John 3:17

Sermon Preached on February 17, 2008 (Lent 2A)
St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Stone Harbor (NJ)

Ah, John 3:16 – the bumper stickers, the painted signs on the sides of buildings, the banners held up at football games. Who cannot help but fall in love with the sentimental words of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Somehow that verse is so much clearer in the King James Version. And, indeed, everything seems so much clearer when we know John 3:16. Because knowing John 3:16 makes us insiders to the Truth that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and eternal life is ours to have. And, presumably, knowing this passage so well that we put it on bumper stickers, sides of buildings, and banners is our way of letting others know that we are not only insiders to the Truth but believers in this Truth. We are saved. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t know the verse, don’t care to drive around town with the verse, perhaps you are one of those fated to perish. Isn’t that the implication? For wherever there are insiders, there must be outsiders. Wherever there are believers, there must be those who do not believe.

Sometimes I think it might be an interesting experiment to drive around with a bumper sticker on my car that reads, “John 3:17.” Can you imagine the chaos? First, the shock could cause a traffic accident! But, if the traffic accident is averted, I like to imagine people rushing straight home, ignoring whatever errand it was they were off to, and running hastily to their bookshelf to dust off the Bible (the Bible they haven’t looked at since they committed John 3:16 to memory) and opening to that verse – John 3:17 - and reading, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world, to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And then, in a flash, the great epiphany would occur - if God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn, but rather to save, then perhaps there is more to these passages than at first meets the eye. Maybe flashing John 3:16 as a sign of my personal salvation is not the essence of the Christian faith.

Now, I have been a bit flip about Christian’s use of John 3:16 and I want to back-up just enough to say that I do not really have any issue about the use of this verse of Scripture per se. Rather, my contention is with those who use that verse as if it summarizes the whole of the Christian faith and with those who live out their faith as if that is all there is to the Christian faith. Because, adding just one verse more, sheds a very different light on the matter.

These two verses from John’s gospel, taken together, according to United Methodist Bishop William Willimon remind “us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone” (to use the familiar words of our confession of sin) “but” says Willimon,

“because of what God has done. . . . It was out of love that [Jesus] came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love. . . . It was for this that we began the [Lenten] journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.”[1]

And just as Jesus was not sent to condemn, but to save, so we also are called not to condemn others – presumably the non-John 3:16-sporting folk – but to save. And our steadfast belief in Jesus should be motivation enough to engage us in this work.

As I was mulling all of this over in my head this week, I thought of children’s (and some adults’) belief in Santa Claus as a parallel to the kind of belief we are called to have in Jesus. In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, children engage in a number of activities: they write letters to Santa carefully addressed to the North Pole; they put out really big Christmas stockings so that they might be surprised by a few small toys and bits of candy on Christmas morning; provide milk and cookies for Santa and perhaps carrots, hay or some other treats for the reindeer. Each of these activities is done, at least for small children, because they believe in Santa. They love Santa.

Our belief in Jesus, our love of Jesus ought similarly to compel us to engage in certain activities. And Scripture is quite helpful in this regard because it gives us a number of helpful suggestions of how we can show our love: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison.[2] This list comes from Matthew’s gospel. But there is also a powerful passage found later in the gospel of John that speaks directly to this connection between the love of Jesus and our actions. This is the exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus after the resurrection:

“Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me . . . ‘He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ . . . And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.’”[3]

There can be no question as to how our love of and belief in Christ is to be acted out in our lives. Scripture is compellingly clear.

A number of us have been gathering at the Partnership Center on Thursday nights to take part in our Lenten series, God’s Mission in the World. The focus of our discussion is on the Millennium Development Goals which were established by a meeting of the United Nations in September of 2000. The Millennium Development Goals are designed to cut global poverty in half by 2015. Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, refers to the Millennium Development Goals as a project that

“calls us home to a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. With the passionate commitment of each and every one of us, that vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day. It is God’s vision of homecoming for all humanity.”[4]

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”[5] Do you believe in Jesus? Feed God’s lambs. Do you love Jesus? Tend God’s sheep. Do you believe in Jesus? Together, let us feed God’s sheep.

[1] William Willimon, “God So Loved (John 3:17),” Christian Century (March 17, 1982), p. 292 accessed online at Religion Online on February 13, 2008.
[2] Matthew 25:35-46
[3] John 21:15-7
[4] The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Foreword,” God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Christina Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and the ELCA Washington Office, 2006), p. 4.
[5] John 3:16-17 (KJV)


The Luring Voice of Temptation

Sermon Preached Lent 1A (Feb. 10, 2008)
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay, Villas

I’ve often wondered where we could go today in order to have an experience like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. When I posed that question to my clergy colleagues at our weekly Bible study, one of them commented that Henri Nouwen had a similar question when he mused that the only desert America once had has become cluttered by the neon lights of Las Vegas. And it’s a shame really, because sometimes the desert is exactly where we are supposed to go.

Today’s gospel story is one most of us are quite familiar with: Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days and is tempted by the devil. He is hungry and the devil encourages him to turn the stones into loaves of bread. Though famished, Jesus resists the temptation of physical nourishment preferring instead being nourished by the word of God. Next the devil takes him to the very top of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down because if he is truly the Son of God, angels will protect him. Again, Jesus resists. This time the temptation of meaningless miracles and flaunting invincibility are nothing to be toyed with. God is not to be tested. Finally, the devil offers Jesus all the power in the world – he can be ruler of all the kingdoms of the world if only he acquiesces to worshipping Satan. And, most notably, Jesus replies, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

So it is a familiar story. But can any of you remember why he is out in the desert in the first place? Jesus is in the desert because he has been led there by the Spirit. “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Spirit of God took Jesus to the desert in order that he would be tested by the devil. How crazy is that? And yet, what happens to Jesus in the desert is remarkable – that which tempts him is made clear and that which is central to his life is made clear. Jesus is able to find clarity in the desert.

Our own desert of Las Vegas can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the clutter in our lives that make it difficult for us to clearly hear the difference between the voice of temptation and the voice of God. Is it possible that you and I do not fully know what tempts us because we have not dared to enter the desert to find out? And yet, during this season of Lent, we are, in fact, invited by God to enter the desert of our temptations in order to discover what is truly central, truly meaningful in our lives – just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to clarify that the love and worship of God was the central tenet of his life.

Now some would say that all we have to do in order to know God’s will for us is to read and obey Scripture. But, be careful! For, in today’s reading from Matthew, we learn that the tempter is as well-versed in Scripture as is Jesus. Satan quotes a portion of Psalm 91: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”[1] And Jesus responds with a portion of Deuteronomy 6, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test.”[2] Both the devil and God use Scripture – but it is in the wilderness, in the desert, that one is able to tell the difference between these two powerful voices.

Last night I went to see the movie The Bucket List. Perhaps some of you have seen it. The premise of the movie is that two roommates in a hospital learn that they have less than one year to live and so they write a “bucket list” – a list of things they want to accomplish before they kick the bucket. The list includes a variety of things from the comical – getting a tattoo – to the crazy – sky diving – to the mystical – experiencing something majestic. Out of the hospital, they set about the task of accomplishing the items on the bucket list. But, as they do each of the things on the list – in some instances toying with temptation - an amazing transformation occurs as each comes to recognize what is truly central in their lives, what is of true value. What they come to recognize, however, is nothing more than what they already have. But, without the journey into the wilderness of temptations – their bucket list – they would never have recognized this.

And so it is with us. We must be willing to create moments of stillness where we can clearly hear the voice of temptation and the voice of God. Because if we cannot hear the difference, if there is too much clutter around us – too many neon lights and too many appointments in our hectic schedules – we may never discover what is truly central in our lives.

Throughout Lent, we will be using silence as part of our worship on Sunday mornings. Already you experienced the time of silence at the beginning of the service. We will share another time of silence after the sermon each week and again after all have received communion. These are small windows of opportunity for each of us to begin to listen for God’s voice amidst the noisy barrage of thoughts and emotions that zoom through our minds. I hope that you will use these brief times of silence to muster up the courage to follow the Spirit of God into a larger wilderness where you can meet the things that tempt and taunt you head on with the faith and confidence that God is with you to sustain you and aid you in your search for those truly meaningful things in your life.

[1] Psalm 91:11-12
[2] Deuteronomy 6:16a.

Open to Being Transfigured

Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Feb. 3, 2008)
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

During the season of Epiphany – this year, a very short season, because of the early date of Easter – our Scripture readings focus on the revelation of the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God. A focus that helps to prepare us for the 40 day journey that follows – our journey through Lent toward the cross.[1] The gospel reading is so vivid in its description – “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” A mountain top experience of the most extraordinary proportions! Perhaps you’ve had an experience in your life that you describe as a mountain top experience, a time in which you have experienced God’s presence in a way that was beyond the ordinary.

When we think back to such times, it is typical to describe what we saw. For me it was after I climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and as I looked out across the rocks and the islands I saw vastness and power that chased any doubt I may have had about God’s existence right out of my being. I have a photo of me at the top of that mountain. A funny picture because, in the first place, I took it myself with arm outstretched trying as best I could to frame my face in the camera’s lens and, funny too, because it doesn’t capture any of the vastness I experienced – it is simply a picture of me. Often I have thought I would like to go back and re-experience that moment in time, to recapture the power and the awe. But more and more I recognize that even if I were to go back, to climb that same mountain on a day like that day, I would never have that same experience because I am no longer the person I was when I first climbed Cadillac Mountain in 1990.

When we hear today’s Gospel reading, most of us, I suspect are caught up – as were the disciples - by the changed image of Jesus – dressed now in dazzling white, his face shining in the sun, talking with Moses and Elijah on that mountain top. During this event, whatever we are to make of it, and I’ll say more about that in a moment, Peter offers to “make three dwellings” on the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Was this Peter’s attempt to add some permanence to the moment? Perhaps it was Peter’s equivalent of my meager photograph taken at the top of Cadillac Mountain. Peter is so taken by Jesus’ changed appearance that he wants to capture the moment. While Peter is never given a direct response to his question, it is clear from what follows that that is not at all the point of this transfiguring moment. For in the next moment, a bright cloud overshadows them and, from the cloud a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fall to the ground, overcome by fear. But, a moment later Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they do dare to look up, they see only Jesus, just as he was before.

Jesus, just as he was before. And yet this moment is referred to as the Transfiguration. A moment of change, or transformation. Jesus’ outward appearance, to be sure, is transfigured, but only for a time. The disciples, on the other hand, have experienced something profound. The words they hear spoken from the bright cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved” are words that have been spoken on only one other occasion – the time of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. The disciples though were not present on that occasion and so they are hearing these words for the first time.

The Rev. Judith Schenck, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Montana who is also a vowed solitary, living a monastic life in The Monastery of the Transfiguration, writes, "We usually think of the Transfiguration as something that happens to Jesus.” But Schenck asks, “Can we dare to think of Christ's transfiguration as something that happens also to us?"[2] What was true about Jesus at his baptism remains true of him at this time of transfiguration. There is no shift – he was and is God’s Son, the Beloved. So, what if, other than Jesus’ appearance, Jesus is not who is transfigured on the mountaintop. The disciples, however, cannot help but be transformed and changed by this experience; the disciples are ultimately transfigured by this new realization about who Jesus really is. But, can we dare to think of Christ’s transfiguration as something that happens to us also?

In just a few moments, you and I will share together the feast which Jesus first shared with the disciples. In the Eucharistic Prayer, we ask that God sanctify the bread and wine that they might “be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.” “We believe,” writes Rev. Schenck, “that the ordinary bread and wine are transfigured by the mystery of God into the Body and Blood of Christ” but “do we dare grasp what happens to each of us in the Eucharist?”[3] Later in the Eucharistic Prayer we ask that “the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” It is a prayer for transformation, for change, for our own transfiguration – that we, as a community in Christ, might become one body, one spirit – forever transfigured to serve the world in Christ’s name.

On Wednesday evening this week, we will observe Ash Wednesday with Eucharist and the imposition of ashes. This will mark our transition into Lent. The prayer book tells us that in the early Church, the “season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.” For each of us, Lent is to be a time of self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting, and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. All of these spiritual disciplines are engaged in during Lent, not because they are obligations, but because they are ways in which we can open ourselves to the transforming and transfiguring power of Christ in our lives.

As we transition from Epiphany into Lent, will we dare to think of Christ’s transfiguration as something that is happening to us also? Will we open ourselves to the transfiguring power of Christ in our lives? Let us go up the mountain together and be open to God’s Majestic Glory. Amen.

[1] James Kiefer, “Feast of the Transfiguration,” The Lectionary accessed online on August 8, 2007.
[2] Judith Schenck, “Last Sunday after the Epiphany,” Sermons that Work accessed online on February 2, 2008.
[3] Schenck (emphasis mine).