Lent 3C Sermon (2022)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
Isa 55; 1 Cor 10

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/tq_1gni4EDI


‘War is hell.’ We can’t watch the news these days for long without seeing the truth of this for ourselves, or hear someone in Ukraine actually say it out loud. I’ve heard it several times. Our dear brothers and sisters in Ukraine are going through hell.

I want to ask upfront: am I just choosing to talk about current events instead of the readings we just heard? No, I’m not. I need to address the issue of this war in the context of something else I regularly talk about — the nature of sacrifice as a deep part of our human reality — we need to talk about these things in general before we can understand the puzzling Gospel Reading we just heard.

Last week, I introduced the suggestion that the biblical journey is one where God needs to journey with us for centuries in order for us to finally get the truth about . . . sacrifice. I’m not talking about what Jesus turned the word sacrifice into for us. We sacrificed him on the cross. But Jesus turned that into self-sacrifice, so that when we use the word sacrifice, we actually mean self-sacrifice. No, when we say that the Bible is helping us to understand sacrifice, we are talking about the original version where selfish people, usually at the ‘top’ of our societies, make others die for them. We are talking, first of all, about the ancient forms of ritual blood sacrifice that human beings practiced all across this globe for many centuries and millennia. The archeological evidence shows us this to be true. Wherever we dig up remains of human civilizations, we find evidence of ritual blood sacrifice at the heart of things — often human sacrifice. This Wednesday night, I will share the story of how this came to be — ritual blood sacrifice at the center of being human.

This is precisely why God needs to take us on that long journey of centuries and millennia to understand sacrifice, because it’s so hard for us to give it up. It has been at the center of who we are as human beings for centuries and millennia. And so the biblical journey is the long journey God is taking us on in order to move us away from sacrifice. I hope I can help you to understand how central it was, and is to us still, as human beings.

Largely due to the Cross and the Christian revelation, human beings no longer practice ritual blood sacrifice. It was one of the tragic ironies of history that the Conquistadors came to this continent, bearing the symbol of the cross, and slaughtered thousands and thousands of indigenous peoples like the Aztecs because they practiced ritual blood sacrifice, because they put human beings on altars and sacrificed them. But what were the conquistadors doing? Practicing their own version of blood sacrifice precisely by slaughtering them. Do you see how entrenched this is? That we we think the solution to our violence is to spill more blood.

That stubborn part of being human hasn’t yet gone away. It’s gone underground, so to speak, and appears in our other human activities and institutions. This is something that has really changed my life in terms of being able to see my faith in the crucified Christ as deeply connected to politics and economics and justice systems — deeply connected to our core human institutions. The simplest way to put this logic of sacrifice embedded in our institutions is that the people at the top get to hold and consolidate their power by sacrificing those at the bottom. Still today, despite having made many improvements to our systems of justice, many can still buy justice. Right? If you’re rich, justice still works better for you than it does if you’re poor. That’s the sacrificial logic: that those at the top get to hold their power at the expense of those especially at the bottom.

How is this connected to the cross at the center of our faith? Jesus was wrongly executed. It was a ritual blood sacrifice in an updated form. As we sing on Communion Sundays, Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. It’s the perfect time to sing that song because Jesus intentionally gave us Holy Communion to replace ritual blood sacrifice as its opposite. Instead of spilling someone else’s blood on the altar, we remember how Jesus gave up his body and shed his blood as we gather around a table, not an altar, to share a meal of celebrating the new way of being human. So fed, we can begin to live in other ways of loving service, ways of caring for one another and for this world. It’s a revolution with sacrifice at the heart of it, a flipping upside-down of the whole thing — including our politics, to the extent that they still work that way.

Let’s be very clear about this: the logic or structure of ritual sacrifice in our human social DNA is this: were that those at the top of our societies get to be in charge of dictating the shape of our lives. Democracy is a movement away from this, but isn’t it still a constant struggle? Democracy doesn’t grow without all of us working on it. The crucial question remains: will our democracy really and finally grow and live into the claim of the Declaration of Independance that all people are created equal? That all people deserve an equal chance at flourishing? When it came to writing the Constitution, it originally gave the right to vote, the right to fully participate, to white males who own land. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go, isn’t there?

This pyramid of those at the top sacrificing those at the bottom of the pyramid was, early in our human development, ritually represented for centuries through sacrifice, even human sacrifice. Today the remnants of it still persist in our politics and economics and institutions. Learning to see this is the most important lesson I learn from the Bible, and it is one I hope to share with you along the way. It’s helped me to understand the world around and my place in it as a follower of Jesus.

This morning I want to make the connection with what we are seeing on the news. War is hell. War is also an updated form of ritual blood sacrifice, manifesting its logic and structure. Vladimir Putin is clearly the most extreme case of someone who still expects an entire society, and even world, to bow to his needs and wants, no matter who at the bottom or margins gets sacrificed. We watch the news, and our hearts break, as we watch children being sacrificed in the sense of ritual blood sacrifice.

Let me actually tie the threads of ‘hell’ and ‘sacrifice’ together. In the New Testament, the word Jesus uses which we translate as “hell” (e.g., Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 18:9) is actually the name of a place near Jerusalem, a valley called Gehenna. Gehenna is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew ben Hinnom, which is important because you will especially find ben Hinnom in the Old Testament as an infamous place of ritual child sacrifice (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:2, 6; 32:35). For Jesus, the epitome of hell is child sacrifice. It’s a place here on earth where the logic of sacrifice reigns so that the most vulnerable die. The children are slaughtered. In Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, we are witnessing the hell of children being sacrificed for his benefit. War is hell.

Why are we talking about this today? Because we can’t really understand today’s Gospel Reading without knowing the hell of the Jewish-Roman War that happened a generation after Jesus in the years 66-70 CE. Luke’s Gospel, as well as Matthew’s and Mark’s, was likely written shortly after this war. They were still hurting from the hell of going through that war — the utter destruction and death. It was still heavy on their minds and hearts — the utter devastation of Jerusalem. All the people ‘sacrificed’ to the power of Rome, including many children. It was still heavy on their hearts as they proclaimed in their Gospels that Jesus had a different way! And still does.

So in today’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about what’s going to happen to you if you don’t repent — ‘that you’re going to die like they did’ — he’s talking about what’s going to happen over the next generation. For it had already been in the air in Palestine for years that they needed fight for their freedom and rebel against Rome — with an armed rebellion. Jesus is saying, ‘If you don’t start going down a different path, if you don’t repent, if you don’t change your hearts and minds and choose another way, this is how you’re going to die. You’ll die at the hands of Roman soldiers, just like these people did in the temple.’ It’s even stranger when Jesus goes on to speak about a tower falling on people, an accidental death, but it’s not just any accident. It’s buildings falling on people and killing them. What are we seeing in Ukraine right now? Apartment buildings bombed to hell, falling on people. There’s the story of the theater, packed with people, and written on the ground outside in big letters in Russian: “Children.” The Russians bomb it anyway, and the building falls on them. Again, do you understand what Jesus is saying to us, all of us. If we keep choosing the way of political violence, this is how we die. When we keep choosing war, we die at the hands of our own destructive powers.

Today’s Gospel Reading cannot be read and understood without seeing Jesus’ prediction of the coming war with Rome in the background. When he says that they all will suffer the same fate unless they repent, he means that unless they choose his different path of nonviolent resistance, their violent rebellion against Rome will be crushed. They will experience the hell of war.

Then there’s this strange little parable at the end of today’s Gospel. The gardener asks for more time. I think it makes sense here in the context of what I’ve been talking about . . . this lo-o-ong journey away from sacrificial violence. Because our history with sacrifice goes back such a long way, it’s going to take a long time for God to help us bear fruit on a different way to be human, from sacrifice to self-sacrifice. Jesus depicts this in the parable of how a fig tree hasn’t born fruit in three years. Folks, it’s now been two thousand more years since Jesus said this, and he’s still spreading the manure around us in the hope that we bear a better fruit.

Let’s conclude with a word from St. Paul from last week’s Second Reading: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, that Jesus will finally succeed in taking us on this journey to a new way of being human. That we will finally bear fruit. Let’s be clear: this isn’t about a citizenship of going to heaven someday. Rather, that heaven is coming increasingly to us and informing the way we do things. It means we can begin to claim citizenship in heaven right now to the extent that we live by the values and vision of God’s kingdom, rather than by the sacrificial values of human kingdoms. Do you see? We can live as citizens of heaven, as citizens of God’s reign right here and right now. So, even as war continues to wage around us, we are called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, by God’s very different response to our violence. We are called to, following Jesus, live in loving service to all people, especially those at the bottom or margins. It’s what we pray for every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 20, 2022

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/tq_1gni4EDI

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