Sunday, May 30, 2004

John 3:16-21 - "Why Bannerman Should Hold Up a Lighted Sign"

Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings; appointed text for Pentecost Monday)
Thursday, May 27, and Sunday, May 30, 2004

Steve Taylor is a quirky Christian rock musician who takes on great topics in his songs. One of his songs is called “Bannerman” and is about a guy who holds up the “John 3:16” banner in end zone at a football game. (hold up sign) Bannerman’s doing his part to spread the Word of God.

Apparently, the whole “John 3:16” banner thing got started by someone who came to be known as Rainbow Head. Rainbow Head somehow got front row tickets to televised sporting events, brought along his “John 3:16” banner (hold up sign), and also wore a rainbow wig. (put on wig) His goal was to get attention so that people would see the sign, get curious, and look up John 3:16 in the Bible, discovering one of the best summaries of the Gospel: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This sparked many people doing the same thing, and now it is pretty common to see “John 3:16” banners at sporting events. (take off wig, put down sign)

Yet, there’s more to this section of the Gospel of John than just one verse. Jesus said more than John 3:16. He also said John 3:17, 18, 19, all the way to John 3:21. Reading those verses makes me think that Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. It’s great and all to hold up a poster that says “John 3:16,” but really, if you want to get to heart of this passage from the Gospel of John, really Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. (hold up lighted sign – set on table)

“The light has come into the world,” Jesus says. Through talking about light and darkness, Jesus actually repeats what He’s already said in this section, repeats it to make it very clear that salvation only comes through faith in Him.

You see, here in John chapter 3, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus came to ask Jesus some questions. But Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night; he didn’t want the other Pharisees or other people knowing that he was talking to Jesus. The Pharisees were suspicious of what Jesus was teaching, and it wouldn’t look good for Nicodemus to be seen seeking out spiritual teaching from Jesus. Nicodemus wanted to know about salvation, but he kind of wanted Jesus to hand him the answer on a little piece of paper that he could easily hide in his cloak or swallow to destroy it if necessary. “For God so loved the world. . .”

But after Jesus explains that salvation comes through believing in Him, and that rejecting Him brings God’s condemnation, Jesus picks up the metaphor of light and dark to kind of say to Nicodemus, “I’m not giving you the message of salvation as some of kind of secret made in the dark; I want everyone to know about this salvation.” Jesus holds up a lighted sign. (hold up the lighted sign)

The light has come into the world, and those who love darkness, who hide from the light, hide from God’s sight, they will be condemned. But whoever comes to the light, whoever believes in the Son of God will be saved and have eternal life.

So that’s why I think Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. Oh, I mean, it’s not like it really matters. I hope that sometimes people do see those signs during a football game or whatever and they look up John 3:16. But I want us to remember that the sign should be lit up, lit up with a ton of spotlights, because the light has come into the world. I think the sign should be lighted so that we remember that Jesus had more to say than that one verse, had more than one way of explaining what it means to come and believe in Him.

Yet, with that lighted sign, with that reminder that the light has come into the world, it hurts to hear the message. It’s tough to be reminded that the light reveals the darkness, that Jesus reveals our sinfulness.

Jesus says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” We know this, we know we like to hide our sins, we like to do things at night when people aren’t looking. We like to do things when we’re alone and think that no one is watching. That’s what is so shocking about the U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners: the soldiers actually took pictures of themselves doing this, something you’d think they would want to keep in the dark, in secret.

We all like to keep our sins secret. We like darkness when it covers up our sins. Pull the shades, close the door, go out in the middle of the night, park around back, hide our sins.

So if Bannerman holds up a lighted sign, if we remember more than John 3:16, if we also remember that Jesus is the light of the world, then the message hurts more, because we’re remembering that the light reveals our darkness, our sins, Jesus reveals why it is that we need His salvation, why it is that God sent His only Son.

To come to the light means to show your darkness. To come to the light means to lay it all before God. To come to the light means to be rebuked for those actions, those sins that you’ve been hiding behind closed doors. And that hurts, because no one likes to be found out, no one likes to admit where they have been doing wrong.

The Tuesday morning Bible studies helped me to prepare this sermon, and when we started talking about the sins in the world, that was easy. We easily found people to point fingers at. But when I asked what sins are troubling this congregation, what sins are we hiding in our dark corners, then the room got silent and uncomfortable. That’s not an attack on the people in my Bible studies; that’s simply how we all react. It hurts to turn our eyes inward and admit our sins.

Yet, that’s exactly what it means to believe in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe that you are sinful, that you are a child of darkness, that you are dead in your sins, that you cannot escape God’s judgment. To believe in Jesus is to believe that you need His grace and mercy, that you need His forgiveness, that you need Him to die for your sins.

When you believe in Jesus, it’s not that Jesus turns on the lights and always finds you doing something holy. Jesus turns the light on His believers and still finds plenty of sins going on. The difference is that Jesus turns on the light and sees faith in your heart, faith and trust in Him, faith that comes from His Holy Spirit. Jesus turns the light on His believers and sees that they admit their darkness, show their darkness, confess their sins and their need to be saved.

And that’s why salvation can’t come down to our actions. If receiving eternal life required a life without sins, then all Jesus would have to do is turn on the lights once, see all of us doing the sins that we were trying to hide, and then the game would be over, no more lives left, no more chances, no code to break, no override, no reset button.

But John 3:16 goes against that idea. “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God gives us salvation through faith, because based on our works, we would fail.

Yet, sometimes like the Pharisees we might get caught up in our own actions, get caught up in thinking that we’re pretty good, we follow God’s laws, we are good Christians. Jesus turns on the light and find us doing the right thing. You know, like the bumper sticker, “Look busy. Jesus is coming,” it’s kind of like waiting for Jesus to come and then we’re there doing the right thing, doing our good works, “Look at how good we are Jesus.”

Meanwhile, when the light goes out, we keep doing the good works, but we’re grumbling, we’re complaining, we’re second-guessing God, we’re taking pride in ourselves, we’re judging everyone else, we’re wondering why we even need that Jesus guy anyway. “Oops, here He comes again, look happy, look like you
really believe this guy.”

Salvation doesn’t just come down to actions, because even if you had the right actions, your heart may have nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with the truth. That’s where verse 21 comes in.

Verse 21, “so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God,” sounds like a reversal of verse 16, sounds like a return to thinking salvation comes through works. Yet, my Tuesday morning Bible studies and I looked at one scholar who said that the phrase, “Whoever does what is true,” means something like, “One puts the truth which he has received in his heart into his life and actions,” (Lenski, 277). Someone who does what is true is putting her faith into action. In other words, the actions begin with faith. Verse 21 isn’t talking about how you get salvation; actions don’t bring about salvation. Verse 21 is talking about the sign of faith, that faith produces actions in one’s life, and only those actions done in faith are actions done in God. Without faith, we have nothing. Without faith, we don’t have good works, we don’t have the truth, we don’t have salvation.

Why do we spend time and money on Sunday School, teaching the children about the Bible, instead of just having them go do nice projects for people in the nursing homes? Why do we have youth in Confirmation and EDGE Groups and on spiritual retreats rather than always doing service projects? Why do we want our families to spend time coming to worship instead of just sending them into the community to help others? Because we have nothing without faith. We could help all of the poor people in the world, but if it isn’t done in faith, then it isn’t done in God. We could stop spending money on educational materials, stop spending time studying the Bible, but if we lose our faith, if we forget what we believe, then money spent on anything else is a waste. Without faith in Jesus, we have nothing.

So we focus our time and energy on building faith through hearing God’s Word. Then by constantly being built up in our faith, constantly getting reminders of God’s salvation, then we are ready to put faith into action, to go and do the truth.

Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign to remind us that the light has come into the world, that Jesus comes and turns on the lights and finds us as we are—sinners. Jesus turns on the lights, sending us scurrying like mice into the corners of the room, looking for a place to hide. Yet, there’s no corner where we mice can hide from the penetrating, bright light of Jesus. Jesus finds us cowering in the corner, covering our faces from the light, hiding our eyes from His eyes. He reaches out with His strong hands to take hold of us. . .and His touch is gentle and comforting.

He picks us up and tells us that He will not let His light, His truth, His righteousness harm us. He tells us that we can look at His light without fear. We no longer have to hide from His light. He has removed our dark deeds; He has forgiven us for our sins. He did not come to set a trap for us, the trap will not spring, He didn’t come to condemn the world. He knows that even now, we’ll still find ourselves getting into dark corners, doing things that go against His will, but He offers forgiveness for all of our sins. More than that, he sets us back down, equipped with little mice headlamps, ready to bring His light into the world. He will continue to teach us, so that we’ll know more about His light and love, so that we’ll know how to use our headlamps, so that we’ll know how to share His light with everyone that we meet.

If you don’t like thinking of yourself as a mouse with a headlamp, think of yourself as Bannerman with a lighted up sign. Jesus has found you in the darkness, and now sends you out with His message, His light. Through the Holy Spirit, you can do good works, and through those good works, the light of Jesus shines out from you. Like Bannerman holding up a lighted sign, you’re inviting others to come and find hope, peace, and salvation from the light of the world.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

John 16:17-22 - "It Hurts to Wait for the Joy That Will Never Be Taken Away"

5th Sunday of Easter (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, May 8, and Sunday, May 9, 2004

“Now is your time of grief,” Jesus says. “You will weep and mourn;” “you will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” Your grief will turn to joy.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, made famous again by the recent movies, follows a Hobbit named Frodo and his band of faithful friends who experience much grief, but their grief turns to joy. They set out to destroy a ring made by the evil Sauron. The ring gives power, but it is an evil power and so it must be destroyed. Frodo and his constant companion, Sam, must travel into the heart of Sauron’s kingdom to Mount Doom and throw the ring into the fires in the mountain.

Towards the end of the third book, The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom, but when Frodo is about to destroy the ring by throwing it into the fire, he begins to waver. The ring has tremendous power, power to tempt, and Frodo looses heart and decides he can’t destroy the ring.

At that same time, Gollum, a creature that has helped Frodo and Sam, appears and knocks Sam unconscious. Gollum has helped our heroes, but Gollum has a selfish motive: he wants the ring. Sam wakes up in time to see “a strange and terrible thing,” the ensuing struggle between Frodo and Gollum at the edge of he abyss in Mount Doom. Tolkien writes:

“The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.

“‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone” (240).

Sam then carried Frodo out of the cavern in Mount Doom. It is in Sam’s reaction that we see the way one event can pull your heart in two different directions—grief and joy. Tolkien continues,

“‘Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden [of the ring] was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. And then Sam caught sight of [Frodo’s] maimed and bleeding hand.

“‘Your poor hand!” [Sam] said. ‘And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared [Gollum] a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever’” (241).

Sam’s heart can barely keep up with the emotions he’s feeling on that day. On the one hand, the terrible ring has been destroyed, and with it, the power of the evil Sauron, the evil that had long lurked over the land. So Sam is filled with great joy, joy beyond imagination. On the other, Frodo’s hand is bleeding, and there’s no help around for miles. The world is crumbling around them, because they’re in the heart of Sauron’s kingdom. So Sam is filled with grief and sorrow.

There is sadness and tragedy in this event, but through this event, a great joy has come. Tolkien describes this as “eucatastrophe,” the word you have on the sermon sheet on the back page of your bulletins. “Eu,” e-u, is a prefix that means “good.” You have there Tolkien’s description of what eucatastrophe means: “The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly [the joy] of the good catastrophe, the sudden “joyous” turn” (85-86).

Surely there is catastrophe in that great scene from The Lord of the Rings: Frodo doesn’t want to destroy the evil ring, Gollum attacks Sam, Gollum fights with Frodo and bites off a finger to get the ring, and now Frodo is worn out and bleeding and miles from any help.

Yet, out of that catastrophe, the ring is destroyed, the power of the evil lord is destroyed, and that’s why Sam and Frodo experience such great joy there on the side of a crumbling mountain in a fallen kingdom. It is a sudden joyous turn to rather tragic events.

Eu + Catastrophe = Eucatastrophe

That brings us quickly back to the words of Jesus, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” Jesus is talking to His disciples the night He is betrayed, the night before He is crucified, and He knows that the next events will tear apart the hearts of His followers, His friends. “You will weep and mourn,” He tells them, but they can’t understand yet just what He means. They can’t see what great pain they will endure when they know that their Lord has been killed on the cross.

But Jesus also knows that their grief will turn to joy, there will be a sudden joyous turn. In the upcoming tragic events, evil will be destroyed, sin will be overcome, and God’s people will be free. Surely, the death of Christ is a eucatastrophe, the greatest example of this word that Tolkien made up to describe that joy that comes through pain and sorrow.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t use a fairy tale to explain the sudden joyous turn; he uses the birth of a child as a metaphor. I feel a little funny trying to make that connection—the pain of birth being overcome by the joy of a new life. As a guy can I really say, “Yeah, you just forget about all of that pain of childbirth once the baby is here”? I wasn’t sure if you’d believe me when I said that, so I asked a mom.

She said, “It hurts.” That’s probably an understatement. Childbirth hurts, but then yeah, she said, you tend to forget all of that pain, you remember the great joy. This mom talked about when she remembers giving birth she remembers more of the joy than the pain. The joy overshadows the pain and anguish.

So indeed at birth, there’s that sudden joyous turn, that eucatastrophe. Yes, there’s pain and anguish and blood and difficulty, but then there’s new life and joy and wonder and beauty. Jesus is making this connection to help His disciples. He knows the disciples are about to experience great pain, great sorrow, but Jesus points them to the ultimate hope. He is telling them that the story has a happy ending; there’s consolation at the end. There is grief now, but soon there will be a joy that no one will be able to take away or destroy or steal.

But it hurts to wait for salvation; it hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away. It hurts to wait in labor for a child to be born. It hurt Frodo to carry that ring and struggle and have his finger bitten off, waiting for the ring to be destroyed. It hurts to go through this life, days of tragedy and sorrow, days of not understanding why terrible things happen to us, days of having trouble getting up in the morning to face another day; it hurts to go through this life, waiting for the joy of eternal life.

There’s a Scottish fairy tale called, “The Black Bull of Norroway.” Three daughters of a widow all are waiting for husbands. The youngest, Peggy Ann, doesn’t expect some rich prince to marry her; she says she’d just be happy with the Black Bull of Norroway. So then the wise woman tells Peggy Ann that her husband has come, and it is indeed the Black Bull of Norroway.

Peggy Ann rides around on the back of this great bull, which at first terrified her, but then she learned how gentle and caring this bull was. She began to love the bull, and when the bull got a thorn in his foot, she found the thorn and removed it. Instantly, the bull became a handsome young man—a duke who had been made into a bull by a wicked witch, a duke freed from the spell by Peggy Ann’s loving action.

Surely after all of that, Peggy Ann would be happy with her duke, but then while traveling, they got separated, unable to find each other. So Peggy Ann worked for a blacksmith who promised to help her get over the mountain to find the duke if she first worked for the blacksmith for seven years.

When Peggy Ann finally got over the mountain, she found that the Duke had promised to marry the wicked witch’s daughter. She went to him three times while he slept with a song of sadness, a song about how much it hurt to wait for him. She sang, “Seven long years I worked for thee/Won’t you please wake and speak to me?” The third time the Duke did wake up and took Peggy Ann into his arms. They were married and lived happily ever after.

Just when it seems that Peggy Ann will forever suffer from these catastrophes, these tragedies, then there is a sudden joyous turn—the Duke wakes up, the Duke marries her. Peggy Ann got a bull instead of a husband, found a handsome Duke and then lost him, worked for seven hard years to get over the mountain, found the Duke again but he slept through her song. Yet, in the end, these are eucatastrophes, good comes out of the catastrophes in her life.

It hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away. It hurt Peggy Ann to wait for her Duke; it hurt to go through so much while hoping for marriage and living happily ever after. It hurts to wait for the joy that will never be taken away in Christ. It hurts to know about God’s love but not always see it. It hurts to have the hope of eternal life but then see other people not have that same hope. It hurts to know that Christ will give us a new life, a life of peace and joy yet we still struggle in this life of fear and sadness.

Yet, the cross is a eucatastrophe—a tragedy of grandest proportions, the Son of God killed by His own Creation, yet also the hope of eternal life for all who believe. Our lives as Christians are eucatastrophes—living in this world separated from our loving Creator and Father, our Savior, yet knowing that when the pains of this life are over, when we have gone through the tragedy of Mount Doom, when we have worked seven years and sang the song each night, then the waiting is over, God will take us to be with Him, to be where the joy is complete.

I love this term, eucatastrophe, that Tolkien made up to describe the sudden joyous turn. I love this term for describing our lives here on Earth, because while it points us to the hope that we have in Jesus, while it clearly is a way of talking about the incredible salvation that we have through the cross, it is a term that still admits that this life is full of tragedies, sorrow, pain, death, and catastrophes.

A lot of times we want to say that God has a plan, that God meant for something difficult to happen to help us learn something, that God will bring good out of a bad situation. That’s all sort of true, but we really run the risk of trying to deny how bad things are. It is a tragedy to lose a loved one. It is a catastrophe when a storm or fire destroys your house. It is painful when we’re suffering with a physical injury or struggling with emotional difficulties. So I look at our lives in Christ, our lives that have the hope and joy of eternal life, but lives that are still filled with terror and pain and fear, I look at our lives and see how they are filled with eucatastrophes.

The pain is real. The tragedy and travesty of the cross is real. While good will come out of it, it is still a catastrophe. Jesus doesn’t say that mothers don’t experience pain and anguish in childbirth; Jesus doesn’t deny that. We should honor our mothers this day for what they went through in order to give us life. What Jesus does say is that that pain and anguish is overshadowed by the joy of the new life, the new baby.

As Christians, we don’t deny that we suffer and struggle in this life. What we do say is that the pain and anguish will be overshadowed by the joy found in the new life, the salvation, the eternal life given to us by Jesus Christ.

The joy is greater than any happy ending of a fairy tale. Tolkien doesn’t use fairy tales to say that Jesus is just another fairy tale. Tolkien uses fairy tales to say how Jesus outshines them all, outshines any tale we might make up. He says the Gospel of Christ is a fairy story that has entered history. We have all of these imagined stories where after all the bad things that happen, the people go off into the sunset, hand in hand, living happily ever after. Those are the stories of our imagination, and Tolkien says that in Christ, that kind of story entered into history, into reality, into our lives. Through Christ, we have the actual opportunity to live happily ever after with our God.

I would say that we wouldn’t know how to make up a good fairy story, a sudden joyous turn, we wouldn’t know what eucatastrophe was without knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord. I don’t think anyone could imagine something as incredible as a sudden joyous turn if we hadn’t learned that from God Himself—God who decided to set aside His judgment on sin and promised to save His people, God who took the tragedy of our sinfulness and promised to transform our hearts, work His forgiveness, and save us from death. I don’t think anyone could imagine something like that, and all of our fairy tales and stories are just attempts at trying to have something that amazing, that incredible, that hopeful.

There is no greater story, no greater fairy tale than the events of history when God sent His Son to die for you. Yes, you now wait through difficult, trying days, through days which make you face sickness and injury and poverty and crime and fear. Yes, it hurts to wait in this place.

But Jesus promises that that hurt is a eucatastrophe. There is a sudden joyous turn found in Jesus. Sin is forgiven. Pain is removed. Fear finds peace. Sorrow finds comfort. Yes, you now wait in a life that might at times seem like the pain of childbirth, the terror of Mount Doom, the nights of singing and not having your true love hear your voice. Yes, you now wait, but Jesus promises that your grief will turn to joy. You will see Jesus, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. You will live happily ever after.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, New York: Ballantine, 1993, 1994.

J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Tolkien Reader, New York: Ballantine, 1966.

Charlotte Huck,
The Black Bull of Norroway, Singapore: Greenwillow Books, 2001.