"Looking Up and Out" - Lent 4B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
March 11, 2018 at 10:15 AM
Central Passage
John 3:14-21

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: March 11, 2018 – Lent 4B

John 3:14-21


Looking Up and Out


            In the early 16th century, Martin Luther struggled with this question: How do I know that my life is justified in the sight of God? In other words, how can I know that my life matters to God, that God loves me, that God forgives my sins, that God hears my prayers? This was the question that agonized him in the monastery, that led to self-flagellation and constant confession. No matter what he heard from his confessor or from the church, he simply could not feel forgiven. He couldn’t feel justified by God; instead, he felt condemned.


            The question du jour hasn’t changed much from Luther’s time. The only difference is that people can be atheists today in a way that was inconceivable in Luther’s day. In the wider culture, belief in God is as much of an option as rooting for a particular basketball team or choosing a restaurant. People often live their lives without ever thinking much about God. (This goes as much for many of us Christians as it does for out-and-out atheists.) What is the same from Luther’s day is this: Does my life matter? The question goes from Luther’s “How do I live a justified life before God,” to “How do I live a justified life?”


            We know that in comparison to the universe, we are infinitesimally small. A teensy lump of carbon on a slightly larger mote of silicon, whirling around a tiny hydrogen furnace, in a spur between two of the galaxy’s major arms. And our galaxy is just one of billions (yes, billions). If we look outside of our little inner world for a moment, we see a cosmos that is unyielding and uncaring; beautiful, but frightening. How can our lives possibly matter, when this is the creation we are placed into? How could God possibly care about beings as tiny and insignificant as we seem to be?


            When Jesus descended to Earth, we can only just grasp the implication. The pre-existent God, who was before there was a “before”, who is, and who always will be, after all “afters”, came to live with human beings, to enlighten human beings, to save human beings. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, came to absorb all human sin and darkness into himself. Just as Moses once lifted up a bronze serpent in the desert to save those who were snakebitten, Jesus came to be lifted up, absorbing all of human sin in himself, so that we could have true, full, and eternal life.


            That term, translated “eternal life”, means so much more than what we think it means. Here’s what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean a never-ending life lived as we live it today. It doesn’t mean a life under normal human values. It means a life that is complete. A life that embodies God’s shalom – God’s definition of wholeness. A life that is justified in the presence of God, and in our own eyes as well. A life that begins in the present, when God births us “from above” in our baptism, and that continues forever in the presence and light of the God who is Love.


            And yet, this “eternal life” is something that is usually known in glimmers. Even though God in Christ frees us from our sinfulness, we still remain in bondage to sin, unable to free ourselves. Our situation is very much like that which the Israelites faced in the desert. After complaining once again about the lack of food and water, save a bit of “miserable” manna, God punishes the people with snakes. The people repent and beg Moses to ask God to take away the snakes. However, when Moses asks God to do that, God doesn’t take the snakes away. Instead, God tells Moses to do something that seems bizarre, even sinful. He commands Moses to make a “graven image”, an image of a serpent, and put it on a pole. The people afflicted are to look at the image, and be healed.


            Now this just seems strange and unnecessary. For one thing, how long is it going to take Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole? That’s going to take some serious time and craftsmanship. Time is of the essence when treating snakebite; Moses would have to hurry! Second, why doesn’t God take away the snakes in the meantime? There’s no indication that the snakes are gone. Third, why doesn’t God just cure the people instead of making Moses do an arts-and-crafts project? It would be much simpler, and would avoid the messy side effect that God more or less commands Moses to break one of the Ten Commandments!


            Except God hardly ever seems to do things the neat and simple way. No, if people are going to grow into people – into full humanity, ready for eternal life in the presence of God – going the long way becomes necessary. God isn’t just going to magically snap God’s fingers and take away the snakes. Genuine healing takes a human element. The same thing applies with Christ’s work on the cross. God doesn’t magically take away sin. Healing us from our sinfulness requires God’s presence in our broken world, in human flesh. We need something – someone – to draw our attention and gaze away from ourselves, from our endless wondering and worrying over how we can live a justified and meaningful life. We need to be able to gaze on the One lifted up; on Jesus the Messiah. We need to look up and out. Up from this way of life and this way of being. Out from ourselves and our self-interests. We are drawn to look to Christ.


            Because when we look on Christ, and trust him as the truth in a world filled with lies, we are rooted in his life. We are rooted in his perfect humanity, united with his divinity. Jesus’ human life is the perfect embodiment of God’s shalom – God’s peace for all. He is lifted up – for us. He bears the sin of the world – for us.


            So how do we look on Christ, when he is not in the world in the direct way he once was? We look to the means of grace for one thing – hearing him in the Word, receiving him at the Supper. We also look to the wider Body of Christ for his presence. John’s Gospel is clear. Eternal life does not begin after death. It begins now. And when we look for signs of his presence among the rest of the Body – self-giving love, truth-telling, and humility – we will have a glimpse of the eternal in the here-and-now. We will see our lives rooted in his life: justified, complete, eternal.


            Let us pray.


            Jesus, help us to look away from ourselves and toward your saving presence in Word, Sacrament, and each other. Assure us that our lives are justified in your sight by your saving work on the cross. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.