Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

Rev. Don Stauty 

"No Condemnation"

Romans 8.1-11

I walk just about every morning. It’s a time to allow me to think without distractions. Many times, while walking I have written newsletter articles, sermons, and letters in my head, ready to be typed when I get home. Such it is with this sermon.

In the first hundred yards of walking I had an idea of talking about how Jesus just loves the stuffing out of you and that everything is beautiful, in its own way. But the further I walked, the less appealing that theme became and the more I focused on the Gospel text, and not the “I am the resurrection and the life,” either.  I focused my attention on this: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” And the more I thought of that line, the more I came to realize that we have deluded ourselves in our piety to thinking we are disciples of Christ. 

Here’s why.  When I awoke Thursday morning, I read the commentary on John by D.A. Carson for the Gospel text- John 11.1-45. For some reason, the issue of Jesus being ‘greatly troubled’ struck me as the center of the lesson. The rest is window dressing when one thinks of it. He went to raise Lazarus from the dead- that was made evident in the beginning of the chapter. Why would Jesus be upset at his friend’s death; Jesus is the resurrection and the life, after all. So in this setting of Mary and Martha and the professional mourners all carrying on as if the world had ended, Jesus looked at them and he was not “deeply moved in the spirit and greatly troubled.” Carson, and others, have translated these words to mean “he was outraged in spirit, and troubled.” The sound that Jesus made in extra-biblical Greek is “the snorting of horses;” as it applies to humans, it suggests anger, outrage, and my favorite, emotional indignation. The spirit here is not the Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ inner self; his inward reaction to what he was seeing before him is anger or outrage or indignation. When we reduce such language to “oh, poor Jesus was upset” is to do it a major disservice. But perhaps that is the language of the day and the culture. We don’t want a Jesus who would show any emotion toward us humans but a Mr. Robert’s-like “you are all beautiful in your own way” Jesus. Here, let me wade into your distress and share it with you since there is nothing any of us can do anyway. Hardly.

So what the object of his anger, outrage, and emotional indignation? Two things. First of all, his indignation was brought on by Mary’s and the others weeping. He was moved by their grief and is angry that sin, sickness and death in this fallen world has wreaked such havoc and generates so much grief. Secondly, he was outraged that these people who were carrying on like a bunch of pagans, like the rest of men who have no hope but that which is before them. Theirs was a grief that degenerated into despair, that poured out of them as if there were no resurrection [even though Martha had just confessed it and one could safely assume Mary believed the same thing, as they both expressed faith in Jesus!]- and so even while they believed in the resurrection, in the face of the death of their brother they threw it all away. Jesus didn’t pat them on the back and say “There, there, it will be okay.” No, Jesus’ reaction was anger, outrage, and emotional indignation. 

I thought of the disciples walking with Jesus when he said, “Let us go to Judea again.” OH,NO! “The Jews are just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” When he said that Lazarus had fallen asleep, they were relieved. Whew! “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Rather like a good bit of quiet will do for you when you have a cold. The trip to Judea isn’t necessary. We’re safe! And then the bombshell; “Lazarus has died… But let us go to him.” Thomas here speaks for them all when he said, “Let us also go with you, that we may die with him.” It’s all over…pan to the downcast looks of the disciples, the shuffling feet as men going to the gallows, the “it’s all over but the crying” scene. 

I thought of the Jews who look at Jesus and note how he loved Lazarus but his tears weren’t of despair as were their own. They remembered the healing of the man born blind and wonder why Jesus, someone so powerful, couldn’t do something here. Jesus could have prevented the death of his friend. They are confused and puzzled. But to even ask the question reveals their massive unbelief- the unbelief of a person whose faith does not rest on who Jesus is and what he has revealed of the Father, but on displays of power. “Give us a miracle, Lord. Make coronavirus go away so we can get back to life!” 

Which brought me to think of our common table prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus.” I got thinking if that is what we would really like to see happen- Jesus descend into our midst and walk around as he did in his earthly ministry, looking upon us in our unbelief of what Christ has revealed of the Father- that he has overcome sin, death, and the devil that we might have life everlasting? Would he look upon us with the same anger, outrage, and emotional indignation with which he looked upon the assembly at the tomb of Lazarus and snort in disgust at our behaving like this life is all that there is, emmeshed in the ways of the culture? Would he shake his head at our half-hearted prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” even as we forget that everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body because Christ wants us to realized that our entire life and that of everyone depends on God?  Or would Jesus wonder at our pietistic uttering of “He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him,” [Ps 91.15] and then at the first sign of calamity run for cover under the wings of the pagan gods of our world? 

So can Jesus be angry and loving at the same time, as we see it in the Gospel text? In our way of thinking, to be angry with someone is inconsistent with being loving and emphatic toward that person. But with Jesus, this breaks down. This is the Jesus who in one breath could utter his terrible “woes” and yet grieve over the city of Jerusalem. Take it further; you, like “the rest…were by nature objects of [God’s] wrath, [Eph. 2.3] even while “in love he predestined us to adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” [Eph. 1.4-5]  So it is here. The one who always does what pleases his Father [Jn. 8.29] is indignant when faced with attitudes that are not governed by what the Father has revealed. If sin, illness, and death, all devastating features of this fallen world, elicit his wrath, it is hard to see how unbelief can be excluded. But the world, which is at enmity with God, is also the subject of his love [Jn. 3.16].

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” The same sin and death, the same unbelief, that prompted his outrage also generated his grief. The two can go hand in hand.

And as I walked I thought of the next few weeks and what may transpire. Palm Sunday, my favorite of Holy Week, is next week- will we be joyfully singing our Hosanna’s! or hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews? I thought of Maundy Thursday when Jesus told his disciples that “the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone.” [Jn.16.32] I thought of Good Friday when Jesus is abandoned by his disciples and even by his Father- alone in his hour of sacrifice for my sin and your sin. Too often those are the parts we skip- like fast forward in a movie- but our goal is Easter with the lilies and the breakfast and the joyful hymns. But without the other pieces we are ill equipped to face the world in which we live.

Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” [Mk. 834ff]  Augustine wrote that ‘the first destruction of man, was love of himself…” This was the case with Adam, the father of all who brought sin into the world, who wanted to be “God,” who fell into temptation and away from the promises of God. We are to take up our cross, to follow Jesus, to bear whatever trouble we have, through death and to the resurrection. In other words, to be faithful to the Word of God in all circumstances. Even in the face of pandemics. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake [alive] or asleep [dead] we might live with him. Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” [I Thes. 5.9]

St. Paul wrote that “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” [Rom 8.6] You received the Holy Spirit at your baptism- you were marked as one redeemed by Christ. Spirit-filled, you live upon the threshold of the world to come, you breathe the air of the new world of God.  The working of the Spirit within you is the guarantee to God’s people, to you, that you shall enter into the eternal inheritance. You are God’s children, destined for the new and unending life with the Son in all of his glory. And this is not for the future only; it is yours today as the glory of the world to come shines on you now, as day by day you grown more like the Lord of glory, whose you are. 

In the days ahead, we come face to face with Jesus on the cross, taking our sin upon himself that we might have life. Because of Christ, there is no condemnation for those who are his- you are free to live, here and now and forever. 

So “let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” for he will take us through whatever this world is facing, whatever the enemies of God can conjure up, whatever we in our own weakness of flesh can compromise…for Jesus alone is “seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” 

 

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020 

"An Amazing Thing"

Rev. Don Stauty

John 9.1-41

Most likely you have seen one of those pictures where they may be a mountain stream but as you look closely you notice other things- a mountain lion, a bear, a wolf, maybe a person…they all seem to pop up the closer you look.  But if you take a casual glance at the picture all you see is the mountain stream.

So it is this morning with the Gospel text.  If one takes a casual glance at the text you find Jesus, his disciples, the Pharisees, a blind man and his parents, and a few others.  The immediate thought of course is that this is a miracle of Jesus, which it is, and without digging into the text, while correct, it becomes almost superficial.  There is a lot more to this text than meets the eye. Because if you look closely, you will find among the participants other things that pop right out at you; things like grace, confession, belief and unbelief, sight and blindness, sin and self-righteousness and even judgment. 

Generally speaking, the account is of a man born blind who is encountered by Jesus. The man, with no means of support, is forced into begging.  The disciples wonder who sinned; this man or his parents.  It was taught by the religious leaders of the day that he had either sinned in the womb or his parents sinned, which implicated him. While no one could deny that a specific illness or experience CAN be the result of sin- like steal something and go to jail- Scripturally this is not supported. The disciples haven’t moved beyond the friends of Job who tried to comfort him and declared him to be in the wrong and was being punished. Jesus brushes this aside when he says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  And then the clincher: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one work.” 

How many times have you heard this account of the blind man and slid right over those words of Jesus, getting to the majour part of the passage?  The blind man is the mountain stream of the picture, but hidden in the background are those words- “that the works of God might be displayed…WE must work the works of him who sent me.”  These few words are the very core and crux of this passage and the amazing thing is that the words are as pertinent today as they were when Christ spoke them to his disciples.

Because the miracle is not the central point; the miracle is a sign that the work of the Father- that all people be saved from sin and death- as it is mediated through Jesus – the light of the world- is brought to those living in the darkness of sin. Jesus brought “night” upon many Jewish leaders who refused to open their eyes to the light- refused to recognize Christ for who he is- even though they thought themselves well versed in God’s Word and in the traditions of Moses. Implied in those words are the exclusiveness of Christ as the “one sent by” the Father as only way to be right with God; “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Jn 14.6  The other part of this is that, by implication, it would be disastrous for people to compound the original rejection of Jesus while he ministered on earthy by rejecting the disciples and those who would follow as well.  Jesus, in his High Priestly Prayer prior to his crucifixion, reiterates these words when he says “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Jn 17.23 

Notice that the man formerly blind is anonymous. In this way he represents all of humanity- even you. He has received the saving work of Christ- given light where there was only darkness, life where there was only death, just as have you in your baptism. The healed man has never seen Jesus, yet he knows his name and believes that this gift of sight is from his hand. St. Peter would write in his first epistle that “Though you have not seen him, you love him.  Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy…” From the uncertain fate of darkness and an uncertain future as a beggar the man is brought to life and joy fills him. From the certain fate of death through sin, Christ has raised you to be his own and to give you his gifts. The man was in no position to help himself from his situation.  The law, represented by the Pharisees, has dismissed him as a sinner deserving the fate which was his.  Jesus takes the initiative and comes to him- the washing in the pool is the blind man’s bath of salvation.  Sight came from the man’s obedience, but sight didn’t come from the pool but from the one Sent by God the Father. 

There is confusion in the streets!  The people haul the healed man to the Pharisees- they would know what’s going on. But they have their own issues- there is division in their ranks. The laws read that there was to be no work on the Sabbath, and kneading mud and spittle together constituted work!  There was question as to whether anointing eyes on the Sabbath was legal as well. Others of the Pharisees find it hard that Jesus could be a sinner- he did a miracle!  But this argument is worthless- miracles are not an infallible guide to spiritual authority. The Pharisees, steeped in the tradition of Moses, should have remembered that even as Moses’ staff turned into a snake, so did the staffs of the Egyptian magicians. This is a real quandary. Without unity in the ranks how can they present a united front against Jesus?  They ask the man what had happened, but his testimony wasn’t enough. They launch their full inquiry. They call in the parents to testify. Right son? Check. Was he really blind? Check. “How he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age.” While the parents affirm the healing, they tap dance on the specifics of how it occurred. One could be charitable and think that they didn’t know. But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? That he sees would release them from the stigma that one of them sinned and the son payed the price, or that the son sinned himself. There has to be something else.

The something else is that the synagogue was the common thread of the people of the day, and one was either “in” or “out.” John notes that they said these things to avoid being excommunicated from the synagogue. Jesus’ ministry was bringing people to him in faith as the One sent by the Father.  Expulsion of people who were turning to Jesus was happening as the degree of hostility between the Pharisees and Jesus increased; a hostility that would result in his crucifixion. So note that the parents are anonymous as well. They are not Jerry and Rhonda Smith, because they too represent a larger group. They are examples of those people who know the truth of Christ but do not step over the line with courageous witness. Rather, they dodge and twist and turn and finally send it back to the son. Already the confession of Jesus was becoming a nuisance to the authorities. How often have you dodged and twisted and finally mutter something like “we all have our beliefs” or “I don’t talk about religion” or any number of other nuances? It is interesting to note that the Synoptic Gospels insist that Jesus, during his earthly ministry, enunciated a test of discipleship that included a public confession of Jesus. “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Mt. 10.32  The Beatitudes also speak of it: “Blessed are YOU when others revile you and persecute you…on account of me.” Mt. 5,11 But the faith of the parents was strong enough to act with courage before the authorities.

It’s tough. But one must either identify with the parents or with the man healed whose eyes are opened, who confesses his new found faith even in the face of distinguished opposition, and whose eyes are opened to the truth. The Pharisees push one more time: “Give glory to God,” they say to the man. But it doesn’t mean “praise God for what he has done,” but “Tell the truth.” And the truth they seek is the truth they want to hear. But you have to like this guy. Before the most powerful group of its day he asks, sarcastically,  if they would like to hear his confession again, or maybe even become disciples of Jesus. This is too much. His decisive faith is exhibited by his personal witness- he doesn’t claim to know everything, but confesses what he knows. He couldn’t see; now he does. I was blind, and now I see. The response of such a confession of faith is met then, and similarly today, with insults and rudeness, responses no doubt springing from a conscience pricked by calling sin, sin. The man’s words stung. They opt for personal abuse rather than an even handed evaluation of the evidence. The bottom line, of course, is that the authorities KNOW that God spoke to Moses – they knew because the read it- and they don’t know Jesus. And that’s amazing as well, for such a reaction is still prevalent among those who “Know God…”  But if they rightly understood Moses, if they knew God, they would grasp who it was who did the healing. In their self righteousness they ignore the words that would herald the Messianic age- “the deaf shall hear, out of darkness and gloom the blind shall see” written by Isaiah.29.18  They excommunicate the man. If he were cut off from society before because of his blindness and begger-status, his isolation is even greater now. 

But there is, and always will be, a separation between the children of light and the children of darkness. The Pharisees rejected the light and the healed man had been opened to it.  The opposition of the authorities testifies that they are blind- not right. Once again Jesus takes the initiative as he seeks out the man and brings him to faith. One must note that often, and most importantly, mature faith is frequently the consequence of decisive breaks- in this case the break from the synagogue, but it may also be a break from friends, acquaintances, even church bodies which preach a gospel other than Christ, rather than the condition by which one comes to maturity in faith. The man came to the end of his confidence in religions of man: “Lord, I believe.” 

“If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” In order to bring grace, it must also give offense.  In order to be grace it must uncover sin- and those who resist this binds themselves to their sin. And those who insist that they see- making pronouncements regarding the things of God- are wrong and reject the true light.

The healed man is every man. It takes a certain poverty of spirit, an abasement of personal pride – especially one’s religious opinions- and a candid acknowledgment of spiritual blindness –of sin- to receive spiritual sight at the hands of Christ. One either is in the light- or in the darkness. And a religion, and its adherents, that is the warp of the social fabric it finds itself in cannot easily confront society with its flaws. But the community of believers is different than the world, and because it is, it gives it a position to challenge the world- and it does so on the basis of the love and the Word of God.  And that, my friends, is truly amazing. 

 

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