A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 4, March 30, 2003, dedicated to the memory of Jennifer Michel Keefer and as a tribute to John and Kay Michel, Jeff Michel, and especially Tony, Ellie, and Hank Keefer who loved her and abided by her side through life, unto death, and who will never forget her and always to the glory of God!
(V of VIII in the Lenten sermon series,"For the Love of Christ")
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is the day that our penitential mourning gives way to joy. This Sunday has a name in the Christian tradition. Its name, Laetare Sunday, derives from the opening words of the text for the Mass, "Laetare Jerusalem" ("Rejoice, O Jerusalem"). This theme of joy came to be celebrated in the ancient church in various ways, for example, a rose on the altar, connects the beauty of spring and the thorns of suffering. As early as the 11th Century, this custom of flowers symbolized a celebration of reaching the midpoint of Lent.
Today, as we reach the midpoint of Lent, on our way to the cross, there is a respite from the rigors of penitence. In the midst of the often trivial moralizing which happens in this season, the Gospel of John opens to the third chapter and refreshes us with the essence of our faith:
"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . for God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16,17). "Rejoice, O people! God loves you! God gave his son for you! Christ came into the world (not the church, not Columbus, not America, but the entire world). He came not to condemn the world, but to save the world!
Somewhere, between the beginning of Lent and its midpoint; somewhere between the beginning of each of our lives and this point, we have forgotten what an absolutely amazing gift we have in the love of God for us through our savior, Jesus Christ. It's good to be reminded of this, today. It is also good to remember and rejoice in the truth that God is not in the business of condemning us, or the rest of the world. While others may want to play God and manipulate the words of God for judgment, not grace, God is about the business of loving and saving us and the rest of the world!
But, what does God's loving and saving business look like?
John 3:14-15 tells us that life in God's love - through Christ - is both uplifting and eternal. Like Moses' serpent in the wilderness, Jesus is lifted up - both on the cross and in the ascension into glory - and in this lifting, belief in God's sacrifice and glory are given shape and form and eternal life is offered. Uplifting and eternal - are central elements of God's saving love. I have seen the uplifting and eternal nature of God's love so often become manifest in the love, through suffering and pain, that people share in difficult and tumultuous times. While I sometimes wish that I could wave a magic wand over the pain I see embodied in suffering love, I am also aware that so much of the immensity of love would be diminished and even unrecognizable without it. To suffer in love for the one whom you love, in the midst of their suffering, is to live life to its holiest. I believe we actually come to see eternal life in the face of such suffering. We see grace, twisted by pain, but embraced by love. We see a peace which passes human understanding, growing forth from the depth of suffering.
On Thursday, Susan, Daniel, Sarah and I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art. It was glorious. To imagine that one man could see such beauty and color in this world of ours while feeling such pain and inmost torture is almost inconceivable. While he suffered emotionally and mentally, Vincent Van Gogh portrayed such vivid beauty outside himself.
Beyond Van Gogh's "Fields" exhibition, I was captivated by many other works of sacred art in the Museum. One, entitled, "The Disposition," showed the scene at the foot of the cross following the death of Jesus. His body was disposed from the cross to the earth below. As the dead body of Jesus lies at the foot of the cross, John, the beloved disciple, is beside him, having just washed his body of blood. Jesus' mother, Mary is looking on, but close at hand. Her face is twisted in pain. Her body is turned half way toward him, half way from him. In the distance, you see several people including the shadowy figure of Peter, who had denied and abandoned Jesus in his time of crucifying death.
For those who have stood by the cross - stood by him in his suffering - there is intense pain, but their pain is holy. For those who have tortured him or abandoned him, the pain is different. It is the pain of guilt. It is the pain of dispossession. Uplifting and eternal are elements of God's saving love.
It is what we do in the face of the cross and at the foot of the cross which matters most. If we are to experience God's uplifting and eternal love, we must go there. We must abide there.
The ones who teach us about the saving love of God, are the ones in our lives who show us in their suffering how to love and even how to praise God and be of service to others.
Stephen Shoemaker tells the story of such a woman in his book GodStories. Jean Stout was a Kentucky woman who had been disabled all her life. As a young person, she had been too embarrassed about how she looked to be baptized. So, later in life, Stephen baptized her in her nursing home bed. When she was close to death, taking massive doses of medicine to reduce her pain, Stephen was visiting with Jean. She smiled at Stephen and said, "The only thing that helps me in my pain is liquid morphine. This may sound silly to you pastor, but that morphine is the most beautiful color of blue I have ever seen." Her improbable praise brought tears to Stephen.
Jean Stout, like so many I have come to know in my ministry, reached a point in her battle for life, in which they have said something like this: "God you've been in my actions, you've guided my life, and walked with me through all I have encountered. Now be in my dying, lift me up and carry me in your arms into the heavenly dwelling place that you call home. I can no longer care for my family, Lord. I hate that worse than anything. So, I leave them in your hands in the hands of those who you send as angels of mercy and love. Help them accept your presence in their lives, however you choose to make your love manifest."
When such words as this come into the hearts and minds of people, a healing happens. It is a healing deeper than the body which is destined for death, a healing that is a final union with God. From such as these, I have learned not only how to die, but how to live. I have learned how to offer my passion to God as well as my well-intended actions.
At the heart of today's gospel is GOD'S LOVE. Martin Luther called John 3:16, "the truth of the gospel in one verse." This verse tells us that the initiative in all salvation comes from the heart of God.
Listen to this verse, unpacked by phrases and listen to its powerful message of love: "God so loved . . . God so loved the world . . . God so loved the world that he gave . . . God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . . God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him . . .God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."
Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said of John 3:16 - "The Good News is that God still loves the world through you. You are God's Good News. You are God's love in action. Each time anyone comes in contact with us, they must become different and better people because of having met us. We must radiate God's love."
God is still loving the world and by many accounts, it is not a world that is easy to love. Terror, war, hunger, oppression, injustice are among those elements of man's inhumanity to man that make this world hard to love. Nevertheless, our God continues to love the world.
God loves the unlovable and the unlovely. God loves the lonely who have no one else to love them. God loves the man who never thinks of God. God loves the woman who lives in God's presence constantly. God loves the graceless and the graceful. God loves the one who has never given a thought to God and knows not how to lift a prayer and the one who seeks God and prays without ceasing. God loves the one who is angry at God and the one who is content in God. God loves the one who spits at God and the one who smiles at God. God loves you, just as God loves me.
As St. Augustine has written, "God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love."
As we head into the last days of lent, having been filled with the grace of Laetare Sunday, may we remember that there will always be misunderstandings. Words will be always be spoken that do not reflect the love of God. There will always be someone to spread tales about you to others. There will always be unkindness and there will always be wars and rumors of wars. But, there will also always be Jesus to teach us how to love. Amen.
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