Second Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020
This is a true story of a colleague of mine.
Years ago, a young pastor was serving in a local church appointment not long after graduating from seminary in a United Methodist church in a small town in the deep south. While serving there, he found himself one night at a meeting of the Church Council when one of the items on the agenda was the fact that they had to find a new volunteer church treasurer, as their current treasurer had decided to step down. The office of church treasurer is not easy in any size church, so that congregation’s leadership would have to give a good deal of thought to determining who the new church treasurer would be.
Normally, what would happen in one of our churches is that the matter would be referred to the Committee on Nominations and Leadership Development, who would consider the gifts and graces of the members of the congregation, and then submit a nominee for the position back to the Church Council for approval. However, at that meeting on that night, before the nominating committee ever had a chance to meet, upon hearing that there was a vacancy for this volunteer position, a man raised his hand and said, “I’ll do it. Make me the treasurer.”
The right thing to do would have been to have taken the matter under advisement and allowed the requisite committee to meet and then come back to the Church Council. However, this man volunteering was the son-in-law of the most respected man in not only that church, but in the entire town. So, the Council did something uncharacteristic: they voted the son-in-law into office as church treasurer right then and there.
Some months passed and one Saturday morning, the pastor was home in the parsonage with his wife, his oldest son who was a toddler, and his youngest son who was an infant, when the pastor noticed the pickup truck of the church treasurer in the driveway. The treasurer was in the cab, yet not getting out, just sitting there, so the pastor left the house and approached the truck on the driver’s side.
The treasurer rolled down the window and said, “Get in, preacher. I need to talk to you.”
So, the pastor got into the truck and closed the door. When he did, he noticed a sweatshirt in the lap of the treasurer, which the treasurer proceeded to unfold, revealing a pistol lying on his lap. He looked at his pastor and said, “I need to talk to you about the church treasury.
“Those times when I said I was out of town, traveling for work, I was really going to the casinos on the Mississippi River. I was gambling using my own money, but I got into trouble, and I thought that if I kept gambling, I could win back the money I had lost, and no one would ever know. But I kept losing. Still, I thought I was due to win, and I could win back all that I had lost. The problem was that I had lost everything I had to play with, so I took some money from the church, thinking that I would just have one big win, and I would pay back the church and then pay myself back, and no one would ever know, but it didn’t work, and I lost the church’s money —a lot of the church’s money.
As this sunk in, the pastor began to have a horrible thought: I am the only other person who knows this, and he has that weapon, and he is going to kill me, and then he is going to kill himself.
They sat there in that truck for hours. The pastor’s wife came out to the truck, and the treasurer covered the weapon. It was cold outside, so she asked them if they wanted to come inside to talk. No, No. We’re fine. We are just talking. “You sure?” Really. It’s OK. Just go back in the house.
“Do you want some coffee? Something to eat?” No, really, we are fine. Thanks, anyway. “You sure?” Really. It’s OK. Just go back in the house.
And as the morning turned to afternoon, they sat there in the cab of that truck, each waiting for whatever was going to happen next. The ne’er-do-well son-in-law of the most respected man in the town, trying to imagine a life in that small community bearing the mark of the shame of what he had done, and the young pastor, husband, and father, looking through the windshield at his parsonage home and thinking about his young wife and his two babies inside, who now suddenly seemed so very far away.
Martin Luther famously called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature;” everything that we know about God in Jesus Christ said in one short sentence to Nicodemus, a leader of the religious establishment, under the cover of darkness. We know the verse perhaps better than any other text in the Bible–it is the “Amazing Grace” of scripture, the small piece of scripture that even people outside of the church have heard and know.
“The gospel in miniature,” even today. I suppose that is the reason this verse is the one that is held up on signs in the crowd at football games, as if it were God’s “elevator speech” for belief in God. Love me, for I have loved you enough to give unto you of myself, to give that which is most precious to me.
There is a temptation for us, because we are such doers, to only really, truly hear the word, the verb that represents our responsibility in all of this: the word believe. This is likely why most of the people who bring those “John 3:16” posters into the bleachers, to remind us of the crucial importance of belief; belief in God, belief in Jesus Christ, his son our savior, belief in his atoning death, belief in his resurrection from the dead.
It is a greater ask than we sometimes wish to admit. Who is this God who requires belief? And why is this God not more visible, especially when there exists suffering on a global scale, when the unjust prosper, when prayers seem to go unanswered. In other words, why can’t belief sometimes just be a little easier?
And doesn’t belief put too much responsibility upon us? When I am at the eye doctor and he asks me through which lens the eye chart looks the best, I find myself thinking, “I have a degree in theology. You are an optometrist. Why are you asking my opinion on this matter?” It was one of the objections that those predestination-believing Calvinists had against those non-predestinarian Christians from the Arminian side: if you say that humans are required to choose believe to be saved, you are placing too much of the onus upon sinful humans who are far too broken to ever choose the right thing, to ever choose salvation, to ever choose Christ.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes the text far too much about what we must do and far too little about who God is, far too little about how far God is willing to go for us and for this world, far too little about what God is willing to give for the sake of our belief.
Certainly, God implores us to believe. And yet, for that one thing that God requires of us (belief), God has done three things: loved the world, given God’s only begotten son, and provided everlasting life. As such, if you and I are in for a penny, the God who seeks our belief is the God who is in for a pound. Perhaps this is why John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature: because it is exponentially more about who God is and what God has done than who we are or what is required of us.
Were it up to me, those poster board signs in the bleachers at the football games would not read “John 3:16.” Instead, they would read “John 3:16-17” for this simple reason: that seventeenth verse is the most succinct statement of why God acts as God does in Jesus Christ, and it is the most succinct statement of who God is, a correction of our frequent projections upon God, our frequent misunderstanding of who God actually is, stated beautifully in the words of the one who himself was given to the world so that the world might be saved, stated beautifully in the words of the one who would be crucified to bring it all to bear: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. It is for many the great surprise of Christian theology: that God is a God of mercy and grace.
Were it up to us, I believe that even amidst these two beautiful verses, we would prefer that it all could have happened a different way. On Good Friday, when Jesus considers asking for it to all be called off, we are right there with him. We do not want to admit that we are sinners, and if we are honest, we do not wish for anyone to have to die for us, for our wrong priorities, for our wrong decisions, for our wrong thoughts, for our wrong actions and wrong desires, for the things we do, and for the things we leave undone.
For our sin.
We would greatly prefer to always think of sin in the universal sense, where everyone is a sinner, and everyone sins than we would confess that I am a sinner, that you are a sinner, that each of us sins. As such, we would prefer that God chose another way, for if Jesus died for sinners, then Jesus died for me, and there is no denying who I am, no more denying my sinfulness as we walk together through these Lenten lands.
And yet, Jesus does die for sinners. It is what he does. It is who Jesus is.
As the morning turned to afternoon, they sat there in the cab of that truck, each waiting for whatever was going to happen next. The ne’er-do-well son-in-law of the most respected man in the town, trying to imagine a life in that small community bearing the mark of the shame of what he had done, and the young pastor, husband, and father, looking through the windshield at his parsonage home and thinking about his young wife and his two babies inside, who now suddenly seemed so very far away.
They heard a car in the driveway behind them, and they both looked in the side mirrors, and they both recognized the car. The driver side door opened, and a woman got out.
It was the treasurer’s wife.
She approached the pickup on the driver’s side and motioned for her husband to roll down the window, and when he did, she looked at him and she said, “My father knows what you did. He has paid your debt. You can come home now.”
And that is exactly what he did.
My father knows what you did. He has paid your debt. You can come home now. It is the gospel in three short sentences, sentences that come at the end of a story that demonstrates what Paul means in the first chapter of his first epistle to Timothy when we writes “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” As we gather together during Lent in preparation for Holy Week, we are forced to face three irrefutable facts: our own sin, God’s promise of salvation, and the point that Jesus makes to Nicodemus that Nicodemus struggled to understand, which is that we need not wait until we have experienced physical death to experience the reality of salvation. Salvation is here. It is now, a new beginning, repenting–dying to what is old and being born again, born to what is new, in this life, here, now.
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, the twentieth-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In a few moments, we are going to see exactly what this looks like when Brian and Jennifer Sullivan receive the sacrament of baptism. They will come into this chancel, kneel before this baptismal font, and right before our eyes, they are going to die, and they are going to rise again. In the vows they take and in the ways they will promise to live, they will renounce old ways and embrace God’s new way, a way provided for us by the One who also died, and who was raised for us. They will receive the living water that washes away all sin, and then they will rise as the newly reborn, right before our eyes.
In other words, they will remind us exactly why Reveille exists.
My father knows what you did. He has paid your debt. You can come home now. It is the gospel in three sentences, a living out of the two verses I read at the outset of this sermon. God is a God of love, mercy, and grace, even at the greatest expense to God. It is a promise of hope for all people, for you, for me, for Reveille, for the world.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.