+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: John 3:17
Theme: To Save, Not Condemn
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Our very existence is profound evidence of God’s patience. He not only continues to tolerate sinners but seeks to redeem them. His patience is not to be challenged, though. Unbelief will be judged. We are foolish to mistake God’s mercy for apathetic lenience. God is not patient because He doesn’t care but because He passionately “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”1
Today the topic of vital truth comes to the fore in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was an educated Pharisee. He would have been well-instructed in the Torah, the Books of Moses. He knew the history of God’s people. Jesus gives him a point of reference, the one we heard read from Numbers. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”2 As a cure for their self-inflicted punishment, the Israelites were given a point of focus. It was a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. It gave them a fixed point of concentration. All who were bitten by snakes were to look towards it, trusting God would spare their lives, which He did. It presaged greater things to come. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross was the macrocosm of God’s plan of salvation. All the prophecies, all the predictions, all the analogies carefully articulated referred to Him. He is Light and Truth.
Dear friends, the great truth of Christianity is that it doesn’t involve a legalistic system in which humans must earn salvation through obedience to certain laws. But that doesn’t mean God’s will is unimportant. It just means we must be diligent in distinguishing how God speaks to us. People endlessly seek to circumvent human laws. We shouldn’t think it would be any different with God’s law. Never has a law been enacted and enforced in any society, at any point in history that has enjoyed full compliance. Someone will always claim the law is unjust, unfair, inadequate, or not applicable to them.
In human courts of law things can get pretty crazy. The lengths people will go to to avoid culpability are sometimes extraordinary. A few humorous examples will suffice. Questioning the witness, an attorney asked, “Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?” “No”. “Did you check for blood pressure?” “No.” “Did you check for breathing?” “No.” “So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?” “No.” “How can you be so sure, Doctor?” “Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.” “But could the patient have still been alive, nevertheless?” “Yes, it is possible that he could have been alive and practising law somewhere.” A defence lawyer queried a distressed woman on the witness stand asking, “What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke up that morning?” “He said, ‘where am I, Cathy?’” “And why did that upset you?” “My name is Susan.” In 1871, a Pennsylvania man sued Satan and his minions for putting obstacles in his life and causing his downfall. The case was thrown out of court on the grounds that the defendants did not reside in the state.
Dear friends, all we need remember is that all such vainglory is pointless before God. He knows the truth. His gaze penetrates the most heavily shielded soul as if it were exposed to the noonday sun. We can engage in the most complicated and persistent spiritual jurisprudence we can muster but we will never outwit Him or outlast Him. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”3
The are no laws, divine or otherwise, that can curb the desires of the heart. Threats and punishments may serve to limit sinful actions, but they cannot change a person’s motivations from unrighteous to godly. Sinful motivations must be transformed to holy ones and only the gospel can do that. A spiritual death and resurrection is required. Evil desires are put to death, crucified with the effectiveness of Jesus’ own crucifixion. New spiritual life is created from the ashes of contrition. The Holy Spirit conceives this life in the hearts of believers. Faith is the Spirit’s gift of a reconciled relationship with the Father. That relationship is nurtured through the word of promise and the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
Imagine what a mind-blowing thing it was for Nicodemus to learn that Jesus was the only way to heaven. Claims are often made that Christian churches are too restrictive and oppressive. Certainly, legitimate criticism must be taken on board. Churches are collections of sinners and can collectively be self-centred and short-sighted. Hypocrisy and self-righteousness, understandably does untold damage to many reputations. But the case can also be put that large segments of Christianity don’t take themselves seriously enough. Kierkegaard warned centuries ago that being a Christian in Europe was already too easy. It required nothing more than a casual and half-hearted affirmation of the prevailing sentiments of society at the time. Christianity was the flavour of the day and no sacrifice was required to be associated with it.
Similar assessments are worthy of our attention. Is the church in the West in decline partly because it’s too hard to be a Christian, or too easy? Is the church too restrictive of peoples’ views, not allowing enough latitude in opinion, and therefore unappealing to people? Or is the church unappealing because it has largely surrendered its core convictions. Is it losing its identity and therefore becoming less effective at witnessing to the new identity believers have in Christ?
In reality, Christian truth is the most authentically emancipating power that exists. Much of what passes for freedom today (even in reference to spirituality) is actually bondage. What good is it to be taught that we can be self-determining beings- choosing our own moralities and destinies without consequence- when it’s not really true? The claim that truth can be whatever we want it to be is itself a great deception. Sin, its guilt and consequences, don’t magically dissolve just because we’ve tried to reinterpret pain and suffering in the world through a different paradigm. Sin must still be reckoned with, and only Christ can do it.
What can be more liberating than to know that we are freed from the eternal condemnation of God’s wrath? What can be more freeing than the certainty that death itself has no final power over the believer? In the knowledge of Christ’s redeeming love all of our darkness and gloom is finally dispelled by the radiance of His presence. Our sorrow will be replaced by joy, our doubt with certainty, and our anxiety with peace. Our pain will be relieved, and our scars healed. The Suffering Servant who was nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb also rose again victoriously on the third day.
This good news will never be surpassed. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”4 And St. Paul says today, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.”5 We are gifted with a new identity through baptism. Therefore, we no longer seek to circumvent the God’s law. God’s commands to us are the boundaries of love. The apostle continues, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”6 There is nothing that God planned in the beginning that Christ hasn’t completed in the end. Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
Fourth Sunday In Lent
11 March 2018
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 1 Timothy 2:4 2 John 3:14-15
3 Romans 3:4 4 John 3:17
5 Ephesians 2:8-9 6 Ephesians 2:10