Lent 5B Sermon (2024)

5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 12:20-33;
Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:5-10

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 21:40): https://fb.watch/r6q2kfXs4f/

HUMAN CIVILIZATION UNWITTINGLY JUDGING ITSELF GUILTY . . . AS ‘NATIONALIST’

Last week (Lent 4B), it was that best-known, well-loved verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that God sent the Son to save it, not judge it. . . .” This week, it’s something quite different: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Last week, it was about loving “the world” so much that God sent Jesus to save it, not judge it. This week, it seems to be all about judging “the world.” What gives? Which is it? Is Jesus here to save the world or judge it? There seems to be a contradiction.

I suggest that the problem might involve the meaning of the word “world” in the two statements by Jesus. Early in the gospel, Jesus is emphasizing the power of love. God loves this world that God made so that Jesus is sent to save it, not judge it. But today we get some of the last things Jesus says publicly before he lets himself be judged by the rulers of this world — both the Jewish council leaders and Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar and the Roman Empire. I suggest that the word “world” in this context no longer refers more generally to the universe of God’s making but to the world of our making. Jesus is referring here to what we have made of God’s creation. Instead of loving the creation and caring for it as God does, we have claimed it for ourselves to do with it what we want. And the power we bow down to in the process is not love, but instead the violent powers of forcing our wants and desires on others. We have set ourselves up as judge over others in order to impose our own will. That’s the kind of power we have generally come to believe in. Jesus came to try to get us to believe in a different kind of power, the power of love. It’s a power that doesn’t impose wants and desires on others but instead seeks to have each person’s, each creature’s, desires met, so that their lives to flourish.

I think it might be helpful, then, to translate the word “world” in two different ways from last week to this week. Last week, it was “For God so loved the creation that God sent the Son to save it, not judge it.” What did the creation need saving from? From what we have done with it, claiming it as our own, judging it to be our own. We are the ones who judge. So this week let’s translate the word “world” to indicate what we’ve done with it. How about the word “civilization”? So this week Jesus is saying, “Now is the judgment of this civilization; now the ruler of this civilization will be driven out.”

Yes, Jesus came to save the world in love, but he also came to judge it in the sense that he will judge precisely our power of judging others. How? By letting himself be judged by us. So when he is lifted up on the cross, he will draw all people to himself in order to see the judgment and choose which power to believe in, which power to trust. In love, since love doesn’t impose it’s own way, there remains a choice as to what we might believe in when we see the cross. Do we continue to believe in the way of the rulers of our civilization, believing chiefly in the power of force over others? (When Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, he infamously saw a vision of the cross leading him into military victory.) Or do we believe chiefly in the power of love? God’s kind of love which cares for the whole creation.

One kind of power is divisive, always setting itself against someone or something else. In doing so, it is deadly . . . so deadly. It judges others to be the so-called enemy and so justifies its power to kill. It is the power to execute wrong-doers, to crucify. It is, in short, the power of wielding death, so long as it is other people’s deaths and not our “own” people’s deaths. It is a power that protects itself and calls that love.

The other kind of power is truly love, a love which seeks not to divide and conquer for its own protection, but rather to draw all people together into one so that we might lovingly care for one another and the whole creation. It is a power of abundant life, flourishing life, nurturing life. As such, it can never take a life. It can never do something like crucify but instead will let itself be crucified. In letting itself be vulnerable, it doesn’t even seem to be a power at all. But it is, in fact, the power of life itself, so it can never be completely vanquished, even if killed, even if crucified. As the power of life itself, it has the power to give itself away on behalf of others even more vulnerable in order to help all life to flourish. It is like a seed that dies in the ground and produces new life.

So as we draw near to our reliving of the cross and resurrection again this Holy Week, we can ask ourselves once again: which power do we believe in? Which power do we trust with our lives? What does it mean to truly trust in the power of love that is lifted up on the cross and then raised on Easter? How does that compare to the vying for power by the current rulers of our civilization? Is the cross and resurrection still judging our civilization and driving out the rulers of our civilization?

There are currently fellow citizens who call themselves “Christian nationalists” and seem to be judging our current civilization in the United States, if it continues to be ruled by white Christians, to be the pinnacle of civilization. And their beliefs seem to justify the use of political violence. They are willing to kill in order protect their view of what “civilization” means to them. As Jesus is lifted up on the cross to ultimately ascend to his universal throne of power, the power of love, the power of life itself, how might he judge this Christian nationalism?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I propose to you this morning that Jesus came into this world first to his own people to offer them an alternative to what we might call their Jewish nationalism. Within a generation or so of his being lifted up on the cross, many of his people chose their Jewish nationalism in the fight against the Romans that basically yielded their destruction. Jesus had come to offer them belief and trust in a different kind of power, the power of love, the power of life, and they chose otherwise.

So today is Christian nationalism any better than Jewish nationalism. Is it better just because it’s so-called Christian instead of Jewish? Or does the “nationalism” part belie the fact that it really can’t be Christian at all because the cross judges all of our nationalistic enterprises which to protect ourselves through a belief in political violence? In other words, is “Christian nationalism” an oxymoron? Two words that don’t go together because they contradict each other? Can we be “nationalist” when following the God of Jesus who so loved the whole creation that that God sent Jesus to save it? To save it, I believe, precisely from the form of civilization founded on the power of political violence?

Next week, we begin the journey to the cross once again. The journey to Jesus being lifted up in order to judge our civilization and its rulers through their judging of him. What will be our verdict as we continue to navigate a year that promises to see significant political violence. What kind of power do we believe in? Which kind of power do we trust? Which kind of power will we give our lives to? Do you see how relevant our Good News might be to our family and friends and our fellow citizens? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 17, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 21:40): https://fb.watch/r6q2kfXs4f/

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