Lent 3B Sermon (2024)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 2:13-22;
Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 27:40): https://fb.watch/r6qubhyakE/


In my first church newsletter column this week, I talked about my passion to revitalize our Gospel message so that it’s up for the challenge of these times. I’ve come to believe that our Lutheran theology of justification by grace through faith is not up to the challenge. This morning I’d like to say more about that.

A central problem for me, with the Lutheranism of my upbringing, is that I don’t think it really leads to what has become key to my messaging today: namely, that Jesus came to help us do nothing less be human in new ways. That’s what we need to face the challenges of our politics going through a meltdown in the face of climate change and war. We need to be human in significantly better ways.

In my newsletter column, I brought up the example of Alcoholics Anonymous and their Twelve Step program to recovery. This morning I’d like to personalize that. My Dad and his father, my grandpa, were alcoholics. My grandpa began his career as a Lutheran pastor — here in central Wisconsin, as a matter of fact, where my Dad was born in Antigo — and he was following in the footsteps of his father, my great grandpa. After ten years or so, my grandpa moved on from that, largely because his alcoholism was already making it difficult to do his job. He landed in Detroit as the organist and choir director at the downtown Lutheran–Missouri Synod church. He was a smart, talented man, but alcoholism continued to drag him down, until he died in 1976 a shell of a person.

I’m glad to say that my dad’s story has a happier ending. He first went into treatment in 1985, but then spent six years still struggling to stay sober. Finally, in 1991, he took his last drink and remained sober for the last 24 years of his life. Alcoholics Anonymous is what finally saved his life. In those six years of initial struggle, though, I believe the Lutheran faith of his upbringing held him back. He certainly understood the First Step of the Twelve Step program, that, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” He had trouble understanding the other eleven steps and believing that he could find the power to actually stay sober. There was an element of his Lutheran faith that accepted his powerlessness, with the comfort that he is forgiven his sins, no matter what, and that he would at last beat his alcoholism in the next life. But could he actually become a better, sober version of himself in this life? I’m not sure he believed that until, after six years, the program finally kicked in for him and he gradually came to believe in sobriety as a real possibility. Why? Because his fellow A.A. friends were experiencing it. The First Step in A.A. admits that “we” as individuals may be powerless over the alcohol. For the alcoholic, the alcohol itself is a so-called “higher power.” But in the power of the A.A. community itself, the alcoholics experience an even higher power than the alcohol which helps them to achieve and maintain sobriety. For some in the A.A. program, like my Dad, that Higher Power is God. For others, who have trouble believing in God — often because the church always treated them so badly — they simply believe that the A.A. community is a Higher Power which can help them stay sober.

But in knowing my Dad, having talked to him directly about matters of faith, part of his struggles in those first six years was that he hadn’t really experienced God in Jesus Christ as someone who had a higher power to help him beat something like alcohol. He believed that God loves him unconditionally and forgives him and will take him to heaven, where he’ll finally be free of his sins, but I don’t think he had ever truly believed that God has the power to make him a new and better person in this life. Our fleshly existence places limits, he thought, on our battles against sin in this life. He could find passages in St. Paul that seemed to say. He had grown up believing in his justification, in his being forgiven and thus found “not guilty” in God’s eyes — all very important things! — but he didn’t really believe much in what Lutherans have called “sanctification,” in actually being able to make progress in our earthly lives against the powers of sin.

Two weeks ago (Epiphany 1B), I had a somewhat embarrassing stumble in my sermon. I went off-script to extemporize about the Calvinist version of justification theology, the one which has had more influence in our culture than the Lutheran version. Calvinist’s have five main points to sum up their theology which they capture with the acronym TULIP. The fourteen years we lived in Kalamazoo, MI, before moving back to Racine in 2020, we lived next door to a quaint little Presbyterian Church. When you entered one of the main entrances, there’s a stairway going down to the Fellowship Hall and one going up to the sanctuary. Over the stairway going down there’s a big sign that says TULIP. Two weeks ago I stumbled to remember what the “T” stands for. This morning I can report to you that the “T” stands for “Totally depraved.” The first point in the Calvinist version of justification theology is that human beings are totally depraved. We are trapped in our sinfulness. Thank God we have the promise of forgiveness of sins when we believe in Jesus, so that we can go to heaven when we die. I believe that that kind of thinking is what held my Dad back those first six years of struggling to gain sobriety. He didn’t believe he could achieve it, and he was happy to remain stuck, with the comfort that his sins are forgiven through his faith in God’s grace through Jesus.

I’m here to propose to you this morning that, as we face such huge problems in our world today, the Gospel message goes beyond the Justification theology of our Lutheran tradition. Good News goes beyond simply being justified, forgiven, so that we have the promise of going to heaven. The Good News includes, even centers on, what we Lutherans have called sanctification, in the sense of actually being empowered through the Holy Spirit to become better human beings. And I urge us to explore those ways of being better human beings in time to help make a difference in our world which so sorely needs a good chunk of us to find a new and better way to be human.

If Bethania is in danger of closing its doors in the next couple years, I say let’s go out fighting. Let’s find that way together of being human in the way of Jesus Christ which makes a difference in this troubled world. Who knows? Maybe even others would begin to join us in that fight.

Now, before I bring this to a close today, you may have noticed that I haven’t talked about any of our readings from Scripture today. I’ve talked about our Lutheran theology based on St. Paul’s writings. In our Gospel Talk after the Coffee Hour, I’m going to say more about the key a better reading of St. Paul, based on the word faith. I’ll show you how when Paul talks about faith, we’ve mistakenly come to believe he was talking about our faith. I’m going to suggest to you that Paul is actually talking chiefly about Jesus’ faith — and not just “faith” in the sense of believing certain things, but “faith” in the sense of faith-fulness in doing certain things. Paul’s main message is that because Jesus faithfully went to the cross for us and was raised on Easter, we can come through the Holy Spirit to participate in his death and resurrection so that we can begin to experience our lives anew. We can begin to achieve the kind of faithfulness that Jesus undertook in order to save the world. That faithfulness is still alive and well in this world, and we can open our lives to it so that Christ lives in us and we begin to be human in new and better ways.

But let me close very briefly by calling attention to our Gospel Reading from John 2. I just talked about Bethania not going out without a fight. This scene of the so-called cleansing of the Temple is certainly one where we see a feisty Jesus. Maybe too feisty? What’s with using whips? Well, John tells us that all the typical animals were being sold in the temple for the rituals of blood sacrifice. Since this was the festival of the Passover, this included the big animals like the cattle and sheep. It takes whips to drive those animals out. You don’t have to actually hit them even; you can just snap the whip near them, and they get the idea. So I propose to you that Jesus is protesting what the temple stood for very dramatically without using violence that actually hurts anyone. It’s what we call today, following people like Martin Luther King, Jr., a nonviolent protest. Why so dramatic? Because the temple stood for violence, sacred violence. Killing these animals on altars was a symbolic stand in for what they hoped to do to their human enemies. The sacred violence of the temple and the political violence they wanted to use against their Roman overlords went hand-in-hand.

Remember that in John’s Gospel Jesus is proclaimed as the lamb of God who’s come to take away the sin of the world. Five or six weeks ago I gave a sermon on that (Epiphany 2B). We’ll talk more about that as we approach Holy Week. But in that sermon six weeks ago I also talked about the ending of today’s reading, where Jesus talks cryptically about the temple being destroyed and being rebuilt in three days. As the temple leaders no doubt are left standing with their jaws agape, Jesus secretly tells his disciples that he’s talking about his body. Six weeks ago we talked about how Jesus came to replace the temple with his own body as a place for God’s spirit to reside in this world. He also comes to replace the sacred violence of blood sacrifice with what? What we’re about to do again in a few minutes: a very nonviolent meal. At the center of their worship was killing animals on altars. We’re gathering around a table with bread and wine.

Even crazier than replacing the temple with his body, and replacing blood sacrifice with sacrament, is that he also came to show us how we can be temples for God’s Spirit in the world. On that night before he dies, he tells his disciples about how he and his Spirit will abide in them. So let me leave you this morning with a promise Jesus makes to his disciples on that same night: “Have faith in me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. . . .  Very truly, I tell you, the one who has faith in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:11-12). Brothers and sisters, this broken world sorely needs people like you and me to do even greater works than Jesus. Together, with Jesus abiding in us, let’s find the Way. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 3, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 27:40): https://fb.watch/r6qubhyakE/

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