Sermon delivered on Lent 3A, Sunday, March 15, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; St. John 4.5-42.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we hold the first of three scrutinies of our confirmands, where we pray for them and show them our love and support as they continue to grow in their relationship with Christ. As such, this sermon is aimed primarily at them, although hopefully we all can benefit from what the Scriptures have to say to us this morning. Specifically I want us to look at what real Christian faith looks like on the ground and how our faith always points to how real our relationship is with Jesus.
Is the Lord among us or not? This was the complaint of the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the land God promised them. And if you have paid attention to the news of late, it seems many of us are still asking the same question. As infections from the coronavirus continue to spread, we are tempted to doubt whether God loves us or is among us. If God is all powerful and loving, why doesn’t God just protect us by getting rid of this virus?
But as our OT and psalm lessons make clear, we are not to put God to the test like that because in questions like this we are really questioning God’s faithfulness and goodness toward us as well as God’s great love for us. To be sure, our world is full of many things that tempt us to question God’s love for us and his ability to make all things right, the current coronavirus pandemic being the latest example. But that is not what was going on with the Israelites when they asked this question.
Imagine you had been one of God’s people Moses led out of Egypt. That surely would have been a frightening and anxious time. Would the Egyptians, who were stronger than your people, try to prevent you from leaving by killing you or cutting off your escape route? Would you be better or worse off leaving? But God answered these questions in spectacular ways. You suddenly find yourself crossing the Red Sea, with walls of water piled high on either side of you. How is that possible? Why does the seabed feel like dry ground? And what’s with that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, always leading the way? Then there was the bread from heaven, the manna, that mysteriously appeared each day so that you and your family wouldn’t starve to death. What’s up with that? Here’s the point. Had you been among God’s people back in the day, you would have seen multiple examples of God’s power, of God protecting you from harm so that his promise to bring you to a new land could be fulfilled. You witnessed all these things first hand! God knows you need to eat and drink and be protected from the desert heat and other dangers, and in some very spectacular ways God demonstrated his love and care for you as he brought you and your people out of Egypt.
Now here you are on your way, wandering in the desert and complaining that God has abandoned you and won’t get you to the promised land. Sure you are anxious and frightened. The wilderness is not for wimps! But God had proven his love for you and his ability to care for and protect you. So why the grumbling now? That was the problem from God’s perspective. He had cared for and protected his people because God called them to be his own. Now when the going got tough (again), the people questioned God’s love, faithfulness, and ability to protect and care for them despite what they had experienced. Apply this to your own life. Think of family or friends you know intimately and who know you just as well. You have demonstrated to them that you love and care for them in what you do for them, in behaving in ways that represent your family name in the best possible ways. Then all of a sudden out of the blue, they question your motives toward them and call your character into question. How would that make you feel? At that point, even though you remain friends and/or part of the family, you have effectively become enemies, at least for the moment.
This is what happened to the human race and God. Before they rebelled against God in paradise, Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect relationship with God. They knew God was their Creator and Father and that they were his creatures and children. Genesis 3 describes this by telling us God walked constantly in the garden with Adam and Eve, indicating they enjoyed perfect friendship with God, something that is hard for us to imagine because none of us have ever experienced perfect friendship with God or anyone else. But it was different for Adam and Eve because they did what God asked them to and reaped the benefits. They weren’t worried or anxious about anything because they experienced God’s presence and love and goodness first hand. They knew God better than we know those we love the most. Adam and Eve were functioning in the way God intended for them. They reflected God’s goodness and love out into the world to sustain and nourish and refresh it. But that all changed when they rebelled against God and tried to be God instead of his creatures. The Bible calls that sin and every one of us has been infected by it ever since. We’re afraid of the coronavirus right now, but it won’t infect everybody and the worst it can do is kill the body, terrible as that is. But our infection from Sin makes us enemies of God who is the Source of all life and health and goodness, and if something isn’t done about it, we will all be cut off from God (die) forever because God in his great love for us cannot ultimately allow evil to continue.
We don’t like talking about this because we like to fool ourselves into thinking we can fix ourselves and our problems. We can’t. We might eventually find a cure for the coronavirus but we will never find a human cure for our rebellion against God. Sure, we can work to improve ourselves and with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, we can make good progress in getting rid of things that make us sick. But in this mortal life we will never be totally free from doing the things that makes us enemies of God and that is why some people really dislike the Christian faith because it doesn’t teach self-help and human solutions to the problems that make us most afraid and anxious. And so we keep testing God and asking if he really cares about us or has the power to help us solve problems we care most about because we really want to do things our way. Every one of us has felt this way and when that happens, it demonstrates that deep down we really don’t trust God. And if we don’t trust God, why would we want to act like God wants us to act, especially if we think we know better? Yet the ancient Israelites wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt. We Christians often want to return to our slavery to Sin. This demonstrates they and we don’t know any better!
But here’s the thing. The God who led his people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea is the same God we worship. So what mighty acts of power has God done for us to prove he loves us and has the ability to save us from all that makes us afraid? The death and resurrection of Christ. St. Paul makes an astonishing claim in our epistle lesson from Romans today. He tells us at just the right time, while we were still God’s enemies, Christ died for us to break the power of Sin over us, the very thing that makes us God’s enemies in the first place. St. Paul didn’t say that we had to turn away from our sins or feel bad about them or ourselves before Christ died for us. In fact, as we’ve seen, there’s nothing we can do to rid ourselves from Sin’s infection. No, God acted independently on our behalf, even before we realized we needed help, so that we no longer have to fear being his enemies or be afraid of dying! In other words, God reconciled us to himself on the cross of Jesus. End of story. We did nothing to deserve or earn this life-giving favor. God did it out of his great love for us and his desire that we be reconciled to him so that we could enjoy life to its fullest. The story of the Bible is not about us seeking God, but God seeking us because of God’s great love for us!
Think about the person you dislike most in your life (hopefully he is not preaching to you at the moment). Would you be willing to give your life for that person? St. Paul doesn’t think you would and neither do I. Sure, there might be an exception or two to this rule, but for the most part, what do we do to people who are our enemies? We shun them and have bad thoughts toward them. We don’t wish them well. We hope bad stuff happens to them. Now imagine that person one day acted unexpectedly to save your life and in the process, actually gave his or her life for yours. Would that not change how you feel toward that person forever? Wouldn’t you feel a sense of love and gratitude for that person and desire to act in ways that would honor the person’s memory?
This is what St. Paul is telling us to do in our epistle lesson. When by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we realize the gift God has given us, the gift of eternal life and release from our slavery to Sin so that we are free to love God and others just like Jesus did for us, we will experience God’s peace, a peace you’ll always want to possess once you’ve experienced it. We no longer have to worry if God loves us. He’s already demonstrated that in Christ’s death for us, despite the fact that we were enemies of God at the time. He gives us his Spirit to continue his healing work in us and to make himself known to us. He invites us to grow in our relationship with him and demonstrate our faith and trust in him to care for us, come what may in this life, by imitating Jesus in our lives. This is what faith on the ground looks like. This is your challenge and ours, my beloved confirmands. Embrace the love of Christ and walk with him everyday. If you need reminded of God’s love for you in Christ, talk with your family and your parish family. We’ll remind and encourage you. And when you stumble along the way, as you surely will, don’t worry. Jesus is always willing to help you to overcome that which sickens you because he created you to be his own forever. Remember that Jesus typically works through other humans, especially those in your family, so trust Christ enough to share your struggles with us so he can use us to help you work through them. We will weep with you and embrace you in your failures and sorrows as well as your happiness and successes. If you allow us this privilege of sharing Christ’s love with you, you will come to know Jesus even more deeply in the process. May the Father always give you the grace to continue to grow in your knowledge of Christ this Lent and throughout your lives. Doing so will help you accept his love for you and strengthen your ability to believe his promise to you that you are his forever. Then you will surely know the truth that God in Christ is your refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Be of good cheer, my beloved. Christ has overcome the world for you. We who believe in him are his enemies no longer. After all, you are to die for in God’s eyes. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.