a sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
We live in a society where it is very easy for us believe in the myth of the self-made individual, to get a backwards view of things. Indeed it is tempting to look at our lives, our gifts, our possessions and think that it all is a result of our own efforts, to think that we are “self-made”.
But today’s scriptures tell a different story.
Over the past week, I’ve been reading a series of books called, “The Hunger Games.” They tell the story of a society far in the future, where every year, they hold a set of gladiatorial games. 24 teenagers are chosen at random to play in these games, and the only rule is that they have to fight to the death. The heroine of the story is a girl named Katniss Everdeen, a very skilled hunter and archer, who has to decide if she’s willing to accept the common wisdom that every other person has to die in order that she might live. Or, is there some other way that she can survive, and save other the others, too?
Today’s scripture readings all talk about life and death. In the first reading, the Israelites are tired of wandering around in the desert. It has been so long since they had a decent meal! So they start complaining. God gets angry with them, and sends poisonous snakes to punish them. But when Moses intervenes on behalf of his people, God relents, sort of. God doesn’t take away the snakes, but he tells Moses that the people can survive their attacks, if they have faith.
The Gospel lesson has a similar theme. We heard the most famous passage of the bible, John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die, but have eternal life. Once again, the scripture tells us that our lives depend on faith.
But in the second lesson we hear something different. Once again, God’s love is the overriding source of life. But this time, it comes with no strings attached:
God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, 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.
In other words, God loves us first, and our response to that love is faith and good works in the world.
We live in a society where it is very easy for us believe in the myth of the self-made individual, to get a backwards view of things. Indeed it is tempting to look at our life, our gifts, our possessions and think that it all is a result of our own efforts, to think that we are “self-made”.
Two hundred years ago the self-made man was described by Frederick Douglass as one who owes little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to access to early education; someone who is who he is, without the benefit of any of the favoring conditions by which others usually rise in the world and achieve great results. A self-made man might sing with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.”
But Scripture turns that myth on its head. It states clearly that we who were dead in our sin were made alive by God because of God’s grace, God’s great mercy, and God’s love – a love so great that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not die, but have eternal life.
Of course, “belief” is the stumbling block in all this. What does it mean to believe? Is it some choice that we have to make, something we have to DO in order to demonstrate to God that we have faith? What happens to people who don’t believe?
One of the biggest differences among Christian denominations is how we think about baptism. Some churches see baptism as something that WE do, based on a decision that WE make. We act, and God responds. But for other churches, like the Episcopal Church, baptism is first and foremost about what GOD does. In baptism, the very common element of water becomes holy and blessed water by virtue of the Word of God joined with it. The very Word of God is at work in the sacrament. God acts, God is the initiator, and we respond.
The problems begin when we forget that God is the one who initiates the relationship with us. Then we turn around, and try to conclude that because we are blessed by God, God condemns everyone else. But the scripture doesn’t say that. Instead, it says that those who choose not to believe have condemned themselves already – condemned to live a self-made life unaware of God’s love for them, or the love of anyone else.
Through the waters of baptism, we receive forgiveness of sin and the assurance of eternal life – starting right now. By our baptisms we are made alive with Christ. And this alive-ness, this liveliness, is to be remembered every day. And not just remembered, but enacted in the world through good works. God works in and through us to touch his world, his creation, the people whom he loves so dearly.
God so loved the entire world, that he gave his only Son, the one in whose name we are baptized, so that whoever believes will have the life of the ages. It is by God’s grace that we are saved, a gift from God. We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Thanks be to God!