A sermon on John 3: 14-21 & Ephesians 2: 1-10 by Nathan Nettleton, 22 March 2009
One of the sad things to witness in the present global financial crisis is the way it operates at the grassroots level to drag people even deeper into the clutches of a sick and destructive system. The gathering pace of the crisis and its resistance to the attempts to stimulate the system back to life have left most of us feeling bewildered and fearful that any slip could see us and our families made redundant and falling through the widening cracks in the social fabric. Desperate to survive, we sacrifice our time, energy and well-being to maintain a grip on the income sources and consumption patterns that have sustained us in the past. A massively resourced advertising industry constantly assures us that frantic schedules and rampant consumerism are virtues to be admired and cultivated. And yet a still small voice from somewhere continues to disturb us with its persistent whispers that we are strangling our bodies, our spirits, our communities and our planet. But without being able to get our heads around the enormity of the dangers or see a way clear of them, we numb ourselves against the anxiety and run ever harder.
A few decades ago most people in the west could confidently look forward to an increasingly affluent lifestyle in an endlessly growing national economy. But today we know, even if the knowledge is constantly repressed, that these personal and national aspirations are actually doing horrendous violence to our mental and spiritual health, our intimate relationships and even to the ecosystems on which we depend for our air, water and food. But most of us have no concept of a genuine alternative, and so we plough ahead on the same path, working to get the promotion, renovate the house, pay off the mortgage and get the kids into the right school in the hope that those things will make life worthwhile. The widespread nagging dissatisfaction is the repressed knowledge that it won’t. And the chronic patterns of social, relational and personal breakdown we are seeing are a consequence of the repressed anxiety.
In our gospel reading tonight, we heard Jesus say that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” and that “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It is important to get our heads around that if we are to make any sense of the good news. It does not say that those who do not believe are condemned for not believing. It says that those who do not believe are condemned already. And it does not say that they are condemned by God. It says that they are condemned already. And when we hold that idea up against the nightmare scenario of a world seemingly hell-bent on its own destruction, it makes sense. As the Apostle put it in our reading from Ephesians, simply “following the course of this world” is a recipe for death.
A very common misunderstanding of the gospel is that salvation is about doing what we need to do to stop God from being angry with us and wanting to destroy us. The forces that are seeking to destroy us are not initiatives of God. They are mostly of our own making. They understandably feel much bigger than just being of our own making, because they have taken on a life of their own and become a massive and seemingly unstoppable cultural black hole, a great darkness sucking everything into itself, but as huge as it may be, it is not God. And it is not something that God casts us into as a punishment for something we’ve done wrong. Rather it is the crisis from which God wants to save us, and God is always ready and longing to do so.
“God so loves the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That is to say, God’s love for the world is so overwhelming that even giving up his own son was not too great a cost to ensure that no one need succumb to death. All those who put their trust in him can have boundless life instead. That is not the story of a God who is ready to condemn us, to cast us into hell if we don’t get it right. God is overwhelmingly motivated by love for us. The kind of love that will risk plunging into the black hole to try to pull us out, even if it means dying in the attempt. We do not have the kind of lunatic God who both creates the black hole in a fit of anger and condemnation, and tries to pull us out of it at the same time. If God does nothing, we are all condemned. Not condemned by God, but condemned to death, a living death in a hell of our own making; a hell of spiralling darkness, of quiet desperation, fear, depression, and self-destruction.
But the good news is that God does not do nothing. Consumed by love for us, God plunges in in order to save us, to rescue us, to bring us safely home. And there is nothing we can do to earn God’s endeavours to save us, and nothing we can do to make God stop trying. It is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” It is gift. God does not have a check list of those worth saving and those God is happy to abandon to their fate. That might seem like bad news if you were hoping that God sees you as more worthy of saving than Josef Fritzl or Tony Mokbel, but it will be good news if you realise that God sees you as every bit as much worth saving as Nelson Mandela or Lowitja O'Donoghue. God just sees us all in desperate need, no distinctions at all, and plunges into the vortex of darkness to rescue whoever can be rescued.
But then there is another common misconception about salvation, about the nature of God’s rescue mission. Too commonly we imagine salvation as some kind of individual registration process. We make contact with Jesus, say what he wants to hear, and get our names transferred onto the list of the saved, the “book of life”. And with that kind of image, we find ourselves still being sucked mercilessly down into the black hole of the world’s self-destruction. All we’ve done is make ourselves feel a bit better about it by signing up for some kind of insurance policy that says that we can hold a little candle while we are sucked into the black hole and when we finally get dragged under and die, there will be some kind of pie in the sky waiting for us. But God is not in the business of marketing insurance policies. God is mounting a cosmic rescue mission. God is wanting to pull us out of the darkness into the light before we are dragged under.
So Jesus comes to us, reaching out to us and calling us into the light. But, as Jesus said in our reading, “this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Most of us are caught not really wanting to leave the darkness. It might be killing us, but we’ve become rather attached to its familiarity, its comforts, and the company. And all we really want is for Jesus to hand us a little candle so that we can have our own little bit of light to help us cope with the desperate plunge into the black hole. A little bit of light as a kind of palliative care pain-killer as we succumb. But Jesus is not the least bit interested in helping us cope with the darkness. Jesus is calling us into the light, seeking to rescue us from the darkness entirely. But most of us are still fearful of the light. It’s too weird, too counter-cultural, too non-conformist. And we are too addicted to the ways of our past. We keep hoping for a little light to shine in our darkness rather than a radical relocation into the light. This is not just an individual story, this is our whole society. We know that war only creates more war, but we keep fighting them. We know that burning fossil fuels is suffocating us, but we keep digging them up. We know that the modern dream of every family with their own house full of every possible consumer appliance is strangling our world and destroying our souls, but we keep running ever harder on the treadmill to keep up.
God is not hating us for it, or wanting to punish us or condemn us, but condemned we are if we will not take the way out into the light that Jesus keeps calling us to. And I’m struggling to know how to finish this sermon because I’m just as caught up in it as everyone else, and I long for the light but find myself as often as not clinging to my comfortable bit of darkness and numbing myself to the obvious. And we as a church are called to be a people of the light, one of the great pools of light into which people can step and be saved from the darkness, but the truth is that we, like most churches, are struggling to find any meaningful way of creating the support systems by which we can help one another stand true and not slide back into the black hole.
I don’t know how to put the answers into practice. All I know is that it is only as we fall to our knees in prayer and hold out our hands to one another to give and receive the bread and wine which are the light of the world that we have got any chance to find the way of living in the light together. For God so loves the world, and the light has come into the world, and all who put their trust in the light will be saved and have life; boundless, unquenchable life.