Sunday, March 18, 2012

In This Way

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
Probably the most well-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. You probably know it by heart or you easily recognize it when you hear it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” When things are well-known they can become stale. When you hear it you may automatically not pay as much attention as you would to something you’ve never heard before. This is normal.

Sometimes things we know well can take on new life when we hear them presented in a different way. This verse may seem to have new life to it in the way the original Greek words present it. The English of the translation we’re using, The English Standard Version, presents it the way we’re so often used to hearing it: for God so loved the world. It’s along the lines of, God loved the world, so He did something, namely, He sent His Son. Or perhaps along these lines: God loved the world so much that He gave His Son. These both capture God’s love for the world and what He did in His love; He sent His Son. The Greek has it more along these lines: God loved the world in this way—He sent His Son.

This doesn’t just tell us that God loved the world and that He did something about it. It doesn’t even tell us that God loved the world so much that He did something about it. It tells us that God loved the world, and a lot, and this is the way He loved the world: He sent His Son. In this way we see the essence of God’s love. We see that it’s incomparable love. We see that He loves the world and the way He loves the world. In this way we also see something about ourselves because we are the recipients of His love and the way He has loved us. We also see the way that it now is with us because love that is given in this way cannot simply be an action in which we receive. It is love that produces something in us.

Instead of being eternally separated from God we have eternal life. Eternal life is life without end. It is life without eternal punishment and not being separated from God forever. It is eternal glory in heaven. But in the way that God shows us His love, and not just shows us, but actually loves us, we see that eternal life is so much more than eternal glory in heaven. If that were all that eternal life were, we wouldn’t have eternal life now. We’d have to wait for it. Of course, we do have to wait for the eternal glory of heaven. But we don’t have to wait for eternal life. God has given it to us now. In giving us eternal life He has given us new life and a new way to live.

In this way we live, we are in Christ. We live and breathe in this new life not as ones who are dead, “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air,” as the Epistle reading puts it. Rather, as the Epistle also says, God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This new life we have is all by God’s work, all by His mercy, all by His grace, and it is all through faith. It is all a gift of God so that no one can boast. The new life we have is one in which we are in Christ, and we serve in the good works we do. These aren’t works we do in order to be saved or so that God will love us. They are works, as the Epistle says, “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

In this way we live. If this doesn’t sound amazing it’s probably because even though you were dead in your trespasses and sins and now you’re not, and you were by nature children of wrath but now you’re not, your sinful flesh still rises up daily to bring you down. Your Old Adam wants to continue to live in the way the Epistle reading describes: living “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” To our sinful flesh, new life in Christ as serving others, carrying out good works for the benefit of others, doesn’t exactly sound exciting. It doesn’t capture our attention as the greatest thing ever. We’d much rather act on the things that do capture our attention. We’re far more ready to think about what appeals to us rather than contemplate God’s love for us in Christ and how that translates into serving and helping others.

That’s why Jesus said He must be lifted up. If something is lifted up then it’s readily seen. He said of Himself that He must be lifted up. We usually don’t think of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross in this way, but that’s the way He used it here. He was lifted up. He was affixed to the cross and it was raised up. The Romans raised those crosses high so that common people could see those horrible criminals and they would be warned not to follow in their path lest they be lifted up in this violent form of punishment. And though they did this to Jesus they didn’t realize that He had already chosen for it to happen. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

In this way God loved the world and in this way we see what our lives truly are. How could you think of your life as your own when you have been given new life in Christ? How could you continue to seek out your own desires apart from God’s will when He has loved you in such a way as to give you His own Son? How could you trade this eternal life for temporal desires of your heart and mind? The Son of Man has been lifted up on the cross for all the world to see. It’s not just decoration that there’s a huge cross hanging on the wall above the altar. It’s lifted up high so that you can see it. It’s been raised up so that you can set your sights on that and see there who Christ is and what He has accomplished in being lifted up.

In this way you see more and more that who Christ is and what He has done for you means that who you are is more than just a person who lives life in order to bring about how you would like things to be. How you would like things to be is not nearly as good as what you think they are. But even more importantly, how you would like things to be is actually eternally condemning. It doesn’t seem so, of course. But that’s because your mind and your heart is clouded. It’s darkened by sin.

How often are we like the Israelites, the people of God in the Old Testament? In the verses just before today’s Old Testament reading they were delivered by God from a king who wanted to destroy them. The Israelites were understandably relieved, and very grateful to God. It wasn’t long, though, before they became very ungrateful. No sooner had God delivered them than they doubted whether He was going to take care of them. Jesus’ description of fallen humankind in the Gospel reading is apt: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”

In this way God shows us the new life we have in Christ. He, as Jesus says in the Gospel reading, gives us the judgment. He tells it to us straight. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We are fallen, we are in darkness. We are so dead in our sin and guilt that we don’t even see it clearly.  Is it any wonder the Son of Man had to be lifted up? Otherwise, I think we’d miss it. Even when the Bible is clear, that this is all a gift, that it is all God’s work of saving us and forgiving us and giving us new life; that it is all by Jesus Christ being lifted up on the cross, dying for the sin of the world; we still so often miss it. In this way we have new life. In this way we are shown what we need to see. In this way we are given a great gift: that of getting ourselves off of ourselves and onto Christ.

We are, after all, in Him now. We are one with Him. He gave His life, He served us. We are now in Him and we now serve. Do we do good works? Most definitely. So often people get the idea that Lutherans don’t believe in good works. Too many times people have the notion that Lutherans teach against good works. The plain truth is that we do believe that we Christians do good works. The question really is, why? An equally important question is, how? The answer to both questions is Jesus Christ.

In this way God loved the world, He gave His only Son. In this way we do good works: God has prepared them from beforehand for us to do. We are most certainly not saved by good works, we’re saved by grace after all. But we are saved for good works. He has prepared them for us so that we may walk in them. In this way we see that it has always been and always is about Christ and Him crucified. He was lifted up so that we may see this and live in this way. Amen.


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