Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
Oh God, who through your word reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way, grant, we pray, that with prompt devotion and eager faith, the Christian people may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Our opening prayer encouraged us to be enthusiastic, excited about the coming celebration. It seems strange, in a sense, that we’re working toward the crucifixion of our Savior, and that would be something we would want to back away from, in a sense. But obviously in that act something was given, something so powerful that everything was changed, and we don’t focus on the crucifixion as a thing we’re celebrating. We’re focused on what it created. The effect of it was the most amazing, explosive expansion of the work of Jesus with those that he loved. In his resurrected state, he was most effective.
I always find it interesting that Jesus spent three years with his disciples, and toward the end of his career, when it looked like he was not going to be able to accomplish his task here on this planet, he had to face the amazing rejection of who he was. I know he knew that he would be rejected in a sense, because he was changing things so radically, but I don't know if he understood, as a human, that this reaction on the part of the church, which was standing for the will of God, the way that God works with us — when he was trying to change that, help it to evolve into its next level, they were so resistant, because they felt they were losing something, something so important. And they were right to be afraid of Jesus, because he was robbing them of the one thing that they felt was their greatest asset, power over people, the power to use their influence to make them do what they should do, in the mind of the religious leaders, and the motive that they used, the motive was the most primitive motive that has always been there for people, fear. “You must do what we ask you to do, or you will die. You will be destroyed. You will be rejected by God. You’ll be punished forever.” What an amazing power to have, and it was intoxicating for them, like it is for every human being, to have that much power. So the institution that was then the temple was the most powerful place for the Israelite people, and Jesus came along to put something in its place, a new temple, the temple of the individual, that God no longer was limiting himself to being present in the arc of the covenant in the center of this powerful place. No. He said, “That was necessary for a while, but now I’m ready to take the next step,” the most dramatic step, the most essential step of moving away from dwelling in an institution that’s run by human beings and then its benefit is doled out for something that they are getting back, which was the sacrifices. That was a big business, but more than the money they were making, it was the power that was so intoxicating. And they found that they could live a life that looked like they were doing what everyone else was asked to do, which was really, in a way, an affront to their very human dignity, their individual rights to make decisions about things. It robbed them of an evolution that they had reached that was ready to flourish, and it couldn’t flourish in that system. And so he changed it, and he did it by the most unusual way, by dying, by giving in to their evil.
I don't know how many times I’ve sat and wondered, “Why? Why that?” Why give in to evil that’s the antithesis that, let’s say, the institutional church throughout the Old Testament, the institutional church still in this time that we live, an institution that’s run more by the egos of the people running it, runs into this very, very sticky place of demanding obedience instead of engaging people in the process of becoming? “You must act as if you have grown and developed and changed. That’s all we ask. Act as if. Do always what you’re told to do, and you are who you’re intended to be.” Well, nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be more, in a sense, abusive than to take someone’s God-given right to make decisions and to grow into an awareness of who God has made them to be and who they are. That is our dignity. That is our value. That’s what we’re here for, and for someone to rob it of us is sinful, abusive, controlling. And so Jesus said, “Well, I have to show people what this is really like. I’m offering them something different,” which they’re having a hard time with that, not having to follow the rules, not having to do the things that they were told to do. It creates all kind of shame and guilt in them. It was really hard for people to follow Jesus, as it still is, but here’s what he said he’d do. He said, “All right, I’m going to show you sin. I’ll become sin.” That’s the second reading. “I’ll become sin so I can save you.”
How did he become sin? Because he was manifesting the truth of a system that is — I hate to use the word demonic, but let’s just say that it works against the work of God. A system that works against the work of God then, when God came into that system to fine tune it, to change it, to help it to see more and grow and face its problems, its shame, its guilt, do all that, they couldn’t do that. And Jesus said, “Okay, well then, I can do one thing. I know I can do this. I’ll show people who you really are. When they understand who I am, and they will understand it, I will show them the sin that the institutional church gets caught up in, and that is the rejection of the very God that they claim to be speaking for, to be following,” a God that robs people of their dignity of being the new dwelling place for the Holy Spirit inside of us, guiding us, directing us, directing us, showing us what we need to do. So the crucifixion is an image of the effect of a way that the church can fall into a role that is truly abusive.
So now we know that, when Jesus rose, he was able to show his disciples so many things that they couldn’t understand before. So he set a seed in people, and one of the things they must have realized — once they began to feel the fullness of that seed of wisdom and understanding, they began to understand all these stories in the scriptures, all these things that happened in Jesus’ life. They began to put it all together, and it must have been like this rush of insight and understanding. And so they began to figure out, as we try, as I try to help you — we together try to figure out these stories. And this one is very interesting, because this is the Sunday of the series in Lent when we try to look at the greatest gift that God is giving to human beings, and that is to open their eyes and to remove blindness. Jesus called the leaders of the temple blind fools leading other blind fools into pits. They didn’t see what was real. They didn’t see the truth. They didn’t see what God’s inviting them to look at, and so we have this story, this beautiful story of the Father, who in the Old Testament is someone who is very much insistent on us becoming something before we’re loved — before we’re loved. We come into the world in the Old Testament, and right away we have a problem with God. We disobey him, and he’s angry, and he kicks us out. He doesn’t want to be around people who are growing and changing. He wants only people who are fully formed. Can you imagine that is the mindset, how insane that is when you know human nature?
So we have a story here of two sons. One is the Old Testament. The other is the New Testament. The Old Testament is the man who has done, from the beginning of his conscious life, he’s always done what the law requires, and he’s dutiful, and he’s righteous, and he’s lonely, I think, and alone in his achievement. He did it on his own, and then we have the New Testament character, this younger son who, as a human being, begins his journey toward wisdom by making mistakes. That’s the way most, 90 percent, of us learn, allowing his nature to take its course, to follow it, even though it was self-centered and shortsighted, but when he asked his father for everything that the father owed him, the father was willing to give it. “Here’s your freedom. Money’s freedom.” Takes his inheritance and goes off and does what most adolescents do, what most adolescent adults do, what most all of us do, is he squandered it on things that he thought would be so satisfying. “Ah, I can have sex. I can have great entertainment. I can be in the hottest spot in the world.” It’s the same for us today. And then he goes through what we call conversion, regret. Somehow he’s empty, and he realizes why he’s empty — because he’s chosen the things that don’t satisfy.
The interesting thing in that first reading, we heard about the people getting to the land that was promised to them. That land feeds them. No more manna is necessary. The life that God asks you and me to live will feed us and nurture us, give us life. If we choose a way of life that is not according to what we want and need truly, our true self, we’ll be hungry all the time, and when we’re in that painful place of hunger, one temptation is to pick something that just separates us from the feeing level, so diversion, entertainment. Do something. Don’t think about it. Drugs, alcohol, all that, that’s so common. That’s our story, and so what he’s doing is he’s showing us in this story that this is what he — he’s open to us doing this. This is fine with him. This is the way we learn. So he’s always offering us love when we are at our worst, and I love that, when he comes back, he has no way of thinking, or we, the listeners of this story, have no way of thinking that he went and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I just messed up.” Then the father said, “Oh, now I love you.” No, the father loved him when it could have been that he was coming back to get more money. He loved him because he had the courage to try whatever he thought was really his goal. He was courageous in a sense, risked a lot. It seems funny for me to say it to you. It’s better to sin and risk things than to be a good person all your life, but I guess that’s what I’m saying. That’s what the story says. I should say that, because the older son had no sense of the process that God had offered us as human beings, and the fact that he was so resistant to the celebration means that he had some deep resentment in him, because he thought he was doing all the things he had to do so he would have God’s love. And God loved him anyway, and so how could he celebrate something that was so devastating to the way he thought his life should be led?
Father, your love, unconditional love, is for us hard to grasp, hard to understand. We’ve been told so often that our sins so displease you, our humanness displeases you. Free us from that misconception that we’ve been given of the way in which you love. Your love is always there, and you love us in our sinfulness, not because we’ve left it or disciplined ourselves into turning away from it. No, we need you to do the work of conversion, so we need your love. So please open the hearts of all to this great gift, freedom from the fear that they’ve been given that somehow our sins separate us from you, from your love. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.