Sermon For March 15, 2015 ~ Fourth Sunday Of Lent

John 3:14-21 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=293414036 )

“Love’s Pure Light”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

allknowingmotherHow many of us had a parent or grandparent with four eyes? Now, I’m not referring to the terrible taunt that many of us who wore glasses in school received at the hands of our classmates. I’m talking about those adults in our lives who had eyes in the back of their head. Now we are being metaphorical when we say this, of course, but this is a way to try to describe how some people just seem to have the knack for knowing when someone is doing something wrong – like sneaking cookies from the cookie jar or giving your brother a sucker punch in the back seat of the family car. But for such folks we just knew, for certain, that God had endowed them with superhuman powers and they could see anything and everything we did no matter where we were. They either had eyes in the back of their head, or x-ray vision, or both.

What frustrated us most was that they were usually spot-on. More often than not we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, things that they had specifically told us not to do. We use various terms for it: misbehave, act up, break the rules, or in theological terms, we sin. To sin is to break the covenant one has with God, and God knows when this happens. Whether it is through eyes in the back of the divine head, superpower x-ray vision, or some other means, God knows when we sin. And we all sin. In the Apostle Paul’s exquisite and beautiful summation in his definitive theological treatise to the church in Rome, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) To me, this means that sinning is a fundamental part of who we are as human beings, not a curse and nor a defect. It is how we were made as mature, thinking beings and part of the challenge of being human.

So here’s the decision we face: how will we respond when we do sin, when we “fall short of the glory of God.” And this is exactly the season when we are called to take most seriously this choice before us all, for Lent is a time of serious introspection and self-evaluation, and this is the perfect scripture text upon which to meditate when we are struggling with sin and our response to it.

As a gospel writer John is known for taking the broader and more metaphorical view of Jesus Christ, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke look more specifically at the person and actions of Jesus. Both are needed and necessary, but it is helpful to know that John does not worry so much about the literalness of the details he includes as he does the meaning and interpretation of what Jesus does and says. And this scripture selection in chapter 3 is no different.

StaffWithBronzeSnakeAnd we know this because the very first verse launches us immediately into an obscure and highly symbol-laden voyage back to the story of Moses and the Hebrew peoples wandering in the wilderness of Sinai, and specifically to the book of Numbers, chapter 21. Not to get too caught up in it, but to know what the reference is we have to be reminded that this is the part of the exodus story where the people were given food and drink in the wilderness – manna and the occasional quail – and for which they complained to Moses quite loudly. God, in response to what was seen as ungrateful complaining, sent poisonous serpents amongst the people and many died. Upon their confession for complaining and “speaking against the Lord,” God told Moses to craft a bronze serpent, wrapped on a pole or staff, and raise it up before the people. Those who had been bit by a snake, who would look up to the serpent staff, would live.

Now jumping over the pretty horrific implications of God’s wretched behavior, which is difficult for me to do, I’ll admit, John simply takes the image of the people looking upwards to a symbol to find healing, and transfers that symbolically to those who would look “upward” to Jesus crucified on a cross of wood, and find healing – even salvation – there.

It is then that John offers the words that would become the single most well-known verse in scripture, paired with the single least known but intricately connected verse in scripture. In the first, we are reminded of God’s great love for us in sending Jesus Christ to us and the call to have belief in him to be saved. In the second verse there sets a reminder that this love was never meant for condemnation but simply for salvation. The rest of today’s scripture selection then brings in the marvelous – and for John extraordinarily emblematic – symbolism of the love of light and the light of love, and our penchant for the darkness and the shadowy places of life.

So here is the rub. I think this scripture was never meant to be pulled apart and used piecemeal like and individual stick used to club whoever didn’t believe as I believed or you believed. Clearly John is sharing with us deeply and passionately about the paradoxical nature of sin and the equally if not more illogical nature of love, God’s love specifically. To dissect this scripture is to unravel John’s theological line of reasoning and miss completely his understanding of what Jesus was calling us to understand and to do when we sin, when we fall short of Christ’s glory, the glory of God.

It was meant to be held in balance, this paradox of sin and love. Richard Rohr, one of the greatest spiritual writers of our time, talks about this ability to hold paradoxical things in balance and learn from them as a gift of the “second half of live,” as he puts it. He writes,

To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable.” (1)

Beam Of Light, by demo Found online at: http://demor.deviantart.com/art/Beam-of-light-302182433

Beam Of Light, by demo
Found online at: http://demor.deviantart.com/art/Beam-of-light-302182433

And this is the mystery of John 3:14-21: that God’s love is like a beam of light, love’s pure light, that allows for cleansing and healing. It is like a bright light that shines into the gloomy and shadowy places of our lives, when things are exposed so they can be dealt with. When love shines on our sin, it is not condemnation. That is a human response to being hurt or someone disappointing us. God’s love simply reveals and seeks to heal. I have described this phenomenon many times when I share the fact that when I did something wrong as a child my mother never ever hit me and rarely even scolded me or grounded me. She didn’t have to, for she knew that loving me – sometimes even more so when I had done wrong – was the most powerful way for me to know that I had fallen short, that I had missed the mark, that I had done something that had torn the fabric of our relationship and hurt her heart. Love’s pure light called me to accountability like no other punishment could, for it always saw me as the beautiful, gifted, capable person I was created to be, and that was powerful enough.

god-is-love-graffitiNow I know that this doesn’t always work as a parenting strategy, but it is the way God always works. Why, then, has the Church, which is supposed to be the Body of Christ, instead so often become condemning, rule-bound, even vengeful. What if we saw our job as followers of the way of Christ, who was the very Light of God, to teach people exactly who they – we – were created to be, a child of the living, loving, laughing God and made in God’s image. And then what if the only other thing we did was to love people so much that they always remembered in whose image they were created and whose glory they could hold up as the goal to become, the light to reflect, the love to pass on to others, their neighbors, their coworkers, their children. Now that would be a church that lived the pure light of God’s love and be a true John 3:16… and 14 and 15 and 17 and 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 church!

May it be so!

Amen.

(1) from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Chapter 9: A Second Simplicity – Anxiety And Doubt. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) e-book page 135.

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