Sermon for 3rd Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
There are many lies spread by North American popular culture, lies about how one should look, how much one should weigh, where one should live, what sort of clothes one should wear or car one should drive. Daily we are nearly assaulted with advertising that tries to tell us, to sell us, an image of what we should be, what we should wear, drive, etc.
In our heart of hearts we know what culture tells us about all of this is a lie.
There are even many lies spread by North American popular religion, lies about God’s love favoring one group or nation over another, for example. Some television evangelists even want us to believe that, once one gives one’s heart to Jesus, everything will be good in one’s life. They promote a feel-good religion and are certain to make everyone feel good before they leave worship or change the channel. Other television and arena evangelists promote what I’d call a “theology of fear,” asking, in a threatening way, “where will you be for eternity” or “get right with God” before it is too late!
You and I know that these are all lies.
People do not come to faith by fear. Salvation does not come by fear or threat. That’s not how it works. We can never “get right with God” since God is continually reaching out to us in love.
And, we know that Jesus Christ’s eternal love for us does not keep us from danger and harm in this world. Unfortunately, perhaps, danger and harm go with life on this earth. Instead, Jesus Christ’s love for us gets us through all danger and harm. Jesus Christ’s love for us protects us as we travel through any danger or harm.
There is a big difference.
It is little wonder that the fastest growing “religion” in the USA is “none.” According to numerous studies and polls, 20% of the US population, more than 60 million souls, now list themselves as “none” when it comes to religion. Of course, if all people think of about our faith, the Christian faith, is that we are either a feel-good, simplistic answers, religion or, the opposite, a threat religion, who can blame them? So, I am not surprised by these numbers – if Christianity is defined as only simplistic answers or threat, I would have no use for it either.
I thought of these lies, both cultural and religious, when I read today’s Gospel lesson from St. John’s Gospel, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is one of the few New Testament stories told in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this incident at the beginning of Holy Week, near the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They present it as history, part of Jesus’ journey that terrible/wonderful week. The cleansing of the temple becomes, for Matthew, Mark and Luke, another of the many reasons the Jerusalem religious leaders could use to call for Jesus to be crucified.
John, however, has a different idea and purpose. John places this incident early in Jesus’ public ministry and he does so with a theological purpose. John is making a point, the point, about who Jesus is. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” His listeners did not understand what Jesus was saying. They had just seen him go ballistic in the temple courtyard. They had just seen what they thought was Jesus’ strong stand against the popular culture of his time, against commercialism and selling outside of the temple.
And, while Jesus was making a stand against buying ones way into faith, he had a more important agenda, at least as St. John records it. Jesus was, once again, trying to tell his listeners who and what he was. And, once again, they did not get it until, John tells us, after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Thus, John is using the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as a prediction of what will ultimately happen to Jesus, how Jesus will die and rise from the dead, how the “temple” of his body will be destroyed and raised up again, as Jesus states in the text.
Of the four gospels, John’s gospel is a theological gospel, not an historical gospel. John is writing about the theology of the cross. His writing is important in our day and time because it is easy for us Christians to buy into a theology of glory and forget the theology of the cross. And, when we do that, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and even failure.
The theology of the cross involves a Savior for humankind, Jesus Christ, who did not succeed in worldly terms. He taught for just three years or so and then he was captured, beaten, tried and executed. Then, and only then, did God act and raise Jesus from the dead, promising that same sort of resurrection to and for all who believe. The theology of the cross is God’s unique combination of Good Friday and Easter.
The theology of glory focuses only on Easter, presenting Easter without Good Friday. This is a very easy and appealing focus for us all. We see it from the simple – Easter resurrection pageants and Easter egg hunts before Easter weekend – to the complex, fervent prayers for healing that appear to go unanswered when a loved one dies. I even know of a very large non-Lutheran congregation which does not have any crosses on display because, as they told me, “the cross is a symbol of division” and they only want people to feel united, to feel good, when they are at their worship center. This congregation now has many satellite congregations and has become its own denomination.
Those of you who have “walked through the valley of the shadow of death,” to use a phrase from the 23rd Psalm, know what I am talking about. It is when we are at our lowest, not our highest, that we can really know the love and salvation of God in Jesus Christ. As one of my staff colleagues once said, when you are flat on your back, sometimes only then you can look up and see God’s love.
The truth, the truth my friends is contained in today’s Gospel lesson. In this life, we do not, we cannot, find salvation in things, material goods of any kind – homes, clothing, electronic gadgets, automobiles, you name it. That’s not where we can and will find salvation. The recent economic crisis has reminded us, once again, that salvation is not found in our savings accounts or stock market portfolio or even our occupation.
John tells us, once again, that we need to realize that true salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and, through Jesus, God’s eternal love for us. That is the truth.
However, John also tells us that God’s truth in Jesus will not keep us from all danger and harm, as much as we may and do pray for protection from all danger and harm often. What God’s love for us in Jesus Christ does promise is God’s presence with us through all the times of our lives, especially the most difficult times. We will not always be happy and healthy. We may not always have a job or even a nice home. We will not even always leave worship happy or with easy answers or simple solutions.
What we will have, what we always have, with which we can always leave worship here at Mt. Olive, is the promise of God’s continued love for us, God’s continued presence with us, in all the times of this life and in the eternal life to come. The promise of God’s continued love for us, God’s continued presence with us, in all the times of this life and in the eternal life to come.
And that, my friends, is no lie.
And that, my friends, is enough.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Lies and Truth
Sermon for 3rd Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Wednesday,March 7/8, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica