Fourth Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 15, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

It’s “short and sweet” on the Lab for this week; Bubba #2 is pretty much out of pocket, so we’re going with Delmer’s sermon and a “Special Edition” of the Lectionary Lab Live podcast in which Dr. Chilton actually preaches the sermon for you!

See you’uns next week back in our familiar roles and format.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I like the word oxymoron. It means expressing two contradictory things at the same time.  The word itself is an oxymoron – being made up of two Greek words meaning “sharp” and “dull.” Oxymoron = sharp-dull. Some of my favorite examples are: bittersweet, original copy, jumbo shrimp, and a true Southernism; pretty ugly. I have often thought that having a firm handle on the concept of an oxymoron is vital to understanding the Christian faith. Is God oxymoronic? Does God express truths that are mutually contradictory?

As we read the Bible, we can find evidence for two quite different, pictures of God. In the first – God is harsh, judgmental, strict; a god of law and punishment, of revenge and retribution, a god who keeps a careful tally of our sins and metes out appropriate penalties. In the second – God is gentle, loving, forgiving, and indulgent; a god who loves us with a prodigal, spendthrift love.

Everyone has a mental picture of God, a picture shaped in part by the Biblical stories we heard as a child. As we grow older, we begin to realize the contradictory, the oxymoronic nature of these stories and pictures. Noah’s Ark is a good example.  Lovely scenes of a ship and cute animals saved from a flood.  But wait a minute, God sent a flood to kill everybody and everything not on the boat?  Wait a minute! And so, we begin to wonder; which is it? what is God really like?

Is God like the strait-lazed, self-righteous commandant of a military academy; all rules and regulations and carefully calculated systems of demerits? Or is God like your favorite Grandmother; all warm hugs and twinkly eyes, fresh-baked sugar cookies and a sympathetic ear?

Our lesson from Ephesians says in verse three that “we were by nature, children of wrath,” calling up the image of the judgmental God who condemns us all to hell.  Then comes this line, verse four; “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us” This is the sweet, loving God.

Our Gospel lesson contains everybody’s favorite memory verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son” Even Lutherans can say it by heart! It’s a message of love and forgiveness.  But it also implies judgment and wrath: Those who do not believe will perish.  A few verses on it talks about condemnation and people loving darkness and being evil.

The puzzle, the contradiction, the oxymoron, remains, weaving in and out of every story, sometimes every sentence of the Bible.  Look at the strange story from Numbers about Moses and the bronze serpent and notice how the “pictures”, the “images” of God alternate throughout:

1 – The People are in the wilderness, having been liberated from slavery in Egypt. PICTURE: God the Loving

2 – The Children of Israel complain and get impatient and start whining. (vs.4-5) God gets angry and sends fiery serpents that bite and kill (vs. 6).  PICTURE: God the Vengeful

3 – The people repent and ask for forgiveness (vs. 7) and God shows them mercy, provides a way of salvation, The bronze serpent of a pole: PICTURE: God the Loving

In our Gospel lesson, this strange story of Moses and the bronze serpent is lifted up as a picture, an image, of what Jesus the Christ is for us: Jesus – the Fiery Serpent of God !  Jesus comes, first of all, as the judgment and wrath of God, pointing out and condemning the world’s sinfulness. Jesus, far from being meek and mild, was often quite angry about sin, was often judgmental and harsh towards people he met. Just remember last week’s Gospel lesson about driving the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus was many things, but meek and mild were not two of them.

But, Christ is not only our judgment, Christ is also our salvation. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. . .” The Son of man must be lifted up. The Son of Man must be crucified! The Son of man must die so that we may live! What a puzzle, what a contradiction, what an oxymoron, what a mystery!

The Cross of Christ contains both God’s judgment on our sin, and God’s salvation from our sin.
Yet, God is not an oxymoron; God is amazingly consistent. For God’s anger at our sin is the direct result of the love God has for us, his beloved children, caught in the web of the world’s sin. Sin pulls us down, sin cuts us off from God and from each other, and worst of all, cuts us off from our true selves. God’s hatred for sin is so great that God was willing to do anything to save us from it.

The greatest, most paradoxical, most oxymoronic image of our faith is Christ upon the Cross. There, on the cross, the judgment of God and the love of God are revealed.  As the Scripture says, “He who knew no sin, became sin for us all . . .” in our place and on our behalf.  Christ upon the cross is the mysterious, oxymoronic truth which holds the story of God’s judgment and God’s love together.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up!”
“That everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Amen and amen.

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