Lent IV: God's Promises Endure
"What Difference Does Jesus Make?"
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
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International Women's Day
At the International Women's Day march in Harrisonburg yesterday I heard community members originally from Eritrea, Colombia, Sudan, Kurdistan, Congo and Ethiopia who are all now local neighbors here in Harrisonburg. I heard a Salvadoran woman commission us to struggle with those whose Temporary Protected Status is threatened, so that their families can thrive in this country. I heard women whose ancestors were enslaved by my ancestors speaking out for gender parity in life opportunities, calling men to join them in supporting the full rights of women, and commissioning all of us in the crowd to be sure that the voices and perspectives of women of color are heard and heeded in the significant decisions our community faces.
Tears welled up often as these women, one as young as 15, spoke and moved with conviction about their dreams for themselves and the world. I was grateful that as a woman, schooled by the white feminists who were my public school teachers, and further educated by the womanist academics who were my college professors, and learning today about white privilege and intercultural partnership that I belong to the Jesus tradition. Maybe that surprises you. Emerging from a patriarchal culture, the early followers of Jesus struggled, as our world still does, to incorporate the full humanity of women and men into their movement. Their Biblical tradition–what we tend to call the Old Testament–also narrated, albeit in the margins, the tensions between the two dominant genders, even as the very story of creating humanity was an inclusive one–in God's image, all of us, and it was very good.
Life and Death differences
What difference does Jesus make? What difference does Jesus make to our personal and societal struggles? There is something desperately wrong in the world. There is something desperately wrong in us. But that's not the whole picture. There is something very wonderful in the world. There is something very wonderful in us. Sometimes this dichotomy of good and evil is helpful for understanding ourselves and the world. At other times this dichotomy produces confusion, fear and control.
As participants in God's covenant of love with the world through Jesus Christ, we must take care when reading scripture that we don't harm those with whom we're sharing our message. Scripture passages like those we heard this morning could become dangerous in communities that are not seeking to be reconciled to one another, to God and to the earth. Without the Spirit of Jesus Christ as our guide, the Biblical story can be distorted to wound and oppress, to stonewall the important changes that we need to make as a society.
Life and death interpretations
At our worst, the church hears this story about the snakebites and concludes–Israel was rebellious, so God sent some poisonous snakes to kill 'em, but when God gave them a random and weird rule–look at a snake on a pole–and they obeyed, God healed them. Whew! Death averted. And likewise, when we hear John chapter 3 we conclude that God loves the whole world–except the people who don't believe in Jesus who are condemned already–and we had better start believing in Jesus in order to have eternal life.
Honestly, these are simplistic and bad ways of reading these passages. Both interpretations are essentially fear-based and they confuse God's covenant love with control, so shake it off. [SHAKE HANDS] These scriptures are so much deeper, wiser and truer than these cheap interpretations. And shake off your shaming and blaming of those who fed you bad interpretations in the past. We don't have enough time and energy for that. Not when we are facing into things that are terribly wrong in the world or in ourselves. Not when the savior of the world the is addressing us–despite what is wrong in us and in the world–as the wonderful community of potential that we are, a community which can learn and live a better way.
Here are some hints at better interpretation. Israel travelling through the wilderness for 40 years had lost their awareness of God's covenant with them. They ask: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? Why has God acted in history to free the Hebrews from the slavemasters in Egypt? Are you kidding? Because God heard your cries. Because God is against the oppression of the Egyptian empire (and all empires of exploitation that exist.) Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? These people have totally lost perspective. They aren't dying in the wilderness; they are receiving God's law for life; they are being fed with manna daily; they are given water; they are being led to toward a promised land by a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
They had no life in Egypt. In the wilderness God gives them a life that can change them and the world for the better. It might take generations, but don't lose the arc of the story! Ain't it true. Sometimes, while participating in the covenant people of God, learning in the wilderness, trying to walk the talk, we lose perspective. We lose the main thread of the storyline running through our daily life–the story of God's covenant love with a community of people.
According to the Gospel of John the religious leaders that Nicodemus usually hung out with, had lost perspective on the their covenant relationship with God. And so Nicodemus goes to Jesus to shed some light on the situation. And they have this tender, gender bender conversation about new birth. And then Jesus refers to this weird story from the Torah about Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness. And Jesus says, by analogy, #MeToo. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up.
The take-away is that Nicodemus begins to shake off some of his interpretations of the Bible and interpretations of life. And through Jesus Nicodemus gains a bit of freedom to participate in God's covenant that changes us, changes us as individuals, but not just born again individuals, and changes our future, but not just our eternal destiny, and changes how we will live in our society as a community of God's covenant love. If you read the whole Gospel of John during Lent this year, at the end you can see how Nicodemus–was changed by this encounter with Jesus. And I want to be changed. We want that, don't we?
When their lives were threatened, the Israelites looked at a snake on a pole, and they were saved by God–not in the way they had expected, but saved nonetheless. Remember, Israel asked God to take the snakes away, but God didn't! And I don't know that God is just going to take away patriarchy or racism, or homophobia, or war against people or planet. But, during their 40 years in the wilderness Israel was fed daily by God. They were given water. They were given some measure of freedom and an opportunity for a new life. God was providing for this covenant people, feeding them, saving them even though they rebelled and complained and wanted to return to Egypt. The story of Israel being healed from the snake-bites is a snapshot in the long journey that God is willing to make with humanity and a reminder to us to choose the perspective that leads to life. The church who tells and lives the Jesus tradition is like food, water, and salvation for those of losing perspective.
With Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, Jesus lays things out: judgment and salvation, shadow and light, death and eternal life. Jesus knows that life for Jewish people in Jerusalem living under Roman occupation is going to require discernment, that there will be grey areas, that there will be very complex decisions ahead. Jesus lays out this dichotomy because Nicodemus is at a point of decision. Jesus' purpose was to invite us into a saving relationship, a covenant of love that has personal and global implications. God's covenant with us is not simplistic. Who knew that better than Jesus? He was misunderstood by people at home and people in Jerusalem. He struggled and suffered. But we can enter this life that Jesus offers and find salvation. Still hazards, still hardships, still suffering, but a way through life that produces life and blessing for others. That's what the church has offered me and I hope that by participating in the church with my gifts that I'm being saved and sharing the message and means of salvation with others.
What difference does Jesus make?
Billy Graham died last month at the age of 99. Graham believed in Jesus. What difference does Jesus make? Early in his ministry to address and take action against racial segregation in United States, Billy Graham quoted some of these verses from John–God's so loved the world. Organizers at his evangelistic crusade in Chattanooga had roped off areas to divide the crowd by race. Graham demanded that these be removed. And this was in 1953. Graham later shared his preaching platform with Martin Luther King Jr in New York City. The two were friends. MLK affirmed Graham's strong stance against segregation, though he challenged Graham we he seemed to lose perspective on making social change with respect to civil rights. The two came to differ on matters like the Viet Nam war. Graham, supported US foreign policy and every US war during his public ministry, advising each US president from Harry Truman to Barak Obama. Graham was especially close to Eisenhower, LBJ and Nixon. Graham may have been too simplistic in his Christian message, but we don't have time to blame or shame when we are facing into things that are terribly wrong in the world or in ourselves. Not when the savior of the world is addressing us as the wonderful community of potential that we are, a community which can learn and live a better way by the Spirit, the wind, the breath of Jesus among us.
What difference does Jesus make? What difference does Jesus make as we're facing a decision? Is Jesus just personal support for whatever we decide? Or does the Galilean's nonviolence, peacemaking, social justice, and service give us divine perspective–on our decisions? Is Jesus with us no matter what? Or does Jesus' counter-cultural politics, inclusion of outcasts, and defiance of traditional hierarchies mean that some paths draw us to the Galilean's side while others divert us far from the Spirit of Christ?
I'm teaching an undergraduate course in the Bible right now and most of the students describe God and Jesus as loving and forgiving. This was Graham's basic message. And I don't disagree. But we have to ask–what difference does Jesus make? If our only theological insights are that God loves us no matter what and will forgive us no matter what, and can somehow work our lives into a divine plan no matter what, then so what? What difference does that make in our living? In our communities? The Bible is not only about the character of God–and mind you while God does love and provide and care and forgive, God also judges and directs. The Bible is also necessarily about the community of God's covenant people. And we are they. Perhaps the decision in your life is whether to find your salvation in Jesus Christ and among this covenant people.
Two weeks ago I went to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN for Pastors and Leaders week. I hope to share many things that I learned and that inspired me while I was there, but here's one. Janna Hunter Bowman, professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics at AMBS lived a decade in Colombia and in addition to learning about and working with national level agencies and efforts to reduce violence and build peace, she also studied grassroots communities who were making a difference–preserving life and refusing violence. When her research included interviews with local church leaders about why they were willing to risk their lives in order to resist various armed groups, they spoke in their primary language–that is the language of faith in Jesus Christ, and knowing the presence of Christ's Spirit guiding their community and their decisions and their actions. Brothers and sisters, Jesus makes a difference. They did not report unique courage or skills, but special knowledge, knowledge of God's Spirit.
These Christian communities, affiliated with denominations, but on the fringes, reported that their shared decisions for being people of peace and taking even life-threatening risks were because of Christ, because of the Spirit, because that's simply how to be God's covenant people in the world. So, Jesus lifted up into our perspective, our vision–Jesus lifted up in suffering love on the cross–and Jesus lifted up, that is raised from death, to direct our living as Lord of God's covenant people makes a difference. Jesus is Lord as a servant, who does the women's work of washing feet and joins the refugee and immigrant as a traveller and as guest. This Jesus has renewed God's covenant with every living creature, with the descendants of Abraham, with Israel and all who believe and love and follow Jesus.
Community Mennonite Church is part of God's covenant people the world over and through time. We are Anabaptist Mennonite Christians and even if you don't identify with Anabaptist or Mennonite or Christian, you might still be part of this community. For the record, it is Jesus who makes the difference in who we are. If there is anything among us that has healed you, or held you. If there is any faith that has been stirred here or perspective that has helped you shake off the dregs in favor of God's covenant love, then it's because the Spirit of Jesus Christ founded this community. Thanks be to God.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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