My sermon on John 3:16

Lent 4 (Gospel reading: John 3:14-21)

Our Bible passage today is the chunk of scripture surrounding one of the most famous verses in the Bible – John 3:16. One of the reasons it’s so famous is that it is considered to be an encapsulation, a summary of the Gospel. It is Jesus Christ’s life, and ministry and purpose – in a nutshell.

It’s nighttime. Nicodemus has come to talk to Jesus, but is ashamed to be seen with him. See, Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews. He was a leader and part of the religious elite. Pharisees were so well versed in the law, they wrote laws on top of the law so that you would never actually break the law. They were the holy men. They thought they knew right from wrong. They thought they knew everything.

And they did not like Jesus. For many reasons, not least of which at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, he calls them a brood of vipers.

The darkness that surrounds Nicodemus and Jesus cannot be ignored. Its presence is palpable. By coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus shows himself – and the Pharisees that he represents – that he believes coming to Jesus, LOOKING to Jesus for any source of wisdom or truth is wrong. In fact it’s shameful. Nicodemus doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s coming to Jesus. He doesn’t want the neighbours to see.

Actions reveal beliefs. There was a desire there to know the truth.  Jesus doesn’t mince words with Nicodemus. Our Scripture passage today throws us into the middle of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

Jesus reminds this Pharisee of the story of the Israelites in the desert. Nicodemus would have had this story memorized. Nicodemus had all the scriptures memorized. He knew the context as soon as Jesus brought it up. Moses is leading the Israelites through the wilderness and they sin against God, so God sends venomous snakes among them and many of them die. They see the error of their ways, they cry out to God, and God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole in the middle of the camp. They are told that all anyone had to do to be saved was to look at the snake, raised up there on the pole, and they would be healed. All they had to do was believe that God’s way was THE way, and their actions would follow. Their belief would lead them to look, their belief would like to their healing, their salvation, their very lives.

In our Western, Individualistic, consumerist culture, we’ve got darkness. Especially in cities like Toronto. We think we know it all. But there are poisonous snakes here. Our self-interest has left us lonely, our consumerism has left us empty.

In Matthew and Luke Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Isn’t that funny? These religious men that put the burden on the people for their own salvation – THAT works-righteousness – THAT is what was killing these people. THAT was the poison in their blood. As much as sin is serious the wickedness of the Pharisees, what Jesus calls EVIL, was actually how they made up their own religion, picking and choosing how to act in such a way that they looked good and didn’t have to look too closely at Jesus.

The Light has come into the world, but the Pharisees hated the light, because it demanded belief. If Jesus was God, they were not. (Now no self-respecting Pharisee would call himself God, and no person today would either, but you see that we all worship something, and we either choose God as our Lord or we choose ourselves). So they chose darkness instead of light. Not unlike we do. Choosing not to believe in the fullness of the gospel, the fullness of Christ, and instead choosing to believe in some half-truth, that we create. When we look to ourselves to be the experts on our salvation instead of Christ, like the Pharisees, we turn inward, it becomes about us, and that inwardness ultimately devours us. We are destroyed. We perish.

Jesus’ shines light on Nicodemus in his darkness. Jesus knows the darkness Nicodemus chose to visit him in, reflected the darkness of disbelief inside him.  Yet, he says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world (or Nicodemus), but in order that the world (and Nicodemus) might be saved through him.”

Nicodemus’ in our story today did not believe. Not yet. He was still one of the Pharisees, a group of people that did not recognize Jesus as the Saviour or as the son of God. But Jesus is patient, he engages with him. Later we learn that Nicodemus brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds in weight, to wrap the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

Eventually, he comes to the light. He comes to Jesus because he believes, if he does not fully know yet who Jesus is or what he was doing, dying on that cross. Coming to Jesus is what is true, is right.

Like the bronze snake lifted up in the middle of the camp of the Israelites, anyone can look to Jesus for salvation. And like the Israelites in the desert, we still today need a saviour, a healer, a way to be made right with God. We need the poisonous venom in our blood healed, we need a transfusion, we need the blood of the lamb. And there’s only one way, The way, the truth, and the life. It is Jesus. That is the Gospel, the good news. That God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

I leave you with a quote:

 “As Christians, we seek to be instructed by God, thus from a theological perspective we do not presume to already know or to understand what is wrong. Even the knowledge of sin and evil is often a matter of revelation. We rely upon the Holy Spirit and Scripture to illuminate our individual and societal wrongdoing, and we approach the Bible with open minds and prayerful hearts.” (Paul Scott Wilson, in The Four Pages of the Sermon.)

May our hearts and minds be open, and may we prayerfully ask Jesus to shine his light of truth on our lives so that we may more fully believe in him. Amen.

Comfort, don’t Kill

One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen was called, “How to Die in Oregon,” which came out in 2011 and chronicled three people’s deaths – on film (two of which we heard audio but they did not film the actual act).

It was heart-rending, understandably. These were the last moments of life for people. They were surrounded by friends, and/or or family. They didn’t want to be a burden anymore. They didn’t want to suffer anymore.

I read this quote from the LA Times which furthers the point that death is often chosen not out of physical but mental pain. Here is the article (written by a M.D. who works with palliative care patients).

In the 1990s, proponents in Oregon campaigned to legalize physician-assisted suicide in cases of unrelievable physical suffering. Oregon Health Authority research, however, shows that more than 75% of those who took that option didn’t cite pain as a concern. Their issues were emotional or existential: feeling a burden to family, loss of autonomy or inability to do things they enjoy.

THAT is a problem in society, a problem in our families and a problem in ourselves. Our inability to face the hard things does not make the easy way good or right. It means we need more than what we’ve currently got to deal with the hard things.

Two out of the three people in the documentary said – after they had drank the Gatorade-mixed-with-little-white-pills – “It’s so easy,” as if in surprise. Their vision – and their life – faded. The loss of their life wasn’t any easier on those who loved them. Their friends and family still lost their mother/father/friend. But instead of their presence, there was just emptiness, there was just … absence. The story ended sooner, it didn’t end better.

We are inextricably linked to those who die. It is never impersonal. 

Doctors and their patients are made of the same stuff, and if we’re legalizing some humans to kill other humans, we are ultimately making murder ok by calling it something else. And murder affects us. It changes our society. Just ask soldiers.

War is never a neutral act, wherever it takes place. In a hospital room or on a battle field, in an interrogation room or in the middle east, just because we can’t see the harm done doesn’t make it unseen, unfelt, undone. 

Attempted suicide was once illegal. If you survived your suicide attempt, you’d get thrown in jail. The idea is – you don’t have the right to take anyone’s life, not even your own. There was an idea that your life belonged to the community, because you were a child/mother/sister/friend/coworker/neighbour/citizen. There was an idea that you belonged… here…because you were one of us, and we wanted you. Obviously, we came to realize that the mental anguish someone is going through who is willing to try to take their own life is EXACERBATED by prison. We realized that a person shouldn’t go to jail, instead, we should try to help them. Punishment sent a message that what they did was wrong, but rehabilitation sent a more powerful one: why it was wrong.

We – as a society – cannot sustain ourselves if our suffering turns us against each other rather than towards each other. Whether we’re killing ourselves, or getting someone to assist, we are hurting all those around us more than if we were to just keep on. Our lack, as a society, in our support for the elderly, the sick, and the dying – and for those that love and care for the elderly, the sick, and the dying, is not something that we can solve on our own.

There is something greater than compassion, which can be used as the motivation to kill “out of compassion.” Above compassion is love. Love is patient. Sitting, waiting, suffering-alongside. Love always breeds life, never death. Love is self-less, pours itself out for the other, at the ultimate cost.

Jesus knew selflessness. He gave himself to us, his death for our life.

And that life is not some merely physical life, but life with him. Not life happily ever after.  Not life wealthy, and prosperous. He didn’t die so that we wouldn’t suffer. Instead our wealth would be in Him, our happiness would be in Him, and our suffering would be redeemed in Him. When this limited, pain-filled life, where death seems to be the end, leaves us sorrowful, in HIM we can see something different. We can see resurrection, in Him. In this life, in this world, we will have suffering, but take heart, he says, for I have overcome the world. Our God is here, with us, emmanuel, every. single. deeply-pain-filled moment, every glimmer of hope and every dashed one, he is greater than our deepest lows and loves us longer than we can live. He loves us and brings us through death to something more after it. You may not have what it takes to face death – your own, or the death of those you love – but he has faced death, and offers a hopeful word. He has defeated that darkness, that absence, with his eternal presence. He is with you, and he is with those you love, loving more than you can, and carrying us safely to where we need to go. Carrying us to that distant shore where all that is sad will become untrue. 

Thanks be to God.

Juxtaposition

Dear The Auld Spot,

Tonight I visited your fine establishment and had a fantastic time. You are a pub with great food, and great drinks, and great decor. It was cozy, warm and beautiful in its own right. I’m quite happy with the service and location. Would recommend!

However, at the end of my stay there I visited the washrooms, and saw this:

Shining Heres Johnny Jack Nicholson
For the gents, to the left, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the iconic “Here’s Johnny” face.
and beside it, to the right, the equally iconic shower scene from Psycho.
and beside it, to the right, the equally iconic shower scene from Psycho.

I instantly “got it”. I know it’s supposed to be funny, right? First you see Jack Nicholson, and then you see a woman screaming (different movie, but same idea). Jack Nicholson saying ‘here’s Johnny!’ is kinda awesome. But in the juxtaposition it told a story – I saw a perpetrator of violence against women, and the reaction of a woman who was experiencing the horror of violence against her. Jack Nicholson isn’t just Johnny now, he transcends the boundaries of his movie and becomes symbolic of the violator *because* he has been paired with an image of the violated, murdered woman in another film. Then there’s another thing – these are both bathroom scenes when a man crosses a boundary with intent to kill, and what you’ve done is made them the symbolic representatives identifying the two sexes and “welcoming” them at the entrances to the washrooms. These photos are labels, to their functional extent, and men-as-violators and women-as-victims simply cannot be acceptable, as good for a laugh or considered appropriate decor.

I don’t believe you intended to give the impression that you thought women should identify as victims, or that you should remind them as they walk into your washrooms that women are often murdered in this supposed sanctuary. Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I suspect it was likely an afterthought to pair the two photos, because the Here’s Johnny image is awesome, and it kinda makes sense to have a reaction shot to its right. I bear no ill will, but since complaints without solutions are annoying, here are some alternatives:

Criteria: Iconic female film stars, and humorous in juxtaposition with Jack.

1. Mila Jovovich, the Fifth Element. She's a badass, a strong woman, and this movie is a sci-fi cult classic.
1. Mila Jovovich, the Fifth Element. She’s a badass, a strong woman, and film is a sci-fi cult classic.
2. Princess Leia, serious business. She doesn't get to do much in this movie, but she doesn't look like she's gunna get murdered anytime soon, either.  Same era as The Shining, too.
2. Princess Leia, serious business. She doesn’t get to do much in this movie, but she doesn’t look like she’s gunna get murdered anytime soon, either. Same era as The Shining, too.
4. I don't think I have to explain why this photo is awesome. The movie is a cult classic, and it's Uma Thurman, who later kills bill (reversing gender stereotypes, yay!).
3. I don’t think I have to explain why this photo is awesome. The movie is a cult classic, and it’s Uma Thurman, who later kills bill (reversing gender stereotypes, yay!).
4. Wonder Woman. Nuff said.
4. Wonder Woman. Nuff said.
Nostalgia much? Sarah Connor in the Terminator. Or possible Terminator 2. Who can keep track? All I know is Arnold is reprising his role for another installment of the franchise soon and he's approximately 100 years old. This woman is a badass.
5. Nostalgia much? Sarah Connor in the Terminator. Or possible Terminator 2. Who can keep track? All I know is Arnold is reprising his role for another installment of the franchise soon and he’s approximately 100 years old. This woman is a badass.

Whatever you choose, please realize you tell a story by pairing those images together, and any sort of scared or vulnerable-looking woman is not a good idea.

That’s a long letter, but I thought it necessary to give an explanation because it’s no fun getting complaints especially if they seem unreasonable at first – I consider this something that is important to me, and likely to other women as well. I hope that you can see the situation from my perspective, and that things can change without any hard feelings.

I wish you all the best and look forward to the next time I get to dine at your fine establishment!

Sincerely,
-Christine Ivy

Little Thinker

There was an infant baptism today at church. Two of them. It was pretty special. But before the service, I was trying to learn a new song with a kid who has been coming to Sunday school for a while now. The song went a little something like this:

God’s great love, God sent his son to die for us, so that we could know Him (or something like that, I haven’t learned the song very well yet).

Now this song is not perfect – as the following conversation with a child will show – the emphasis on death instead of Christ rising again proved a bit of a downer, but it’s a key part of our faith, and I suppose it’s important to acknowledge no song will ever tell the whole story of our faith.

Here’s a mostly-accurate representation of the conversation with the Little Thinker in second grade, who had just heard this song for the first time.

I wish there was no such thing as people dying. 

I wish that in baptism, that something would happen in the water so that you’d get to live forever. I wish that if you were baptized you wouldn’t die. 

So, seeing the beautiful heart of God reflected in this young soul, I said, “What’s so awesome is that we believe that you live forever…you die, of course, but after that, you go to heaven, and heaven is like earth except perfect. There’s no tears in heaven.” (I drew my fingers down over my cheeks).

What continent is heaven on? Asked the Little Thinker, who did not like this new information, and seemed dubious. I explained that people used to think heaven was up, but now… well, I didn’t get to that. The Little Thinker interrupted, correcting me –

But you can’t move in heaven. Because when you’re dead you don’t move.

And I said, “But we believe that Jesus died and rose again so that we get to live like Jesus did, it’s called eternal life. You just get to jump and dance and have fun in heaven.”

You’re talking in opposites. Dead people don’t move.

But we believe that there is life after death! 

I know my opposites, test me!

What’s the opposite of pepper?

Salt!

Up?

Down!

And that was the end of that.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Have you ever read about Bill Gates? About how he left Microsoft in 2006 to work full time with his wife at their foundation (a foundation is like a company that gives money to organizations that already exist). Their job is deciding how to give away their money. Makes sense that that would be a full time job, hmm? When you’re Bill Gates, at least.

Here’s a sermon series on How to Be Rich.

BeRich_580x326

Now are we being radically generous? Are we limiting spending on ourselves in order to give sacrificially, and do extraordinary things with our money? Are we living – day in, day out, month in, month out – in a way that shows in real dollars given, that we believe this life isn’t all there is and that being a Christian makes us different from the cultural norm of consumerism and selfishness.

world-vision-gifts

Aiight. So maybe you’ve given a goat to your grandmother for Christmas. Do that, if Grandma really cares about giving goats to the goatless. But if Grandma doesn’t? Give the goat anyway, and tell no one. Or do something that means something to you.

Here are charities I personally believe in:

CAMH

WorldVision

United Way

CNIB 

Whether it’s twenty dollars worth of food for the food bank, or a cheque for $200, or charging two-thousand (that you can afford to pay off!) – give. Often and freely and generously and without telling anyone (teach your kids though). Make your bank account a Christian – make it follow in the footsteps of Christ. Heal the sick, give sight to the blind, feed thousands. Because you have been given the power to do so.

Merry Christmas! Start a foundation with your spouse! After all, you’re rich!

Do you want to build a snowman?

No. I don’t. It’s too mainstream.

Seriously though, the snow is cold and icy, and I don’t want to go out alone.

10864721_380002628832519_568511260_n
FRIENDSHIP: “The snow is cold and icy, but you are snug and warm.”

(The quote from the above illustration is from a children’s book, where a lion has a tiny bird-friend in its cap, and they are going tobogganing. I cut this out from a magazine and keep it next to my desk at work.)

I love this picture. I love the idea that the world can be cold, uncomfortable, unforgiving, barren, and ICY… brrr…cold shoulders everywhere. You aren’t wanted. Who wants to go out in that?

But a friend…a friend is snug and warm.

A friend protects you, goes with you.

My current Christmas Eve plan is to teach the kids that God is with us, all of us, even after Christmas day… in fact, he’s with us always. One of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was …

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (New International Version)
And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age
. (New Living Translation)
and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (King James c. 1611)
behold, I am with you every day, even unto the end of time. Amen (Aramaic in Plain English)

Do you see? He is with us! For all time. In all seasons. No matter how we feel about it… he is there.

And it’s not as some mythologized Santa big brother, where he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake! He knows you in your darkness… he’s not giving up on you, he’s not holding out on you, he’s given over to holding on to you. Through thick and thin, in sickness and in health.

Elsa in Frozen has some mental health issues from a childhood trauma. Her fears are a prison for her. She can’t go out so she lives alone. Christ is like the one knocking on the door day after day asking her to go out and live life … with him.

He’s not some moral ethics teacher, saying, “Do you want to build a snowman? Because you really should go do that. I’ll be over here.” No, his teachings are, “This is what life is for, let’s go live life together.”

What I need in this cold, hard world is for my heart to be held… by the one who calls us his friends. That friendship isn’t fairweather, it’s there in the cold and ice, as a source of security and strength. And Christ demonstrated his friendship – it’s not just in title alone – by his very presence, God with us, Emmanuel. For Christmas, and for all time. God with us.

Peace

Do you see the problem here?

aaaa
Screenshot from an email from Christianbook.com

1) It’s not black friday again.

2) A book for women by a woman covered in pink faux leather talking about peace (because women have anxiety/hysteria). Oh the swirls. We like swirls and filigree because swirls rhymes with girls and we are delicate flowers and wear lace.

3) Juxtaposition of John Hagee’s fear-mongering doomsday book with a prediction about as specific as one can be when it comes to the end of days…, “SOMETHING…..is about to change.”

FFFFUUUUUU

Unfriending

It’s obvious, but needs me a good remindin’, that not everyone called “Friend” on Facebook is a friend. It’s why I don’t care about everything I see on my newsfeed and despite vigilant unfollowing nevertheless find myself overwhelmed by how much must be scrolled past (#firstworldproblems).

I went through my Friends list today and removed over a hundred people. It’s not much but it’s a small stab at the problem of information overload and I hope my newsfeed is better for it.

I doubt the cleansing is over (sinister laugh).

To be frank, though, I’m not concerned that I’m becoming a heartless sociopath, because I care about many hundreds of people in my life and on FB, in my circles of friends and acquaintances. Facebook, unfortunately, has become a place where there are so many people sharing intimate details of their life (family photos) it’s like a white noise of baby announcements and timed runs and OMYGOSHEVERYONEISPREGNANT.

*ahem* Anyway.

I drew this, with regards to how scrolling through my FB newsfeed can make me feel like everyone is pregnant or has babies, when in reality, it’s just Facebook: land of young moms:

FBboolean

There is a disproportionate amount of newborns and pregnancies on FB because of how effective it is at disseminating adorable baby photos to family & friends (the people that actually care). Some I’m able to ignore but sometimes it feels awkward…like I’m standing in a room full of strangers who are friends with each other but not me and I’m wondering why I’m even there. Or it’s like being forced to stare at an advertisement while waiting for a bus or subway to arrive – an ad for Coca-Cola or LifeMates – you might be able to ignore it if you hate coke or are happily mated, but if you’re lonely or thirsty that day the ads just make you feel it more acutely.

THUS, the cleansing.

Time to make Facebook a little FRIENDLIER and a little less STRANGE (because I’m unfriending the relative strangers on my friends list… in case that wasn’t clear).

Know thy audience

I find it hard to be motivated to write here when I don’t know who I’m writing for. Who is my audience? (WHO ARE YOU, READER?)

The Good News isn’t good news in a vacuum, it’s not news unless there’s an audience with a history. Newness implies there is oldness, some sort of context. Con text. With text. With words. What are your words, what’s your story that creates a landscape, that create a dialogue, to receive good news?

There is a place to preach gospel to myself. A personal blog is a good place for that.

But I want to preach gospel to you.

Who is in the congregation behind the glowing screen?

(and out in the ether the question hangs)

life is short and sweet

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.