March 15, 2015
Grace & Peace to you this morning; Grace & Peace.
In contrast to the reading from the Torah, the Gospel passage this morning contains one of the most familiar verses for modern Americans, John 3:16. Our problem may be that this verse is Too Familiar, too easily quoted without knowing what the context is for this passage. This passage comes as an explanation Jesus uses to teach a Pharisee named Nicodemus about what it means to be born in the Spirit and have eternal Life. John 3:17 follows as a clarification, “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.” Jesus is teaching that God loved the world, loved all people, and sent his Son, not to condemn, but to bring God’s grace. So, what does it mean to say to a Pharisee who sincerely wants to understand, that God loves the whole world? For one thing, Jesus is Not saying that God only loves observant Jews who follow all the rules. Jesus is Not saying that we must earn God’s love by being perfectly loving ourselves, if we want to receive God’s blessing. Now, this is not just about what theologians call “cheap grace”, or that Jesus’ ministry is saying the Commandments of the Old Testament don’t matter, don’t apply to our lives. This is a recognition that even good people, who are trying their best, and have all the resources and social supports, can ever be good enough to earn God’s grace. More than that, it does mean that when things are really tough, and we are overwhelmed by anxiety, weighed-down by our problems, or suffering the natural consequences of our unhealthy choices, even then God offers us new life. And not just “Us”, but the whole world, even those people of the other political party, race, gender, class, or whatever. They can also be born of the Spirit. When you think about this idea that God loves the whole world so much, and Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, what do we do with the fact that Jesus also recognizes in verse 19 that, “people loved darkness, rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Jesus is not saying that we can be selfish, unloving, judgmental, sinful, or apathetic; Jesus is teaching the same lessons that the prophets had preached for the previous generations.
We tend to skim over the stories of Moses leading the people from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, during their forty years in the wilderness. Yet, these stories are not really too difficult for us to identify with in our own lives. These are stories of human nature, of our sinful rejection of God, as well as God’s care for all of us. The people with Moses were as blind to God’s blessings as we are today. They grumbled instead of thanking God for feeding and protecting them; we claim that we are not responsible for the stewardship of our natural environment. We disrespect the gifts of water, air, & healthy food, while we invest our financial resources in creating weapons of mass destruction. There are so many examples all around us every day of how we love the darkness, and reject the example of God loving the world. Yet, when we read the passage in the Torah this morning of those ungrateful people, referring to the life-saving manna that the Lord sent to feed them, by saying, “we detest this miserable food,” it is easy to understand why God responds by sending poisonous snakes to bite them. At least it’s easy to understand God giving-in to a little revenge when the people who suffer are not us. If we recognize that we have Way Too Much in common with those people, then we probably want to argue for why God ought to be a little more tolerant!
There are some themes in the Old Testament that are repeated in the New Testament, that show how God calls us to really Live, to turn from evil or sin, and to live in the presence of our Creator. The gospel of John uses the phrase “eternal life”, not to mean simply an endless duration of human existence, but as a way of describing what is most meaningful, worthwhile, and sacred about life itself. Biblical scholars believe that the author of the gospel of John wrote this about seventy years after Jesus’ ministry on earth, and he may have developed some wisdom about what is most important about life, as people do when they look back upon what has been most significant about their own lives. The biblical narrative does not deny the reality of our fear and pain, nor the reality of how humans act when they are frightened, hopeless, & suffering. The stories in Genesis about how Joseph was sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, and was blessed with an ability to interpret dreams, can be viewed from the perspective of our own situation today. Pharaoh was the leader of the richest country in his time, yet he was plagued by fears of economic scarcity. Joseph made an alliance with him, which led to nationalizing all the farms of the country, convincing everyone that they would be facing starvation unless they sold their land and their animals to Pharaoh and became slaves. This dominant narrative of scarcity, hopelessness, and fear sucked the life out of the people. They wanted a vision of security, which Joseph and Pharaoh sold to them, while trapping them in the myth of their own helplessness. Generations later, even when Moses leads them to freedom, they long for the illusions of their “normal” lives, and complain about one trivial thing after another. God gives them a miraculous food that they must not be greedy or hoard, but only gather enough for their actual needs, one day at a time. Even in their years in the Wilderness, the people are told to turn away from their fears of scarcity, and honor a Sabbath Day when they are not to work, even to gather free food. They are given a new set of laws that teach about God and how to relate to one’s neighbors, to all other people. The Ten Commandments remind them that God liberated them from slavery, and gave them a new life. Centuries later Jesus is sent to people who are living under the control of another empire. Again they have fears they will not have enough to eat, and Jesus demonstrates the abundance of God’s blessing by giving them bread when all they assumed they had to eat were five loaves and two fish. Jesus teaches them that even though the Romans have the most powerful military, it does not create a peace that will provide for the needs of all the people, and God does offer them a new vision of what life is all about. Life that is based on respecting the human rights of all, including women, slaves, and foreigners. Jesus reminds them of their roots as slaves in Egypt, of their years in the Wilderness, and what happened when they did not listen to the prophets and stopped caring for the poor & marginalized in their communities. The Babylonian exile was a time when they lost all pretense of being an empire, and had to start over with the basics. These biblical themes of turning to God, instead of attempting to take care of their individual needs at the expense of others, are still vital lessons for us today. We do need a new perspective on what life is really all about, because just like the people in these stories from the Bible, we keep trying to ensure our own security, without including the needs of all the people in our society, including the poor & marginalized, the foreigners living and working in our land, and actually, the land, water, and air on our planet as well. One of the books I read last week on our vacation was about the life of Jacques Cousteau and what he learned on his boat, Calypso, about how we are treating the lakes and oceans that God created. He documents how we have exploited the oceans and the Great Lakes that once seemed to have an endless supply of aquatic life, until we allowed such extreme over-fishing that we caused the collapse of many species, and turned oceans into deserts devoid of all life. Instead of respecting the habitat that fish need for breeding, we have destroyed the ability of future generations to appreciate all of the beauty and bounty of the seas. He writes from the perspective of a scientist, but argues that science and faith are not competitors for the Truth, but rather that humanity needs both science and ethics in order for life to continue on this planet. He explains that when we started to recognize that the supply of seafood was limited, instead of acting to conserve the earth’s supply of fish, we reacted self-destructively by investing in larger fishing fleets that could “harvest” much more of the dwindling supply of seafood, in an attempt to make as much money as quickly as possible, and thus destroyed the fishing economy almost completely. I saw many parallels with how the Bible teaches us to respect God, to follow the teachings of Jesus, and to turn away from the fears of scarcity that are constantly used to manipulate economies and exploit people. The Good News is that we do have the opportunity to embrace God’s Vision of Shalom, to recognize that God does really love the whole world so much, that instead of allowing us to oppress and exploit each other, God calls us to respect and love each other, and all of creation. God offers us new life, even when we feel overwhelmed by our fears of scarcity and hopelessness. God offers us grace and peace, even when we would prefer to invest our resources in building more prisons and weapons. God offers us the wisdom of knowing what is most important about life, even when we have chosen death, darkness & despair so many times in the past. So, now it is up to us, it is our turn to do our best to bring hope, faith and love to a world where so many have lost sight of what life can be. Amen.