22 March 2009

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent: "Into the Light"

My daughter Ainsley has recently taken up an interesting form of behavior. Whenever it’s time for something she doesn’t really want, whether it’s putting on her shoes or her coat, changing her diaper, whatever, she turns around, runs to the farthest wall she can find, covers her head with her arms and pretends we’re not there. It’s like some bizarre game of hide-and-seek that only Ainsley is playing.

What’s going on, of course, is this: she doesn’t want what’s coming, and in the mind of a two year-old, the best way to stop what’s coming is to run away from it, cover your head and sit in the darkness you’ve created. Sometimes Ainsley loves darkness rather than light. Think Jesus knew anyone like that? 

In the Exodus reading for this morning, the people of God find themselves in a hard place. They had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years, but in that time they had usually been housed and fed by the Egyptians. You can’t build pyramids with starving workers. So while the people of God had been set free from slavery and abuse, they had also been set free from their homes and their food, and once life in the wilderness really set in, the people became afraid. They were now trusting their security to a God they’d barely known and a leader who’d spent most of his life hiding as a shepherd because of his own checkered past. When the food started to run low, the people started to act out of their fear and anxiety. As my Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim put it, “Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from one oasis to another.”

We, too, are in bondage. We confess, in the words of our hymnal, that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But part of our task of repentance in this season of Lent is to acknowledge not only our captivity, but our preference for captivity. Jesus said it in John’s gospel: “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” So let’s not stop at captivity this morning, insisting only that we are helpless in the face of sin and death. We already know that. Let’s talk instead about sin, honesty, repentance and the overwhelming love of God for this world.

How many of you watch the show Grey’s Anatomy? Most of you know, then, that Izzy was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer metastasizing in her brain, yet she refused to tell anyone for fear of what might happen if she admitted she was sick. You’ve seen this before, haven’t you? How many of you know about a situation where sin has run rampant, or where random evil struck without warning, yet the situation is never, under any circumstances, admitted out loud in the presence of others? A child who died, yet either that child is never named out loud, or the bedroom remains as if the child will return at any moment? A failed marriage that is never mentioned? An addiction that everyone agrees to ignore? Past abuse that isn’t acknowledged, but isn’t forgiven, either? We are a broken people, folks. We are a crowd of terrified children hiding our faces against the wall, insisting that if we cannot see the evil in our lives, no one else can, either.

Jesus says that this will simply not do. Honesty about who we are is essential to authentic Christian life. Anyone who cannot admit to who they are, what has happened in their life and what they’ve done in response is not yet a full follower of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is not the Hokey Pokey - we are called to put our whole selves into the story, not just a foot in, out and then shakin’ all about.

This isn’t just about particular sins, either, as if confessing every misdeed will somehow put us right with God. Jesus came to save the world, not forgive sins - our gospel reading today makes that very clear. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace:”
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church...Cheap grace means grace as a
doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed
as a genera truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of
God...Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of
the sinner...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross,
grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate...When he spoke of grace,
Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life
which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of
Christ. Only so could he speak of grace...We have gathered like ravens
around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which
has killed the life of following Christ.

Cheap grace is easy and quick - it is the false good news of sin management rather than the true good news and costly grace of Christ. Christ offers more to the world than simple forgiveness of sins - and yet, the world resists the great gift Christ bears in himself.

There’s a verse from this passage in John that most of you could have said by heart, right? John 3.16 - the most translated verse of scripture, according to most experts. Yet that very verse is full of good news and truth that we often miss. First, the word “so.” We hear it this way: “For God loved the world SO MUCH...” Of course, it’s true that God’s love for the world is greater than anything we could imagine, but that’s not all the verse says. It also says, “For God loved the world IN THIS WAY...” Giving Jesus to the world is HOW God loves the world, not just how much.

Speaking of the world, the word this gospel uses for “world” is kosmos. “Kosmos” in John is the universe that is hostile to and alienated from God. Kosmos is Ainsley running to hide against the wall rather than taking what I have to offer. So, “God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way: God gave Jesus...”

Finally, “gave” isn’t the best translation, either. The word is also used when Jesus is handed over to the authorities to be crucified. So, “For God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way: he handed over Jesus so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

This isn’t some remote, doctrinal formula to which you are expected to give your intellectual assent. God is actually giving you Jesus, right here and now. Jesus said to Nicodemus in that time, and he says it to you, now: “I will not hide from you, and I will no longer allow you to run from me. I am God in the flesh, here in the world, come to forgive sinners and bring them into the light of God. No matter what your past may hold, no matter what sins you may have committed, all that matters is this: in my light all is revealed and all is made whole and alive again. Come into the light, and be saved here and now.”

The darkness in which we hide insists that stepping into the light of Christ means destruction. The darkness is right. Following Jesus means leaving behind all our pretensions of self-reliance and autonomy. It means leaving the captivity of sin behind, but it also means opening ourselves up and revealing, publicly, that we are broken, flawed, afraid, untrusting and unwilling believers. But leaving the darkness behind means leaving behind all the old lies, all the burdens of pretending we’re okay when we’re not, all the weight of carrying around your own reasons for existence and worth. When we come into the light, we step into the embrace of Christ, warmly welcomed by a God whose love is far more encompassing and fulfilling than we could ever imagine.

Yesterday afternoon, Ainsley ran away from me and hid against the wall when I brought her shoes to put on. I didn’t let her go. I followed her, picked her up, put her on the counter, put her shoes on her feet, and then I led her outside into the backyard, where we played together for over an hour. Come into the freedom of the light, friends, for God beckons you to leave behind your hiding and pretending and to step into a world for the sheer joy of being alive and being loved by your Creator. And thus shall we all be saved. Amen.

[1] A Testament to Freedom, (c) 1990, 1995 by Nelson & Kelly, eds. Published by Harper Collins. p. 307-309 (excerpts)

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