answer:] Ritual blood sacrifice. All across the entire globe, anthropologists have gathered evidence of all ancient peoples placing other human beings, and then animals, too, on altars to kill them.
Many of you might be thinking, “Is he wacky? Ritual blood sacrifice is the sin of the world which Jesus came to take away?” I wouldn’t blame you. Because ritual sacrifice is not quite that sin. Remember that my question revolves around God, around idolatry. The sin is that we subconsciously created, as part of our evolution, the gods who command these sacrifices. They are gods of wrath and punishment who then prop up human empires, because they command and justify violence against our enemies. In addition to commanding ritual blood sacrifice, they command things like conquering neighboring peoples, going to war against enemies, executing criminals (on things like crosses!), imprisoning and torturing people, closing the borders against immigrants, using violence against one’s political enemies. You get the idea.
In using a framework of anthropology, I’m inviting us to see the Bible as the story of the true God trying to break through all those false gods of sacrifice, patiently guiding us to repentance. Repentance away from the false gods of our evolution, to finally encounter the true God, who, as the Hebrew scriptures say, is a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. This is the God whom Jesus came to reveal to us in the flesh. Jesus came to invite us to instead believe in the true God of love and forgiveness and healing — the God who shows us the Way to be better human beings, based on healing love rather than punishing wrath. He teaches us to do crazy things like turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and minister to the least of the human family. Jesus is the incarnation of what the prophet Micah foretold when he says that God doesn’t want any of our blood sacrifices; instead, God requires that we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God (Micah 6). Jesus himself would live this new way of being human precisely by suffering our wrathful violence on the cross, trusting in God’s power of new life. And on the night before he did so, he revolutionized human worship by moving it forever away from altars to tables. Two thousand years later it is still the centerpiece of our worship, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine which we’ll undertake in a few minutes. (I’ve written an updated version of the Words of Institution which I’ll share with you at that time.)
Before we turn to that holy meal, however, we’ve one more matter to attend to concerning repentance. Last week, I indicated that one of the things we most need to repent of in the church is the logic of the cross which most of us were taught. After laying out the anthropological framework, we’re in a better position to fully understand.
First, what is the logic of the cross most of us have been taught? How, in recent centuries, have we come to explain the craziness of a crucified Messiah? It goes something like this: we are all sinners deserving of God’s punishment. God doesn’t really want to punish us all, but if God is a just God then God has to. Since God is also a loving God, God sent Jesus to take our place, to take God’s punishment meant for us on the cross. Does that logic sound familiar? That’s how we’ve tried to make sense of a crucified Messiah, in recent centuries of the church. By some version of Jesus taking the punishment for all of humanity upon himself on the cross. It’s sometimes called “substitutionary atonement” — that God sent Jesus as a substitute for our punishment.
Can you see now how this version of the cross actually participates in the sin of the world which Jesus came to take away? It assumes the picture of the false gods of our evolution who wrathfully command things like capital punishment. ‘You all deserve to die.’ No! We deserve a love which tries to set us back on the right path. The corrupted, idolatrous logic of the cross assumes a God whose justice must include punishment, rather than the God of Jesus whose justice is all about healing and rehabilitation. God didn’t send Jesus to take our place in God’s punishment. God sent Jesus to undergo the typical punishment we meet out against each other, in order to reveal to us who God truly is. A God of love and forgiveness and healing, who desires that we become human in better, more loving ways. Jesus isn’t the lamb we sacrifice to a wrathful God. Jesus is the lamb sent by a loving God to suffer the sacrifices we undertake at the command of our false gods. Yes, Jesus did shed his blood for our sins, but not in the way we’ve been taught. Jesus shed his blood for us in order to reveal both our sin of bloodthirstiness and the idolatry of our justifying it with God. “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Bottom line? Once we in the church repent of our corrupted logic of the cross, we can more properly do our jobs of calling our family and neighbors to the radical repentance of being human in a better way. In the way we live our lives, we can testify to the light that shines in the darkness. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, December 17, 2023
Facebook live (sermon begins at 30:55): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/1112938133393436/
1. The next Sunday in 2023 was Christmas Eve. I continued the theme of deep repentance by answering how God first empowers us to repent: by choosing to become human. I use a favorite story from radio personality Paul Harvey in the sermon “Why God Became Human.”
2. Here’s the alternate Words of Institution referenced in the sermon:
On the night before Jesus sacrificed himself to our gods of sacrifice;
in order that he might invite us to instead believe in the true God of love and forgiveness and healing and the Way to be a better human being;
he didn’t kill anything on an altar,
but instead gathered his disciples around a table, took some bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying,
“Take and eat. This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
After supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.”