Lent 4B Sermon (2012)

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


Jesus brought us the New Covenant. We say that every week in the Words of Institution for Holy Communion: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sins.” That is our theme this morning, as part of our theme of Covenant this Lent. What do we mean by New? That it completely replaces the Old Covenant? That the Old Covenant with God’s people of Israel is now null and void? And that the New Covenant means that God now has chosen a new people? We need to be very careful about how we answer such questions. We need to be especially careful about honoring those words at Communion that says the New Covenant is for all people.

What I’d like to suggest this morning, then, is that the New Covenant is really not so new as much as the God we meet in Jesus is new. What I mean is that it’s actually the same ol’ God, who has made a covenant with the world through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, but we experience that God anew in Jesus. How so? As the God who doesn’t choose sides. As the God who chooses Abraham and Sarah, in the first place, in order to bless the whole human family. This is, in other words, the God we ‘meet again for the first time’ when we are reborn from above through God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ, according to John 3.

It should have become a permanent part of our Christian faith, replacing the old view of God that goes back to anthropological beginnings, back even before Abraham and Sarah, when God came to bless them to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. No, that old God of our anthropological roots is a God who chooses sides, who chooses to bless some but not others. If the truth be told, it is actually Satan, not God. But since our very beginning as a species, we prefer to order ourselves in human community according to sacrificial gods who bless some but not all. It is so much a part of our anthropological genes, so to speak, that we have great trouble letting go. The God who made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants tried to make it clear that it was a blessing for the sake of blessing everyone. But as we’ve talked about in recent weeks, God’s people have ears unhearing and eyes unseeing. In fact, Jesus came to fulfill that covenant to Abraham and Sarah by being lifted up on the cross, and many of his would-be disciples have also failed to hear and see in colossal and tragic ways — often precisely against God’s chosen people of Israel, the Jews! In short, because of our sinfulness, we all too often fall into the old way of seeing God.

Throughout history, because God is so patient and forgiving, there continue to be events and people who can help set us back on the right track again. Tragically, they are, in essence, repetitions of Christ’s suffering on the cross. I believe, for example, that the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis against the Jews is one of those tragic events. And so I’d like to go back to an old friend we’ve visited before, the PBS drama called God on Trial.1 It’s the fictionalized account of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who put God on trial, asking questions about the nature of covenant, like: 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 the rabbi who has been silent until this point in spite of being asked to speak, finally says something just as the verdict is about to be revealed. An older man who has been uncomfortable with the whole trial, says, ‘Good, now we’ll finally hear some sense.’ But he — along with others — is shocked. The rabbi asks a series of questions that recount 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,” he says.

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 is the precisely the old God who is being challenged by the New Testament view that Jesus brings us. Jesus teaches us, in fact, to love our enemies as our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-48). The Holocaust can painfully help Christians to recognize the gracious God we know in Jesus who is all about steadfast love for ALL God’s children. But we still relapse. It’s so difficult to let go of the idea of a God who is on our side. When we can claim a God who is on our side and is more powerful than our enemies, it allows us to invoke God when overpowering our enemies.

To give up that view of God would mean truly believing in God’s power of love as the ultimate power in the world. To give up that view of God would leave us with just some wimpy power of love that doesn’t ask us to defend ourselves against our enemies, but rather to love them. To forgive them. That is an amazingly difficult thing to do. If the new understanding of God that Jesus brought us is of a God of love who renews us and gives us new life, then it is a God of love that calls us to break down all the barriers that our rules have built, including that most formidable wall between friends and enemies.

In today’s lesson from Ephesians, we heard the Good News about God’s grace to us in Jesus. This passage was at the very heart of the last huge worldview change, five hundred years ago during the Reformation. We clearly embraced the Good News of a gracious and loving God, but then forgot the punchline. Christians drank in that message of grace with the old view of a God who chooses sides, so we interpreted it as if the gift of Grace was God choosing us to conquer the world.

Just as we missed Jesus’ point, we also missed the point from St. Paul. If we continue on just a few verses, Paul tells us this difficult part of what that new life in grace means. Listen to his words:

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. We have been called to leave behind a God that chooses sides, and follow the God whose powerful love can finally help us bring peace. 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 formed by finally breaking down the barriers we humans have built between each other. The most difficult task — the one that requires the most grace — is the call to love our enemies.

It’s the same message in our Gospel today. God so loved the world — not God so loved our family, or our nation, but God loved the world.

What would an economy look like that took God’s call seriously to break down barriers, and love our enemies? What might the world look like today if, instead of spending hundreds of billions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had instead invested even one billion dollars for health care and hospitals, schools and electricity, micro-enterprise and cultural institutions? What would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if we actually lived as if all people in the world were our family — our own flesh and blood?

That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above,” as Jesus tells Nicodemus earlier in John 3, means that Jesus offers us freedom from the God who chooses sides, a false God, 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 the New Covenant. It’s a choice for a world of new relationships, of new and abundant life. It’s a choice for living in the light of God’s new kingdom that comes to us because in love God sent Jesus to be lifted up on the cross. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 18, 2012

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.

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