Lent 3A

March 13, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 4:5-42

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 17:1-7

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 95

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 5:1-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Tragedy and strength. Carnage and hope. It’s the kind of paradoxical combination we Christians know about because most every time we step into a church sanctuary we are confronted with symbols that point to hope in the midst of sorrow. We see a cross, which has somehow transformed from a grim reminder of death into a semaphore of life. We see before us a baptismal font, which reminds us that our old sinful selves have been drowned so as to allow a new self in Christ to emerge from those same deadly waters. We see the Lord’s table arrayed with items that remind us of both a most pitiful, bloody sacrifice and yet those are elements now sustain and nourish us for the journey of discipleship.

    Something of this same combination of disparate realities emerges from Romans 5. Paul begins this chapter with rhetoric that is incredibly uplifting. We have been justified. Whatever problem we had with sin is gone. So now we have peace with God, and that has to count as the best bit of news we’ve ever heard! The faith God gave to us has given us free access to the God of the galaxies because now we are floating on a vast ocean of mercy and so we rejoice at the prospect of glory, glory, glory! This is beyond fantastic. It’s like being told, all on the same day, that you just got promoted to the top of your firm, that your daughter just won the Pulitzer Prize and your son just won the Nobel Prize, and that the cancer you thought your wife had turned out to be just a rash.

    In other words, Paul has really revved up the language here. It’s blue skies and sunshine all the way with nary a dark cloud on any horizon. So what a shock to all of a sudden hit verse 3. “Not only so but we rejoice in also our sufferings!” Whoa, now just hold on a moment, Paul! Where did this talk of suffering come from? If everything you just said is true, why isn’t suffering now just a faint memory for Christian people? How can suffering fit in with simultaneously having peace with God and being awash in grace?

    We’ll return to that question but first notice that Paul isn’t finished presenting combinations of seemingly opposite things. Because no sooner does he combine having peace and suffering at the same moment and Paul writes a stunning line: it was while we were yet sinners that God in Christ loved us. There. Right there is the fundamental paradox of the gospel: at the very moment when we were as offensive to God as we could be, God mustered a whole universe of love for us.

    Did you notice in verse 6 that Paul not only points out how powerless we were because of sin but, even more poignantly, that we were also “godless.” That’s striking because it’s one thing to be powerless. People who are powerless can, after all, provoke pity. If you see a child living in a filthy house in which he is also often the target of terrible abuse from an alcoholic father, well then that is a powerless child–on his own, he cannot change his situation, and so you pity this child and maybe want to do something for him. That’s what seeing someone’s powerlessness can stir up in us.

    But Paul says that as people mired in sin, we were not only powerless such that God took pity on us. Our situation was worse: Paul says we were godless. The Greek word there literally means “impious” or “irreverent,” which means those who live as though there is no god in existence. Irreverent people live without reference to any higher moral code because they believe that life can be made up as you go along. When you qualify as irreverent, a whole cloud of other ugly things gets raised, too, because such people tend also to be blasphemous, using God’s name as a swear word because, why not? It’s not as though there is any god anywhere who would ever be offended anyway.

    In other words, those who qualify as “godless” or “irreverent” are about as anti-God as you can imagine. That’s what Paul says we were like at the very moment when the same God we were offending stooped down to die for us. It was not a “natural” reaction. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were being ignored, where people were acting as though you didn’t exist? Have you ever had people talk about you in your presence as if you weren’t even there? What’s your first inclination? Don’t you want to get in their faces, shake them by the shoulders so as to say, “Hey, I’m alive! I have feelings, too! Don’t ignore me!”

    Whatever your reaction might be, the last thing you’d think of doing would be stooping even lower so as to do something nice for the very people who were treating you like you were invisible. But that’s what God did. He did not thunder from the heavens to prove his existence. He didn’t reach down to slap them into acknowledging him. Instead he very quietly sent his Son into this world in about as humble a guise as he could find, finally letting that Son die. In this way God saved the very people who thought they didn’t need saving in the first place.

    God dealt with our human cluelessness by doing the gracious thing of sacrificing himself to rescue those who were so lost in an oblivion of their own making that they no longer even knew they were lost. Somehow in the context of our hate-filled lives, God’s love burst forth. Somehow in the midst of our ignorant lives, the God we had convinced ourselves didn’t exist swung in to prove his existence not by rattling us, frightening us, or slapping us. Instead God proved his existence by hugging us in the embrace of grace. So there you have it: the awful beauty of God emerges in the terrible ugliness of the godless.

    Perhaps now we are ready to return to the surprise of Romans 5:3 where Paul’s talk of suffering seems suddenly to darken the sunny skies of the first two verses. We know that for now we are not delivered from all sickness nor are we spared from people who want to harm us. Suffering is an unavoidable reality for all of us. Some of us have suffered more than have others, but each of us has had his or her chance to shed tears in this life, each of us knows what it’s like to be afraid, each of us knows what it’s like to be emotionally wounded and insulted. Mention any kind of suffering you want, and lots of people begin to nod with a very knowing form of empathy.

    But we wish it were not so. We wish that being a Christian would mean receiving a pass, a spiritual equivalent of those “Get Out of Jail Free” cards you can collect when playing Monopoly. We’d like it if God’s Spirit would dole out “Get Out of Suffering Free” cards such that when cancer came knocking at our door, when a child threatened to break our hearts, when it looked like we might lose a beloved job, we could whip out one of these cards and say, “Sorry, but I get to refuse delivery on this load of grief.”

    But it doesn’t work that way. That’s why we need to see the paradoxical poignance of the holy supper. We see depicted in the sacrament the unexpected spectacle of life emerging from death. We see afresh how odd it is that we sustain our lives by elements that connect us to a death. More, we see the fundamental paradox of the gospel by recalling that in the end life, and not death, emerged from a cross (of all places). But that is just one piece of the larger shock of seeing a God who managed to love the very people who didn’t want anything to do with a God they didn’t believe in to begin with!

    So when it comes to combining our having peace with God and our still also suffering, we can see why it is possible to have both. The whole gospel is filled with startling combinations, so why should our lives be any different!? If God could love us when we were yet living as godless people, then he can surely keep holding us close even when we now suffer the cruelties and indignities of this life. If God could turn a cross into a doorway to life, then he can take our sufferings and use them to shore up our hope. In fact, sometimes we suffer more precisely because we hope for a better world. We are not content to accept that the ways things are for now are also the best they could ever be.

    The reason is the glorious paradox that God’s peace came to us precisely because we serve a God whose love is more powerful than anything. Love is stronger than death because from Jesus’ death we receive life. Love is stronger than sin because despite how angry and wounded God was when we were leading godless lives, even still his love sought us and found us and swaddled us in grace. And love is stronger than our suffering.

    Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here.

    We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day.   CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free.   But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work?  Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday?   If interested in donating, please visit this page.   Thank You!

    Illustration Idea

    In his book, Searching for Home, Craig Barnes claims that many people today sense the incompleteness of life as it is, but they don’t know where to look for anything better. So they keep trying to fill in the holes in their lives by indulging in food, by increasing their consumer spending, by seeking new experiences, by trying a new drug, by changing careers. But, of course, none of it satisfies for long. At one point Barnes observes that you know people have hit bottom when, instead of longing for a time when suffering will be no more, they plod on in life while never allowing their hopes to rise any higher than the furtive wish, “Maybe tomorrow we will suffer a little less.”

    That resigned attitude lets suffering have the last word. In despair, our suffering begets only more suffering in the dismal belief that suffering is what we were made for. Paul goes another way, seeing suffering as something that can produce hope. But this hope is not the shrunken hope that says we can do no better than try to suffer a little less. Instead Jesus gives the hope of glory that comes when you realize that by loving the unlovely and by bringing life out of death, Jesus can now give peace even in the midst of suffering.