Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Wrong Thank-You (John 4:5-42)

Awesome story. And very long, too, which means many preachers are tempted to cram as much of the good stuff into a sermon as they can.

Since there are at least a half-dozen different sermons that can come out of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, cramming in lots of stuff would violate one of the Basic Preaching Laws given by Dr. John Holbert, my preaching professor: If you only have one sermon to preach, make sure you only preach one sermon. I’ve blown that one before, so it might be a good idea to pray for some of the people who had to listen to my earliest sermons.

I’m going to dispense with almost all of the story and focus on what happens after the Samaritans meet Jesus. Skip all the way to the last verse. After Jesus stays in the village for a couple of days and teaches the people, they come to the woman who first told them about him. Now we believe because we’ve seen him ourselves, they tell her. We no longer believe just because of the word you brought, but because we’ve met Christ ourselves.

I don’t think they dismiss the woman’s testimony. She came to them with the news that she’d met someone who knew everything she’d ever done. At first, I’m sure they reacted with some derision – yeah, lady, around here everyone knows everything you’ve ever done. It’s a small village. Half of us used to be your in-laws one time or another.

But this guy isn’t from around these parts, and his knowledge has to be something different than villager gossip. So they go to meet him and find out he’s not only not from the area, he’s a Jew to boot. After they listen for awhile, they find they want to hear more, and he stays in the village a couple of days. That’s when they tell the woman with the original encounter they now believe for themselves. They know they wouldn’t have ever heard about Jesus if the woman hadn’t told them, so I think they’re grateful to her.

And now they rejoice because they know him themselves, not just secondhand.

This encounter between Jesus and first, the Samaritan woman and second, the Samaritan villagers, demonstrates some important things in sharing our testimony with people. And it demonstrates some important things about how we respond to the testimony.

Our church baptizes infants. Not because we believe babies will go to hell without it or because we believe they’re able to choose right from wrong and understand what happens. We baptize babies because we believe God’s grace is already at work in them and will bring them to the place where they will know him for themselves.

In the meantime, we teach them about Jesus and about the Bible and about their church. We teach them things about our beliefs. We get them ready for the handoff, when they will have their own responsibility to accept God’s offer of life or reject it. When we baptize a baby, in fact, the whole congregation promises to take part in the handoff.

It works the same way in sharing our testimony with an adult. We tell them about our church, or we tell them something about Jesus, and they may respond by wanting to hear us tell them more. They come to our church when we invite them, and they get to know some people. They get to the point where they want to come here not because we’re here, but because this is the place where they handle their relationship with God on their own.

That’s the goal of every shared testimony – God may use us to start, but our whole goal is to get out of the way once he’s used us so the people who hear us can stand on their own two spiritual feet.

And our goal as people who’ve heard this testimony or invitation from others is to get to that place. We want to get to the place where we own this church or this offer from God as ours, and not something that we need someone else in the middle of. If people come here because they like something I do, that’s great, but if they leave when I do, then I obviously didn’t have time to finish my job.

When we boil everything down in our spiritual lives, we know we owe some people great thanks. Maybe it’s a Sunday school teacher, maybe it’s a pastor, maybe it’s a parent. Maybe it’s a friend who introduced us to their friend, Jesus.

But unless we, like the Samaritan villagers, come to believe on our own instead of because we’ve heard someone else say something, we haven’t completed our journey, and our thanksgiving will be inadequate. Because those people who did something for us all did it because of what God called them to do.

If we don’t understand that God is the ultimate source of the gift we’ve been given, we thank the wrong people, and we don’t truly understand that gift. It’d be like never unwrapping a Christmas present and only thanking the person who wrapped it.

That’s all well and good, but it never will get us to the true gift inside, and the One who sent it to us.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Self-Taught (John 3:1-17)

Sorry about the delay -- had a computer snafu and a guest speaker on successive weeks.

I don’t understand why the lectionary puts this passage in our readings two weeks after the Super Bowl is over – it contains the best-known verse in the NFL, after all – but there you go.

We don’t see him so much anymore, but there was a guy who always used to wear one of those crazy rainbow-Afro wigs and hold up a sign saying “John 3:16.” He sat in back of the end zone and every time there was a field goal or an extra point attempt on his end of the field, the camera caught his sign.

I expect John 3:16 is one of the best-known scripture references, and a lot people probably even know the verse that goes with it: “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.”

Verse 17 intrigues me too, though. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It intrigues me because a lot of times we Christians seem to present the other side of the coin. We talk a lot about God visiting this or that judgment on people or on a country because of their wickedness. I heard a few people around the country say that when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, and I imagine you did too. These people were quiet about whatever sins the city of Houston had committed when Hurricane Rita hit it, but the ways of the Lord are often mysterious.

According to what Jesus said in his conversation with Nicodemus, that’s not the case. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but so that the world through him might be saved. Jesus, as a human being without sin, would have been justified in condemning the world around him, but he didn’t. He called out the Pharisees and some of his other opponents on their actions, but he did so because of what they did. His own disciples earned the same kind of rebuke when they crossed the line.

Some people would like to understand this verse as a clue to the idea that our view of the world as fallen isn’t exactly right. They point out that when God made the world, he called it good. God is sovereign over all creation, so it’s hard to believe human sin would have enough power to wreck the world God made.

For them, when Jesus says he didn’t come to condemn the world, he suggests that the world as it is can somehow be repaired, and that those who follow Jesus’ teachings can do that, as well as lead others to it.

That’s a problematic idea, even though it reminds us of things we might forget, like God’s sovereign power over everything, a power that nothing in the universe can match.

I think that Jesus’ own critiques of the misdeeds around him help us see that while God might not have sent him to condemn the world, there’s condemnation around somewhere. Further, the end of the phrase says that he came so that the world through him might be saved. If it needs saving, that means something is wrong with it, something that may endanger its continuing existence.

If God didn’t condemn the world, but the world is somehow condemned anyway, that shortens our list of usual suspects, doesn’t it? Down to…well, us.

In effect, the world is self-condemned. By “world,” here, I mean human existence and our human cultures and societies. I’m pretty sure most of the trees of the world are without sin, for example, as are the rocks.

We have condemned the world and made it so we need saving. Which is just classical Christian teaching, isn’t it? Don’t we say our own sin separates us from God? Don’t we talk about how we have missed the mark in living Godly lives, thus requiring God to save us from what we can’t save ourselves from?

And don’t we talk like that (me included)? This worthless group of people, that rotten industry, that other bunch of heathens…oh yes, we can talk a good game of condemnation. We can move a person or a group of people from the category of “fallen” into “impossible to redeem” very quickly, can’t we?

We know how to move ourselves across that line, too, and convince ourselves that God won’t deal with us, because he wouldn’t want to bother with people as clearly rotten as we are. Just like he wouldn’t want to bother with people clearly as lost as those…racists. Or those CEO’s. Or those Muslims. Or those (insert political party or parties you don’t like here).

According to Jesus, God wants to bother with exactly those people. In fact they – and we, let’s be honest – are why he came in the first place. So that the world, and everybody in it, might be saved through him.

That’s good news you might want to put on a sign at a football game someplace.