Lent 4B Sermon (1997)

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


Nick is a perfectionist. Throughout his life he has continually driven himself to be the best: the best son, the best student, the best doctor, the best husband, the best father, the best citizen, and on and on. He lived in the best neighborhoods, drove the best cars, went to the best church, etc. In striving to be the best, Nick had this habit of trying to control every situation. He couldn’t be the best husband, for example, if his wife didn’t act in a certain way, so he did everything he could to make sure she acted just right. It was the same with his kids. If they didn’t act right, it seemed to him that he couldn’t be seen as the perfect father.

There was only one thing wrong with all of Nick’s efforts; he wasn’t perfect. And neither were those around him. He did not have the power to control everyone and everything. He was not God. Sarah, his wife, had buckled under the pressure years before and began abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. She also had begun to have multiple affairs on the side. His two children mirrored Mom and Dad: Shelley, the oldest, was the model daughter and student; David, the younger, was constantly in trouble. One child who was perfect, and the other who was perfectly bad. The pressure for Nick to control things increased each day; he was constantly needing to cover things up, repair damage, rescue the troublemakers, and put on the best appearances once again.

One day this all came home to roost. Nick came home from the clinic early, feeling under the weather, and he caught Sarah in bed with her latest lover. He went into a rage, chased the man out, threatening to kill him. He began to berate his wife with a barrage of names–none of them flattering, as you can imagine–but he never quite finished, because he collapsed on the floor, clutching his chest, having a heart attack. Nick survived the heart attack that day. But the question is: will he survive his perfectionism? Sarah, she swore herself off booze and drugs and affairs that day. But how long will it last?

Nick and Sarah are fictional characters of my imagination. But, unfortunately, they are also all too true. There are a million Nick’s and Sarah’s of many ages and genders and walks in life. They come in many degrees and stages of their disease. But for all of them, I’d like to suggest one root cause: shame. Or perhaps we should call it toxic shame, the kind of shame that builds inside a person, generally from childhood on, until there is a deep-seated sense that they are shameful, that they are flawed.

Now, there are two responses we can generally make to this kind of toxic build-up of shame: one is to be less than who we are, to continually act shamefully, fulfilling that flawed sense of self. The other response is to try to be more than who we are, to be perfect, and to control all the circumstances around us as best we can so that everything can appear perfect. Two responses: to be less than who we are, and to try to be more than who we are. In other words, Sarah and Nick had the same problem at root; it was simply the two different ends of the spectrum. Sarah became tragically less than who she was, with a life filled with self-destructive addictions that fulfilled her deep down sense of shame. Nick? He addiction was to perfection. His whole life was a compulsive acting out of trying to deny his deep down sense of shame. His controlling behavior heaped more shame upon Sarah. And her shameful behavior heaped more shame upon Nick. In that tragic sense, they were the perfect couple.

Into this situation of broken lives comes Jesus with Good News from God. Jesus has a message for us about who God really is, and about what God really wants. Ah, just listen again to these words from Jesus:

(John 3:16-17) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We know that first verse so well; we’ve memorized it; people display it at football games. But, in many ways, that second verse has been even more important to me: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God sent Jesus into the world not to heap more accusations on us, not to pile up more guilt, not to bury us in shame, not to condemn us, but to save us. To save us. Just drink that in for a moment. God in Jesus did not come to shame us but to save us.

Drink that in, I said. And that’s what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well. That’s the story that comes right after John 3 in John 4. Remember that story? Jesus knows that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands already. Is she a bit like Sarah? Addicted to self-destructive relationships? Jesus encounters her at the well at noon, the hottest part of the day, when no one else comes, except maybe the occasional traveler like Jesus. All the local people come when it is cool in the morning. This woman is probably living in shame; she is shamed by the others in her town, and made to be alone. Her self-destructive behaviors have cut others off from her. But Jesus comes to her with a different sort of drink to take in, the chance to begin anew, with virtually a new God, one who has not come to heap anymore condemnation on her, but one who has come to save her.

And John 3 is about this Pharisee named Nicodemus. Is he a bit like Nick? (And, yes, I chose that name on purpose.) Is Nicodemus, this upright Pharisee, a perfectionist like Nick? Earlier, Jesus has told him that salvation will take nothing less than for him to be born again, than to be born from above, born from the true God who does not send the Son to bury us in any more shame but comes to save us from it. Nicodemus is incredulous: “Born again? How can that be? Can you enter your mother’s womb a second time?” And he’s probably thinking to himself, ‘Why would I need to be born again? I was just fine the first time. I’m Mr. Upright, Mr. Paragon of Religious Virtue. Why would I need to be born again?’ And in Nicodemus’ case, as opposed to Nick’s, you can see the role religion plays more clearly. Being religious gives him the excuse to think of himself as more perfect than others, and the excuse to shame others whom he thinks less perfect. There has been an awful lot of shaming that has gone on throught the ages in the name of religion. Modern therapists who treat people like Nick and Sarah will tell you that, as their patients begin to tell them their stories, they most often begin with something like, ‘I grew up in a good Christian home.’ Yes, religion can be the best excuse to shame others, while thinking yourself above such things.

But Jesus came with another answer for Nicodemus and for us. It wasn’t really even a new religion per se. No, Jesus came with a Gospel, a Good News. It was a good news that helps us to encounter God in a whole new way, to encounter a God who sends his Son out of great love for the world, not to condemn us but to save us. This was the God that Nicodemus was encountering around the fire at midnight, when he came to see Jesus. And it was Good News even for him, Mr. Upright, because he could unburden himself with the unbelievably heavy load of pretending to be perfect. He could just simply be Nicodemus. He didn’t have to worry about appearances anymore, like coming to Jesus in the middle of the night. He could be born again of cleansing water and of a Holy Spirit, to start his life again without the shame.

Who is this God we meet in Jesus? Let me finish with one of my favorite stories, one I’ve used before, and one that I will no doubt use again.

One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George [i.e., a stern God who shames everyone all the time], I thought “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my … training had taught me … to [instead] ask …, “What do you think?”

“Well,” Hilda replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say, “Right on, Hilda! Your son would probably be sent to hell.” … So I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”

A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. (1)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 8-9, 1997

1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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