Sunday, March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Numbers 21:4-9 The lifting up of the serpent
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10 Saved by grace through faith for good works
John 3:14-21 The lifting up of the Son of Man
Title: Fearlessly in God’s Grace
So, in facing our fears this Lent, we have touched on facing our fear of getting it wrong, our fear of suffering, and our fear of confrontation. All fears that are fairly universal. Though more burdensome and inhibiting in some than in others, they are all fears that we can at least connect to on some level without a lot of work. But this morning, we start the second half of Lent with a strange fear. Perhaps it is a fear that you haven’t really thought of, a fear that you’ve never articulated, maybe it doesn’t even make sense as you think about the fears we face.
This morning we look at facing our fear of God’s grace. Hmm.
Perhaps your first response is to turn back to the first reading, with all those poor Israelites who were just a little road weary. Who, after complaining about God’s treatment of them, are suddenly attacked by poisonous snakes. Fear of God’s grace? You say. More like, it is fear of God’s wrath. Where is God’s compassionate, grace-filled response for the people who were just a little tired of eating manna? We’ll come back to them.
Instead, let’s go to a midnight meeting, part of which is described in today’s gospel reading. A meeting between Jesus, and Nicodemus. Recorded only in John, this encounter comes on the heels of last Sunday’s reading of Jesus’ clearing the temple. Jesus is still in Jerusalem for Passover observance, and Nicodemus – who John describes as a leader of the Pharisees – which means he was part of the powerful Sanhedrin – this religious leader comes to Jesus in secret acknowledging him as more than a wise teacher and seeking to understand this man who seems uniquely filled with God’s presence.
In the opening lines of their conversation, Jesus loses Nicodemus with descriptions of death and resurrection through water and the Spirit – what Jesus’ followers will later understand to be the foundational tenets of baptism. However, in spite of Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus continues trying to shine light into the elder’s dark night. And he offers up what some have called “the gospel in a verse.” A verse that for some of us, may have been the first verse we committed to memory. A verse whose reference even shows up at sporting events with signs reading: John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
So where is the fear in that, you ask. Sounds like good news, right? God so loved that God gave.
Well, there is a source of fear right there. God loved, so God gave. We didn’t do anything to earn or deserve this great gift of grace and life. So, if we are completely dependent on God for it, do we live in fear that it could be taken away? Are we fearful that something we do or don’t do could cause a mind/action change in God? After all, think back to those snake-bitten Israelites.
Well, hear verse 17: Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. And look at the letter to the Ephesians: The gift of grace is not connected to our works: good or bad. See the cross and be constantly reminded to what lengths God goes so that we may know of the grace and the mercy that is ours – promised in baptism, nourished at the table, encouraged through community, nurtured by the Holy Spirit. Be inspired by the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us and goes forward with us. Knowing that they are witnesses who did not always get it right themselves. Witnesses who, in spite of more than because of, saw the faith continue and even grow. Rejoice with the psalmist that God’s mercy endures forever. Be not afraid.
During a Bible study at seminary, we were looking at one of the parables that told of undeserving ones being gifted. I think it might have been the wedding banquet where the king sends servants out to round up the good and the bad to bring them in to celebrate the wedding feast. One of my classmates, an older person who had spent much of life volunteering in a congregation, and coordinating volunteers, was resistant to our discussion about God’s radical grace. Finally the question came out, “If it’s freely given, how will we get anyone to do anything?” For 2000 years, the church has shown its fear of God’s grace by asking the same thing. “How will we get them to come, to join, to behave, to give, to be afraid of us, if its all based on God’s love and God’s gift, freely given? All grace, no strings?” And for 2,000 years, the church has hidden this fear in merciless laws and oppressive traditions. It has engaged in and encouraged “us/them” thinking. And if you think we protestants left all that fear behind 500 years ago, just listen to the voices of American Protestantism today. We (the church and her members) cut off those who we judge are not getting this grace thing right, in some cases refusing even to do business with “those people.” Listen to our own denomination that continues to be challenged by those whose conscience bounds them to believe that it is possible to be judged, condemned, and placed outside of God’s gift of grace. God has made us alive together with Christ Jesus. The grace of God says to the church: “proclaim and live the good news. Be not afraid.”
And speaking of American cultural religion…I was walking over on 6th avenue the other day. Coming back from my favorite story – Home Depot. And I passed by (some of you may know it) the building that was an Episcopal church, then became the Limelight night club, and since has become a variety of stores, and is currently Limelight fitness. And some brilliant ad person came up with a sales campaign that engages both the history of the building and its current purpose. There on the recruiting poster is a person, of course with a flawlessly sculpted body, standing in the midst of the once sacred space, and in big letters it says – BE WORSHIPPED. And there is a sign of a very American fear of God’s grace. We are the quintessential land of the self-made person. An American’s manta is: I am what I work at and what I have accomplished. Our cultural creed is: I am what I own and what I have in the bank through that hard work and those accomplishments. Rags to riches, from nothing to something are the stories we celebrate and love to retell. Allison Janney made everyone laugh last week when, upon receiving an Oscar, the opening line to her speech was – I did it all on my own. And then she got serious and thanked a whole crew of people. How our pride makes us afraid of God’s grace, of receiving something even though we have not worked for it, have not earned it, don’t deserve it. “How can I be worshipped and admired if I am completely depend on God’s mercy and grace.”
Those Israelites in the wilderness were ready to go it alone. They questioned whether God was getting it right or not. Maybe they would be better off as a self-made nation, they argued. But God’s grace gave them the healing power to look straight into the eyes of what was killing them and be saved. Jesus lifted up on the cross offers us the same opportunity by the grace of God. We can face our fears, look in the eye whatever is killing us, robbing us of life, and we can live in Christ fearlessly, because of God’s grace.
And to those who can pass through those fears when gazing on God’s grace because of God’s grace, perhaps for you there is still another fear looming – the fear that -having received such abundant grace, you will come up short yourself when trying to answer the call to respond by showing mercy and grace to others. Fear not, for there is God’s grace again, showing forgiveness, mercy, and love when we are not able.
So, hear the good news. God loves and God gives. And seeing all fears and all obstacles to our receiving God’s grace nailed to the cross, seeing them put to death so that we might have life through grace. We are free to come into the light of Christ, for there is nothing to fear.
The Rev. Mark Erson,