Lent 4B Sermon (2009)

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


One of the key ideas of the Emerging Church is that the church itself is changing with the huge changes going on around us in the wider culture, especially the way in which we look at the world. That worldview change is happening whether we like it or not; it’s an historical event, an historical fact. We can certainly ask whether we like this new worldview or not, or at least what parts we like and what parts we don’t like. But it is happening just the same.

In that vein, I’d like to propose this morning that there is a basic part of that worldview change that we should like and should welcome — even though it is a direct challenge to who we have thought God is. I believe that one of the key historical events that has led to our changing worldview is the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis against the Jews. So it has been important for us this Lent to spend some with that event in our adult class between the services with the amazing PBS drama from last fall called God on Trial.1 One of the things about our age is that God is very much on trial, at least the God of the three great monotheist religions who has been at the center of so much warring the past number of centuries. Why is that God seemingly behind so much bloodshed. And in God on Trial the challenge is posed by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp. If we are the chosen people of God, then how can such a terrible thing happen to us? If God has made an eternal covenant with us, then is God in breech of that contract?

The most dramatic moment (which can be viewed on YouTube) comes when a rabbi who been silent, in spite of being asked to speak, finally does say something as the verdict is about to be revealed. One of the older men who has been uncomfortable with the whole idea of the trial in the first place, says, ‘Good, now we’ll finally hear some sense.’ But he is shocked along with the rest. For this rabbi begins to ask a series of questions that recounts how God has been on their side in the past against many of their enemies, but he recounts this history with a very different conclusion. He recounts, for example, the great victory over Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the price of all the first born children dying. Pharaoh was the one who kept saying no to God, but he didn’t die; the children did. And when King Saul was to go fight the Amalekites, God didn’t tell Saul to just bring victory: God commanded him to slay all the Amalekites, including their children and their animals. When Saul shows some mercy, God punishes him by making David king instead. And so Rabbi Akiba concludes: “Did the Amalekites think that Adonai was just? Did the mothers of Egypt think that Adonai was just? The people of Amalek, the people of Egypt, what was it like when Adonai turned against them? It was like this.”

And he goes on:

“Today there was a selection (choosing who will live and who will die). When David defeated the Moabites, what did he do? He made them lie down on the ground in lines, choosing one to live and two to die. We have become the Moabites. We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. They faced extinction at the hand of Adonai. They died for his purpose. They fell as we are falling. They were afraid as we are afraid. And what did they learn? They learned that Adonai, the Lord our God, our God, is not good. He is not good. He was not ever good. He was only on our side.”

A God who chooses sides. This is the God who is being challenged in out postmodern world. And shouldn’t we welcome this as Christians? Shouldn’t we say, “Hey, that’s right! The gracious God we know in Jesus Christ is all about a steadfast love for all God’s children. We can finally get it right about who God is.”

But it isn’t quite that easy, is it? It is so difficult to give up that God who is on our side, so that when we need power and might to defeat our enemies we can claim a God on our side who is more powerful than our enemies. Giving up that God would mean truly believing in God’s power of love as the ultimate power in the world. So that when the next time the terrorists strike us, we aren’t left with just some wimpy power of love that doesn’t even ask us to defend ourselves. Do you see how difficult it is? It’s as difficult as what the power of God’s love moves us to want to do — namely, if it’s God’s love that’s renewing us and giving us new life, then it is a love that calls us to break down all the barriers that our rules of sacrifice have set up, including that most basic and formidable wall between friends and enemies.

In today’s second lesson from Ephesians, we have that basic Good News about God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. It was a passage at the very heart of the last huge change in worldview at the time of the Reformation, five hundred years ago. Yet we seemingly latched onto that Good News of God’s grace and then forgot the punchline. We drank in that message of grace with the same view of God who chooses sides, so that it was now a message of grace to choose us in conquering the world.

But we missed the point for St. Paul and for Jesus. Because if we continue on just a few verses, it tells us this difficult part of what that new life in grace means. St. Paul proclaims to us in Ephesians 2, verses 14-15:

For [Jesus Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace….

One new humanity in the place of two. That’s what it is all about. It’s about finally giving up the God who chooses sides in favor of one whose powerful love can finally help us bring peace. As we begin to live eternal life in Christ, this new peace is both a grace and a challenge. St. Paul isn’t talking about inner peace here. He’s talking about the peace of a whole new humanity that formed out of all the little splinter groups we make for ourselves, the most basic one being friends and enemies.

It’s the same overall message of our Gospel Lesson today. God so loved the world — not God so loved our family, or our nation, but God loved the world. We can see this even more by taking in the whole passage from the beginning. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see God’s Kingdom one must be born from above — though the words Jesus used for born from above can also mean born again. Nicodemus tries to figure out what being born again means while Jesus is trying to explain to him what being born from above means. It means being born from God’s Spirit to a new way of seeing the world, just as Jesus at his baptism was born from above by the dove-Spirit that descended upon him. He now experienced the world as God does — namely, with the deep, abiding love of a parent.

What does this mean to seeing the reign of God’s love in the world? Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world:2 We are born in a geographical location that can either accustom us to unjust privilege or prevent us from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. There’s a big difference in our world from being born in Liberia, Africa and the United States. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.

How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a Risk game board? Here’s a big one: What might the world look like today if the United States, instead of spending $800 billion on the war in Iraq, had invested $800 billion in the Muslim world for health care and hospitals, schools and electricity, micro-enterprise and cultural institutions? In short, what would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if “family first” included all people as our own flesh and blood?

That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers us freedom at last from the God who chooses sides, a false God who turns out to be Satan, so that we may finally find ourselves graciously chosen by the God whose love has the power to make all the people of this world into one family. It’s a choice not just for a new worldview. It’s a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life. Thanks be to God!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 22, 2009

1. God on Trial, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, directed by Andy de Emmony, a co-production of Hat Trick Productions Ltd and WGBH Boston; it first aired on PBS (“Masterpiece Theater”) November 9, 2008. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

2. This ending of the sermon is based on the ending of Sarah Dylan Breuer’s essay for this lectionary Sunday.

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