Lent 4B Sermon (2024)

4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 3:14-21;
Eph 2:1-10; Num 21:4-9

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 25:35): https://fb.watch/r6qhCbwh7z/


It’s tempting to read the Bible and conclude there’s a different God in the two testaments. The Old Testament seems to feature a punishing God of wrath and fury, and the New Testament a healing God of love and forgiveness. In fact, it’s a very old mistake. In the early church, there was a bishop — his name was Marcion — who came to that conclusion, and so he even threw out the Old Testament and parts of the New. He thought that the God of the Old Testament was passe, now that Jesus has revealed a God of love.

It’s tempting to do what Marcion did, but I think it’s a big mistake. So has the church-at-large thought it a mistake, and so Bishop Marcion has an official heresy named after him. Since the early church, the majority of leaders have taught that the loving God of Jesus is present behind the history of Israel. When we read the scriptures of the Jewish people with Jesus in mind, we do find the presence of a loving God right from the beginning. If that loving God seems to hide behind an angry God at times, then that’s why we have Jesus to help us to see the loving God behind everything — including our finally coming to see and understand our false gods of wrath.

Granted this two-gods business can be confusing, and it has been throughout the history of the church. Especially when we Christians have wanted to vent our wrath against other people, it’s been convenient to find that angry God in the Old Testament to justify our righteous anger. We forget about the God of love which Jesus came to reveal, so that we can carry out our works of wrath, with the backing of an angry God. As I’ve cautioned us in recent weeks, we sometimes even import that angry God back into the picture when trying to understand the cross.1 We mistakenly portray the angry God righteously desiring our punishment until Jesus steps in to take the punishment for us. Haven’t we been taught this story of why Jesus had to die on the cross for us?

But this is a huge mistake. The cross is not about satisfying the wrath of an angry God. Isn’t our Gospel Reading this morning crystal clear about this? The cross, says Jesus in no uncertain terms, is about revealing a God of love. A God who loves the entire world so much that God sends God’s own Son into the world to reveal that if there’s any judging to be done, it’s we who are judging ourselves. Because the light of God’s love has come into world through the Son, we continue to choose the darkness of our own wrathful judging against others. What happens when such love comes into the world from God? We hang it on a cross! We judge ourselves by judging Jesus and executing him! He dies for our sins, first of all, in the sense of revealing who we are as wrathful creatures. The sin which he takes away as the lamb of God is precisely our punishing wrath which continues to dominate our politics. It is our wrath which is revealed on the cross, not God’s. But second way in which Jesus died for our sins is also to reveal who God is, the one who acts to save us, not judge us.

I’ve talked about this as a double revelation. Jesus comes as true God and true human being so that we come to see both: who God truly is and who we truly are. God is a God of love who has lovingly created us and the whole world. When our sin messes up everything, this loving God sends Jesus to save the world, not condemn it. But Jesus also reveals who we truly are: we are the wrathful ones who try to justify our acts of wrath against one another through the gods we project into being, both to rule over us, and to legitimate those who rule over us. Yes, gods of wrath have been with us since our evolution as a species. The Bible shows us, on the other hand, the true, loving God taking us on a journey away from our false gods to encounter God’s truly loving nature precisely in the wrathful act of our hanging him on the cross. We kill; God brings back to life. We condemn, and God saves. We center our communities on a politics of judgment; God in Jesus shows us a way to center our communities on a politics of healing and restoration. The light has come into the world. Will we continue to choose darkness at those times when it seems most convenient to us? When we choose our political leaders this year, for example, will we be guided by the light of God’s loving kingdom come into the world through Jesus? Or will continue to choose the darkness of a politics of based on righteous anger and retribution?

Today is the second to the last Gospel Talk. We’ll finish that schedule next week as Lent comes to an end. We’ll spend more time exploring the anthropology of our false wrathful gods vs the theology of a loving God in Jesus Christ. I want to end the message this morning, though, with a couple of my favorite stories. First is one that comes from Lutheran pastor and author, Walter Wangerin.2 When he was a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, IN, his son Matthew was struggling with stealing comic books. Pastor Wangerin discovered this for the first time when Matthew was about seven. They were having their night-time prayers, when he saw loads of comic books in Matthew’s partially open dresser drawer. . . . [Extemporize that Matthew was checking comic books out of the library and not returning them. The librarian, Mrs. Outlaw, sternly explained to Matthew that this is stealing.]

The next time he caught his son stealing comic books was about a year later. Pastor Wangerin had taught a class at the seminary in St. Louis over the summer. The whole family had lived in apartment in St. Louis that Summer, before returning home to Evansville in the Fall. . . . [Extemporize how Pastor Wangerin couldn’t have Matthew return them, so he burned them in their fireplace while ‘preaching’ to Matthew about the Seventh Commandment, Thou shalt not steal.]

Finally, another year later, Pastor Wangerin caught Matthew stealing comic books for what turned out to be the last time. He was almost frantic about thinking Matthew was not going to learn this lesson about stealing. What could he do? He decidedly it was finally time to spank him. [Extemporize about how Matthew didn’t cry. Pastor Wangerin did, after he left the room.]

A number of years later, when Matthew was about 16, he and his mother were driving in the car, reminiscing about the childhood years. All of a sudden, it was Matthew himself who said, “Remember the time when I was stealing comic books?” She said, “Yes, of course! Your father and I were so worried that you wouldn’t learn to not steal comic books.”

“I did stop stealing comic books,” said Matthew. “And you know why?”

“Yes,” said his mother, “Your father finally spanked you.”

“No,” said Matthew. “I stopped because Dad cried. Dad cried.”

I have a good friend Harry, a little bit older than me. He and his wife were members at the church were I interned, and later introduced Ellen and I on a blind date — dinner at their house. It was a few years after that, in the late 80’s or early 90’s, that Harry asked a favor of me. He was a graphic artist by trade, when it still relied on doing things by hand. In the years that graphic artwork transitioned to computers, Harry found his trade increasingly difficult.

One day he had a vision in prayer of painting twelve large paintings of the life of Christ. He asked me to pose for a couple of paintings. My hair and beard were darker, and he thought I looked a bit like Jesus might have looked. One day he actually strapped me to a makeshift cross in his photography studio to pose for a painting of Jesus on the cross, just after death. This painting [holding it up].

He was getting to the end of painting the full-sized canvas version of this portrait, and God spoke to him in prayer. God said, “Harry, it’s raining. You have to paint it raining.”

Harry answered back, “God, I’m basically done with this painting. Do you know how hard it is to paint rain?! Why do I have to paint it raining?”

The voice answered back, “Because I cried.” God the Father cried.

The light of the loving God came into the world to save us, not to judge us. Let’s live in the light. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 10, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 25:35): https://fb.watch/r6qhCbwh7z/


1. The subject of what’s commonly called “substitutionary atonement,” the understanding of the cross as Jesus taking the punishment of a wrathful God for us, is broached in the following recent sermons: Advent 2B, Advent 3B, Epiphany 3B.

2. Based on chapter 17 of Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s The Manger Is Empty (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), “Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine.” I have also had the privilege of hearing him tell this story in person on two occasions.

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