March 14, 2021, Christian in 25 Words or Less, John 3:14-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Imagine that you are one of those man-on-the-street reporters who walk up to random people and ask them questions. What kind of answers do you think you’d get if you asked them, “What is a Christian?”
You’d probably get some pretty negative answers, people who would say something like: “Christians are basically hypocrites. They’re not any better than anybody else – they just pretend they are.” Or they might say, “Christians are people who go around condemning and criticizing people they don’t like.” Or “Christians are goody-two-shoes who look down on the rest of the world.” Or maybe, “Christians are weirdo fanatics who are always trying to shove their beliefs down other people’s throats.”
Then you’d probably get quite a few people who would define Christians by what they don’t do. A Christian is somebody who doesn’t use bad language, or who doesn’t drink or gamble or do drugs, or who doesn’t watch R-rated movies, or who doesn’t go to wild parties – that kind of thing. In other words, a Christian is a regular person with the naughty parts left out. Or a Christian is a person who doesn’t approve of anything fun.
Hopefully you’d get some people who had a little more positive idea of what a Christian is supposed to be. You might possibly find a person who says that a Christian is somebody who is kind and unselfish and generous, who gives to the poor and forgives the people who hurt them, who tells the truth and doesn’t cheat on their spouse. It would be kind of nice if that was the impression some people had of us.
But the truth is, for those of us who know such things from the inside, the truth is that if we want to describe the average Christian, we’d have to say first of all that a Christian is somebody who is impossibly broken: and whose wisdom and intelligence and morality and cleverness and strength and determination all put together are just not enough to fix us. Christians, then, in the first place, are people who, in and of themselves, don’t have a whole lot going for them. Paul put it a little more harshly in the reading from Ephesians this morning, when he wrote, “You were dead.” Which pretty much makes us exactly the same as the rest of humanity.
Because the truth is, to be a human being is to live our lives quite literally on Death Row. Every one of us is subject to decay and pain and loss from the moment of our birth, and in the end every single one of us is doomed to die. Mankind has found ways over the millennia to make our death sentence tolerable. We were created in the image of God, with so many gifts of creativity and intelligence and the ability to reach out and communicate with one another. And so the world is full of the glories of man, art and philosophy and science and civilizations.
But every glorious work of man is subject to the same frustration and futility as his frail body. In the end there is no human effort or excellence that can stop the relentless march of corruption and death. In the end all the light of human glories will go dark. In the end we cannot fix ourselves.
This morning we read a little snippet from Psalm 107, which is a long psalm written by King David. I’ve always loved Psalm 107 because it tells our stories; the stories of plain old people like you and me who find themselves at the utter end of their own resources, with nothing left except to cry out for help in their desperation. And it tells how God, in his mercy and faithfulness, answers their cry. David describes four very different human journeys. You might recognize yourself in one of them, or possibly in all of them at one time or another:
There is the story of people whose road is hard and weary and long, who find themselves lost and hungry. Finally, in their desperation they cry to the Lord, David says, and he delivers them from their distress. He sets their feet on a firm path. He satisfies their hunger.
And there’s the story of stubborn people who choose deliberately to rebel against God, who set their faces to the darkness and despise his wisdom and light. They find themselves in deep trouble and misery, alone and friendless, until finally they call for help. They cry to the Lord in their trouble, David says, and he delivers them from their distress. He breaks the chains they forged for themselves. He leads them up out of the gloom into the light.
And then there’s the story of people who can most kindly be described as stupid, people who go off on their own and get themselves in a lot of trouble on account of their foolishness, until they end up in in utter despair. Then, foolish though they are, they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, David says, and he delivers them from their distress. He heals their hurts. He snatches their lives right out of the grave.
And then there is the story of those who go out into life with courage and purpose, but even they find themselves overwhelmed at last by dangers and perils that are far too great for them. They cry to the Lord in their dismay and helplessness, David says, and he delivers them from their distress. He quiets the raging storms. He brings them safely home.
Christians are just people. We get weary and sad and overwhelmed; we are wicked and rebellious; we are stupid and stubborn; we are courageous and hard-working and determined. We are God’s excellent handiwork, corrupted and broken by sin, and shadowed by death, just the same as all of mankind. As Paul writes, “We were basically dead, children of wrath by our very nature, just like everybody else.” Christians are people who cry out for light from the deepest darkness. We are people with no other hope, with no one else to turn to, people who can say, as Peter said to Jesus, “Where else can we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus pointed to the image of the bronze serpent to tell people who he was and what his purpose was in coming to live among us. When the people of Israel reached that point of desperation where they finally remembered who they could trust, they cried out for help. And God delivered them from their distress. If anyone was bit by a serpent all they had to do was to look up at that serpent and they were healed. It’s really important to notice that it was that bronze serpent, and not the fiery snakes that were a symbol of Jesus. John tells us, “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it. He sent his Son so that we can live. Abundantly.”
Christian and non-Christian alike, we human creatures are all slaves to our own foolishness. We all find ourselves hiding in the darkness, overwhelmed by the covering of death that lies over all of mankind. From time to time we all get stuck in prisons and traps of our own making. We all stagger under the burdens of regret and sickness, our fear of growing old, and the terror of our impending death. A Christian is not a person who is smarter or better or stronger or less sinful than everyone around them. A Christian is not necessarily even a person who is happier than everyone around them. A Christian is just somebody who, out of sheer desperation, looks to the Cross and finds life and health and hope and joy. The one and only thing that makes a Christian special is Christ himself.
Paul wrote this: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
We are hypocrites and rebels. We are fools and fanatics. Everything people might have said about us to our imaginary roving reporter is true. That’s us; that’s the Church of Jesus Christ. But the One we follow is able to heal and restore us. He is able to make us fully alive – and not only us but every one of the billions of men and women and children that he fashioned with his own hand and created in love for something so much better than death and corruption. We were all, every one of us, under sentence of death. But the Son of God heard our cry and came, not to judge, not to condemn, but to rescue us. And everyone who looks to the Cross of Christ for help will find real life.
Martin Luther wrote: “Moses commanded the Israelites who were stung by serpents in the desert, to do nothing else but behold it steadfastly, and not to turn away their eyes…So, if I would find comfort and life, when I am at the point of death, I must do nothing else but apprehend Christ, and look at him, and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me: in whose wounds, and in whose death I see my sin, and in his resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil, also righteousness and eternal life. Besides him I see nothing, I hear nothing.”
Let us pray: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.