Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lent 4 - Year B

CNN political analyst Paul Begala, when working for Bill Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States had trouble convincing his candidate of the value of the sound byte.

“You’re talking over peoples’ heads,” Begala warned. “You need to simplify your message.”

“But how can I condense these big ideas into small phrases?” Clinton protested. “It can’t be done without harming the message.”

“Oh, really?” replied Begala, “Hold out your watch and time me on how long it takes me to say this, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. How long did that take? Eight seconds? So, if the bible can sum up salvation history in eight seconds, then surely you can tell us if you’re for the balanced budget amendment. ”

I told the kids in the children’s sermon that this passage from John’s gospel was “the gospel in a nutshell.” I guess I could have easily said that John 3:16 is “God’s sound byte.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a pretty good summation of what we believe as Christians.

“For God so loved the world…” those familiar words ring out. At least familiar to those of us who have been hanging around the church for a while. But the original Greek goes deeper, broader…For God so loved the KOSMOS. The whole entire cosmos! The complete universe as we know it, from the tiniest quirk, the smallest quark, to the vast star systems. God loves the cosmos!

And out of this vast love God shares, gives, offers God’s own self in Jesus. The Son is given so that all may believe in him and be saved.

We often reduce belief to mental assent, agreement with propositional truths or creedal statements about God.

But that’s not what this passage is talking about. John was talking about trust. Jesus is given so that all may trust him. Trust that we will not perish but have eternal life. Eternal life over eternal death. But, again, the original Greek is more nuanced: “So that everyone who trusts in Jesus may not be RUINED, but may have eternal life.”

Ruined. Spoiled. Destroyed.

Jesus is given so that failure, loss, grief, will not destroy us.

After all, that’s what the following verses say, “I’m not here to condemn people,” Jesus says, “I’m here to save them.”

But then Jesus takes it a step further to where we probably wish he didn’t go. He had to talk about condemnation.

Why? Why spoil the party? Why taint such good news with ugly threats of eternal punishment?

As Presbyterian minister, Alison Bucklin points out,

People only want to be saved when they perceive a danger. And those hearing that message – the people then, and us folks now, generally do not believe that we are in any danger. So when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in me is not condemned, but those who do not believe in the name of the only Son of God,” he is saying, “whether or not you believe you are in spiritual danger, you are, and the only way out is through me. Spiritual snakes have slow-acting poison. You may not feel it yet. But you’re dying. Listen to me, look to me, and live!”

Have you ever been driving down a deserted highway and notice just off in the distance, an abandoned house? It was clear that someone once lived there. A family gathered for evening meals. Weddings. Funerals. Hellos. Good –byes. All the stuff of life, both heartbreaking and life-giving, both joyous and tragic, thrived between those walls.

But either suddenly or gradually, the people left. The house was emptied. The stories silent. A way of life forgotten. And the house that stands may have seemed lonely, when its paint was still colourful, the windows still whole, and the roof still strong. But now the house feels dead. A hollowed-out husk. A shell. Its history carried off with the west wind.

It lay in ruin.

I wonder if that’s the ruin that Jesus is talking about. The hollowed-out husk that we feel we’ve become, whether by illness or loss or abuse, or whatever, we feel like that house; hollow. Weak. Dead. And we wonder if we will ever find life again.

But the point of the passage is clear: when our lives are in ruins Jesus rebuilds them. Whether it’s the ruins of broken relationships, the ruins of grief, the ruins of depression, the ruins of guilt, the ruins of shame, the ruins of illness, the promise is this: God restores. God heals. God saves.

That why we gather around the altar this morning for prayer. Here we bring the ruins of our lives, so that, together, the pieces start to be put back together.

It’s not always easy to trust, at least not in the way that God asks us to. If it were easy then we wouldn’t need Jesus. That’s the irony of faith. Trusting, believing, receiving. These take strength that is beyond us. It is because we are weak that God gives us strength. It is because we have trouble believing that God gives us faith. It is because we don’t know how to receive that God gives us Jesus. Because God so loved the cosmos that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not lay in ruin, but enjoy new and everlasting life.

So today, in prayer and hope, bring these gifts to the altar. Offer your tears and wounds, hopes and longings as sacrifices of praise to Jesus who takes the broken fragments of our lives and pieces them together in an expression of love and new life.

For some, this may be just a sound byte, but for us, it is the promise of eternity. Amen.


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