Ok. So Jesus is at the Jordan as he is every year, this time, which is the beginning of Lent. He’s at the Jordan River. He has just been baptized by his cousin John, and as he rises from the water, a miraculous thing happens. God opens the cellar door of heaven; crouches down and in what I imagine is a voice like thunder, God says, “In YOU I am well pleased.” It’s miraculous but you’ve heard it so many times, that it’s probably become ho hum with you. Yeah, yeah yeah.
The poet Rumi says, when we really need to pay attention, “Close both ears and hear with the other eye.” I am asking you to do that now. So, close the ears on either side of your head, and open the ear that is inside your heart. Listen to God with that third ear and THIS time, think about God’s inflexion, as God crouches beside that cellar door of heaven. “In you I am well pleased.”
What did you hear? Does God say, “With you I am well PLEASED,” as in “Well now, Jesus, I have been watching you grow up, and I can tell you with certainty, that I am now pleased with the you, you have become?”
Or when God says that line, again, “With you I am well pleased,” is the emphasis, or as a professor friend used to say EmPHAsis, on the YOU, as in, “I am pleased with you as opposed to all of those other you’s who are greedy, selfish and ignorant, and who sadly, populate my world?”
Both those options are discomfiting, aren’t they? They are discomfiting because If either one of those is the case, then God judges Jesus, and if God judges Jesus, God certainly must also judge us. If God’s measuring stick is Jesus, well, then God help us, truly.
But happily, both those interpretations are contrary to what we as Protestants are supposed to believe. What we are supposed to believe is; God loves us unconditionally. God loves us no matter what. It is THE most foundational of foundational principles of the Reformation—Indeed, it’s what the Reformation was fought over—We who are Protestants say you can’t earn God’s love by making large financial donations to the church, or by taking a long and arduous foot-blistering pilgrimage to arrive at some remote shrine in Northern Spain. God doesn’t shower us with blessings if we wear a prickly and tickly horse hair shirt, or crawl on our knees up the cold hard, stone steps of some European Cathedral. God’s love just is. Jesus taught that, over and over again. That is why he took time out from his busy teaching, preaching and healing schedule. He took precious time out to eat with tax collectors, and forgive adulterers. Jesus wanted us to know: God loves us, God loves YOU, no matter what.
However, God IS well-pleased in Jesus—that’s what God says. So, is God pleased with Jesus, after a childhood of getting all A’s on his report cards and never making a mistake or bad decision? No, I don’t believe that is it. God was well-pleased with Jesus from the moment he is born in that modest barn; and God is not just well pleased with Jesus as opposed to all of us. On that particular day, God tells Jesus that he has been singled out for special purpose--to save humanity from ourselves. God sends Jesus to fix things, because God loves humans with an intensity that is every bit as intense as God’s love for God’s son.
Thus ends the first part of the sermon that I began writing last week. Just to let you know, the last part of the sermon I wrote last week, which you won’t be hearing today, was all feel good. It was all about God’s love for us. I gave some examples. I intended for you to leave here today in high spirits. Yes I was confident that you would be energized to dig deeper into scripture, after such a fine sermon. But then. But then the school shooting in Florida happened. What to do?
It’s not the first time, in my years of preaching, that I have had to switch plans when a shooting or some other tragedy, but mostly a shooting, has happened midweek. It’s the bane of preachers. You do the responsible thing—plan ahead--and then tragedy strikes and you have three options: stick with the original plan, in which case your parishioners will conclude that you are unbelievably and incredibly callous—“How can she be telling a joke at a time like this?” two, you start over, and write a new sermon from scratch, or 3, you try to salvage parts of the original sermon, that might still fit the current circumstances. I picked door number three.
So, I’m going to relay to you the new part, fresh off the press, so to speak. But remember, before I interrupted myself, I was talking about how God loves us, and how for that reason, God sent Jesus to save us from ourselves. We’ll circle back around to that, I promise.
Wednesday night, just a few days ago, the Session met for our monthly Session meeting. The tragedy which happened Wednesday midday, came up in our conversation. We were incredulous. Testy, too, you might say—that’s because we are not all of a mind on the issue of guns. We want to blame each other, probably because there doesn’t seem anyone else TO blame. But here’s the thing, no matter whether you are a gun owner, we are ALL of a mind that there’s too much gun violence. We ALL feel for the victims--so young--who have lost out on love, marriage, Children, not to mention those lesser pleasures, breathing in deliciously fresh air, eating ice cream or pop corn, the stuff of life—and of course, we feel for the survivors. Can you imagine being a parent and getting that phone call or text message? I read somewhere, ages ago, a quote from a rabbi—I am mangling this, so sorry- but it’s something to the effect: You are indeed blessed if your children outlive you. None of the parents of the victims will be able to say that.
We prayed for the victims and the survivors at the end of last night’s meeting.
On Thursday morning, I scanned my digital copy of the Thursday morning Washington Post. There was embedded in that a clip of a TV commentator who on Wednesday evening’s news, was reporting on the school shooting. It’s one of many he has covered. He has evidently had enough. He said “A child of God is dead. Can we not acknowledge in this country that we cannot accept this? I can’t do it, I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” And then, the commentator turned around so that his back was to the camera, and he devolved into sobs.
Note, he used the “G” word—God—on the air, in a newscast. That’s rare; Surprising actually, but warranted. Yes, we are all sobbing outwardly and inwardly that a child of God, or rather, children of God have been slaughtered. For sure God is weeping with us and for us.
And now I want to return to the first part of my sermon. In that first part, I made the claim that God loves us. God sent Jesus to save us—save us from ourselves. And what happened? We know what happened. Jesus was crucified.
There are a lot of ways to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s what theologians do. They interpret. The interpretation that has really gotten traction through the years, because the apostle Paul pushes it, and he is our theologian above all other theologians, is that Jesus was a sacrifice. This made absolute sense to Paul. When he walked the earth, animal sacrifices were common. They were especially common in the Jewish culture in which he grew up. If you were a Jew, and you sinned, you slaughtered an animal. If God was pleased with the sacrifice, then God forgave you your sin. Seems weird to us, but that’s how it worked to their minds.
So, to Paul’s way of believing, humanity had become so fallen that an animal sacrifice wouldn’t cut it. Jesus stepped in and became that sacrifice so that God would forgive us our sins. Who then, killed Jesus? Well, by that way of thinking, God did— God sent Jesus to earth for that very purpose. Through Jesus’s death our relationship with Jesus was restored.
We get this, for instance, in the New Testament: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers…., but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a [sacrificial] lamb without blemish or spot.”
I tell you, that way of understanding Jesus’ death has never set well with me and not just because of the weird notion of animal sacrifice as a means of rubbing out our sin. It doesn’t set well with me, because if this interpretation is true, then God is monster. Why does God need a sacrifice at all? Either animal or human?
I actually asked that question to a group of conservative Christians. They were with a Christian band, and they wanted to play for a youth concert at the church I served. The lyrics to one of the songs they would be singing had to do with Jesus, the sacrificial lamb.
“I asked them, “Why does God need a sacrifice at all?” The lead singer answered, “It’s was the law of the universe—God needed a sacrifice in order to forgive us.” That’s what he said. And my answer back was “didn’t God create the universe, and the law of the universe?” They had no answer. They also did not play at our church. Power.
Here I offer another interpretation that I didn’t just make up, I promise. It is out there, making the theological circuit. Hold on to your pews.
WE killed Jesus. It wasn’t the Jews. It wasn’t God. It wasn’t Jesus stepping in to appease God. WE killed Jesus because we are THAT messed up. We are that enamored with violence as a way to solve our problems, let off steam, or express our craziness. WE killed the very one God sent to save us. That God did not intervene and smash us to smithereens, is proof that God loves us that much.
Jesus on the cross. You know the crucifix? You see it in cathedrals, on necklaces. It’s like a mirror, reflecting back to us our own horrific violence. And maybe, Jesus is still there—at least until Easter he is still there--on that cross, waiting for us to DO something different, and, to quote Steve Jobs, “to THINK different.”
Martin Luther King Jr. says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” What matters? Our children matter. Our faith matters. We aren’t being faithful to God or our children when we allow this gun violence to happen over and over and over again. NOTE: We ARE allowing it to happen. Other countries have figured this out. It is possible.
God loves us, and God calls us to a better way. Believe it, it's true! Amen