4th Sunday of LENT
A Homily for 3.15.15
revised fron a homily
first posted on3.18.12
The Lectionary Gospel reading from St. John’s Gospel brings to our attention this morning some of the most beloved verses in all of Holy Scripture. One might think, therefore, the homiletic exposition of these words would be, as it were, a piece of cake, but if that is your understanding, then you are sadly mistaken. For, what can one say about such familiar words that has not already been said? And, how can one further explain GOD's most familiar face as described with these words we know so well? Or, how can one repeat these already well-settled words in a different way that improves upon them?
But, this text is not just my problem as speaker; it is your problem as listener as well. In this case familiarity does not so much breed contempt as it does coma! "Oh, ho-hum, we've heard it all before; so we can nap through this one..."
However, the interpretive issues are much deeper than our mere familiarity with the text because as preparing to share with you I have been challenged to wonder how these words have anything at all to say about our Lenten journey, and our preparation for resurrection Sunday.
But, these challenges not withstanding, we must forge ahead and somehow assemble our thoughts, the first and most obvious of which is the proclamation of this text's central truth that the movement of GOD is toward the world and not away from it.
GOD IS MOVING TOWARD THE WORLD
This truth is startling and let's be clear here: GOD is moving to reclaim the world from darkness and death and loss, this seems to be to be the most obvious assessment of the text.
First, this certainly means the world is in a mess, a fact that is hardly in dispute. On the macro level we see this in the constant recruitment for the worst story of the year. One disaster, one terror plot, one famine, one war after another compete for our attention, until we finally shut down and tune out. And on a micro level we see the constant movement from hospital rooms, nursing homes to grave yards. There seems no end to the misery of the world.
What must be remembered is that this was not GOD's design or purpose for his good world, and that in our freedom we have made what was the garden of GOD's good world into a den of robbers and a stinking sewer. Let's be clear, now, we did this, and we continue to do this.
This means that GOD would have been in full righteousness to condemn the entire lot of us and toss us on the ash heap. And to be honest, after seeing what I have seen in my nearly forty years of ministry, and after seeing what is in my own heart as well, I wonder why GOD didn't do that very thing. How can we be worth the bother?
The reason is in GOD and not in us. GOD loves us, because... well...because GOD loves us.
This text tells us, then, that GOD, looking beyond the brutal mess of the world, and motivated by the reasons of his own love, puts that love into action and moves toward the world, shouldering himself the weight of the violence, hate, greed, disease, war, grief and death! Go figure.
Or as the text reads:
"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."
Notice, the reclamation project is accomplished by the Almighty sending his one-and-only-Son as the suffering servant. And notice further, this project meant that the willing-Son offers himself as a way to break the back of sin and death and the powers of darkness and of empire. That is, those forces which source the darkness and evil within GOD's good world.
Jesus, the servant, knows his calling is to sacrifice his heart for GOD's purpose of reclamation and reconciliation, but who among us would have thought that this project of sacrifice would finally mean the suffering of this GOD himself in the death of the cross? Who of us could have imagined that this calling to suffering would mean drinking to the bottom-dregs of the lostness and barrenness of this world at war with itself?
But there it is! There is the movement of GOD, not away from the world in revulsion and disgust, but toward the world in love and sacrifice. This is clearly counter-intuitive and very much unlike what most of the world thinks. For, if they believe in GOD at all, the world believes in a god who is angry at them, a god who enjoys their pain and revels in their judgment. But this text tells us just the opposite. This texts means us to know that GOD’s movement is not away from the world in repulsion, but instead He is moving toward the world in sacrificial love, through the suffering of his servant, Jesus.
GOD’S LOVE CALLS FOR A RESPONSE
So, here’s the question, what are we to do with this love in action, this ἠγάπησεν (ēgapēsen), this love that sacrifices and offers true life beyond this fleeting time-frame that we now experience?
The textual response is faith -- “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” -- that we would believe in the Son who is Jesus. The obvious question is, just what does this believing response entail?
To possess biblical faith means we confess that Jesus is LORD of the world, we personally submit to this LORDship and finally we live our lives with this understanding. That is, we behave and follow the Jesus-way -- “take up your cross, daily and follow me” -- because he is LORD not only of the world but also of our very lives.
Said differently, to offer a mere mental acquiescence to the facts of the Gospel, without that same Gospel affecting our lives to their very roots, is not to believe. That is, true and living faith in the living Christ is supremely something to be done, not just something to be thought...
JOHN 3:16 AND LENT
...which actually opens the door to our Lenten emphasis. For, if Lent is about self-denial and a sacrificial emphasis on the poor -- the moving out of our zones of comfort — then this text is more than only some sort of ideal expression of GOD’s love for the world! It is instead our marching orders to love the world as well. We are to follow Christ’s incarnation and love this world sacrificially, moving down to the blood and the guts of life and offering ourselves to this broken world as agents of GOD's reclamation project.
It is not enough, therefore, to merely accent to GOD’s love for the world by quoting these verses and listing our own triumph of belief without ourselves, as followers of the Christ, moving toward that same broken world that GOD loves and offering ourselves as tokens of that love.
How can this be said forcefully enough? How can we say it so that the impact of a Lenten sacrifice bleeds down so deeply into our hearts that we share the same love for the world that the one-and-only-Son has? To be truthful, this is not possible apart from the presence of the Spirit of the Risen Christ blowing strongly as Holy breath within the σπλάγχνοις (splanchnois) of our souls.
Now, this word, splanchnois, although not in today’s text, is primarily a Pauline word that is sometimes translated compassion or sometimes tender mercies. I surface it here as a way to illustrate what must be the depth of our compassion because literally translated this word splanchnois means our guts, or the depth of feeling that is deeper than heart. Interestingly, the King James Version translates the word: bowels!
Anyway, what I mean to say here is that we will never have the sacrificial action that discipleship demands and the path that our Lenten journey calls for us to walk, until we have a depth of compassion for the world that only comes from the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the grace given to us to love others better than we love ourselves. Somehow, we must come to this expression of love. For then, and only then, will we offer the world John 3:16 in a Lenten expression.