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Sermon for Lent 4 (Year B, 2018)

Mar 11, 2018

Passage: John 3:14-21

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Lent 2018

Category: Lent


Sermon for Lent 4, Year B, 2018
March 11th, 2018
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

Numbers 21:4-9        Ephesians 2:1-10        John 3:14-21

This morning, I want us to take a dive into some theological weeds. And the passage that is the springboard for this dive is perhaps the best-known passage in scripture. John 3: 16. I’d be willing to bet that even if you aren’t all that familiar with scripture, you can probably quote that passage without too much difficulty. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You’ve probably seen the John 3:16 reference on bumper stickers, or on signs along the highway. It may be of interest to you that the popularity of this particular passage really took off in the 1970’s when a man named Rollen Stewart began wearing a rainbow wig to sporting events and dancing with a sign that said “John 3:16” - behind the goal posts at football games, home plate at baseball games, and the backboard at basketball games. In any case, the popularity of the text remains high, and to this day many evangelists say that it’s their favorite text. And I think rightly so. Because it is the Good News in a nutshell. It’s an easy-to-remember summation of the gospel that can be a starting point for explaining why believing in Jesus is important. And it gives us plenty of theological claims to chew on. 

For one, it makes the claim that God loves the world. Next, it makes the claim that God sent his Son to be one of us. And it makes the claim that God sending Jesus somehow saves us from perishing. It’s the “somehow” that I want us to take a closer look at.  

Some of you may know the theological term “penal substitutionary atonement.” For those who do not, it’s the idea that Jesus was punished in the place of sinful humanity in order to satisfy the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive our sins. It (PSA) rests on the notion that we all deserve God’s wrath on account of our sinfulness and that Jesus bore the brunt of God’s wrath so that we wouldn’t have to. There are many Christians who believe in this way, especially in this part of the world. And these Christians take John 3:16 to mean that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to bear the punishment that we ourselves deserved so that we can then share in his life. 

The problem in believing this way is that (I think) it weakens the claim that “God so loved the world.” Instead, it prioritizes the claim that God was so angry with the world that God was compelled to condemn the world unless God’s demand for justice was met. Another problem with believing this way is that it assumes the absolute worst about human nature. It assumes that by the very fact of being alive, we ought to be ashamed of our sinful selves. All together, the theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” leaves us with a decidedly negative view both of God and of humanity. God winds up being primarily harsh and wrathful even though God “loves" us enough to vent his wrath on his Son in order to spare us. And humanity winds up being utterly evil and deserving nothing but destruction. Moreover, “penal substitutionary atonement” operates solely on the level of blame and punishment. And I find such an approach really difficult to stomach because it doesn’t leave much room for the idea that “God so loved the world.” 

Now, since the “substitutionary atonement” theory I just described is fairly common in this part of the world, I want to suggest a different approach to how God’s love in sending Jesus saves us from perishing. 

And I want to start with the idea that we do need saving. I’m decidedly convinced in the goodness of creation, but it’s easy to see that there’s something far from perfect about the human condition. You might say that we live in a “broken” or a “fallen” world, and try as we might, there’s little we can do on our own to fix everything and make it good. In short, we have a problem. And much of the problem we have is wrapped up in our notions of blame and punishment. 

I know that it might be hard to remember the first lie you ever told, but I’d be willing to bet that the first lie that each one of us told came about because we did something wrong and when we got caught, we blamed someone or something else…because we were afraid of being punished. So from a very early age, we began thinking about life in terms of avoiding punishment and blame even if we did something we knew was wrong. And even when we get older, we’ll do almost anything to avoid being blamed and punished. 

I want to suggest that, on a grand scale, entire communities and societies are plagued with this fear of blame and punishment. So we come up with ways of dealing with the fear of being held to account. One way of dealing with this fear is to redirect blame - to find someone or something that can bear the blame for all the bad things that happen. Another word for this behavior is “scapegoating.” And you can see this at work pretty much everywhere in every age:

The group of people who don’t believe the way we do are driven out because a someone has to be blamed for the plague coming to town. The old woman who lives alone is condemned as a witch because someone has to be blamed for the neighbor’s cows dying. The kid in class who dresses differently is bullied because fitting in is important, and he’s to blame for not fitting in.   

This need to redirect blame and exact punishment is so commonplace that you might say that it’s part of human nature. But our human understanding of blame and punishment is broken. And it’s precisely this brokenness of human nature that we need to be saved from. Because the way of blame and punishment is the way of death. Never in the course of human history has the blaming and punishing of a scapegoat actually achieved anything life-giving. All it does is lead to more blaming, more calls for punishment, and more death. 

Jesus’ life and ministry was devoted to exposing the lie that God is caught up in this human scheme of blame and punishment. He ate with sinners. He welcomed the outcast. He taught us that God’s desire is not to condemn the world but rather to save the world. And when he ran afoul of the power structures that upheld the system of blame and punishment, he himself became a scapegoat, bore the wrath of that broken human system, and was condemned to death. 

The good news that we take from what happened to Jesus is that the wrathful system of blame and punishment that led to Jesus’ death was overthrown when Jesus rose from the dead. When he rose, (if you remember) he did not come back with a message of blame and punishment and retribution for what had been done to him. He came back with a message of peace. He came back with the message that those who believe in him are saved; saved because their lives are no longer bound by the false notion that finding a scapegoat to bear the brunt of our own wrath are somehow part of God’s desire for us. 

For God so loved the world. God so loved the world that God didn’t need to punish Jesus in our place. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to bear the blame and punishment that our own human brokenness demanded. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. And that sacrifice has won for us eternal life.