Sunday, March 15th, 2015 – Fourth Sunday of Lent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
Hymns: “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Come Thou Fount”, “I Surrender All”, “Something About That Name”, “How Great Thou Art”, “We Come As Guests Invited”, “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
Love, don’t condemn.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow sometimes. A call to love, not to condemn. We don’t like it. We want to condemn. We think people deserve to get what they have coming to them.
But love, don’t condemn.
It’s unfair, we say. There should be justice. Justice for young men killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Justice for police officers gunned down for doing their job. Justice for innocent Christians, Jews, Muslims, pulled from their homes and beheaded by reprehensible terrorists.
But God calls us to love, not to condemn.
We want to condemn. Condemnation makes us feel better. By now, we’ve all heard about the chants and monkey noises directed at Nate Griffin by students from Bishop LeBlond High School. An outrage, we correctly say, that this young man should be subjected to such repulsive acts, such racism, from the students of a school that purports to be Christian, that claims to uphold the teachings of Christ in its everyday outlook.
But we condemn not because we are justified in so doing. We condemn because Nate Griffin is an East Buchanan Bulldog, and we feel that an attack on him is an attack on our community. And when Bishop LeBlond’s students respond by attempting to justify themselves by saying that East Buchanan has themselves demonstrated poor sportsmanship at times, we bristle, because their justification is a poor excuse for their actions.
And so, we take to social media, to our tables at The Barn and Natalie’s Café, to our Saturday Stitchers groups and our lodges, and we talk with righteous fury of the nerve of these so-called Christian students. Such unbridled filth would never be permitted to run rampant in Gower, we say. No student should ever be subjected to such bigotry.
Yet even as we vociferously and righteously condemn the students of Bishop LeBlond, there’s a niggling feeling of unease in the backs of our brains, telling us we’re doing something wrong. As much as we want to defend Nate against the buffoonery to which he has been subjected, there’s something inside telling us that the way we’re doing it is just not right.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it through him.
Love, don’t condemn.
It really is a good thing that that’s the approach God takes with us. Could you imagine if God decided we needed to be condemned? The student body of Bishop LeBlond High School would be the least of our worries if the Almighty decided to let us have what we really deserve. We, the human race, defied God’s simple commandment to stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we insisted on following our own paths instead of trusting on God’s guidance, we’ve spent millennia doing our best to exploit the creation God granted us until there’s nothing left, we’ve developed a long and brutal history of massacring people – people who are God’s children, God’s own creation, created in God’s own image, mind you – that we don’t like or who are simply occupying the land where we want to live, and perhaps most egregiously, we executed God’s own Son.
If God were a 1990s professional wrestler, this would be the part of the program where we would be expecting God to retrieve a folding metal chair and wallop humanity upside the back of the head with it.
But there is no metal chair, no condemnation from God. God, in infinite love and wisdom, chose to demonstrate the grace and mercy that is found only in divine love, setting aside greatly deserved condemnation.
Now, before I go any further, I must be clear: I am not, by any means, trying to let the Bishop LeBlond students off the hook. Their actions were reprehensible, and any repercussions they face, they will deserve. But I remember an incident from my own high school days, when my school’s mascot, the Phoenix Christian High School Cougar, got into a halftime fight – a throw-down, brawling fistfight – with the Bourgade Catholic High School Eagle. A news crew happened to be on hand at the game, and caught the entire fight on tape.
Of course, we Phoenix Christian students thought our mascot’s actions justified. He had been provoked, the Eagle had thrown the first punch. But that made no difference when that video aired on that night’s newscast, and the anchor said, “I thought those were both supposed to be Christian schools.”
Ouch. A bite of rebuke, a pinch of shame. It stuck with me and many other Phoenix Christian students long after that night, and I imagine that Bishop LeBlond’s students feel similarly. The shame of the actions of their fellow students at that game will follow them around for a long time. Bad enough that they should receive that shame from the greater populace as a whole – should we, Christians just as they are, also continue to condemn them?
Love, don’t condemn.
You see, God had developed a pattern of demonstrating love to his people rather than condemnation long before sending Jesus to the world. In today’s Old Testament reading, from the book of Numbers, we see the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, being attacked by a plague of poisonous snakes. These snakes had come among the people in response to their repeated acts of defiance against God – their worshiping of the golden calf, their refusal to enter the Promised Land because of the “giants” that populated it, their grumbling against God because of their quality of life. So bad had their complaints become that they longed for the days of slavery in Egypt, somehow deluding themselves into thinking that being in a place where they spent all day at backbreaking labor, catering to the whims of the Pharaoh, while he killed their male children, would be better than freedom. Yes, all they had to eat was manna, but surely that was better than slavery.
Well, they seemed to have forgotten the reality of Egypt, and God had had enough of their complaints. And so the snakes came, and to be quite frank, God would have been well justified in allowing the people of Israel to slowly die, one by one, as they were bitten by the poisonous snakes.
But God chose not to condemn the people. God gave them a way out. God had Moses make a bronze image of a snake, wrapped around a pole, and set it up where all the people could see it. When one of the people of Israel was bitten by the snake, all they had to do was to look upon the pole, and the grace of God would allow them escape from death by snake venom.
Today, you will still see that snake wrapped around a pole at hospitals and on ambulances – places where the grievously ill and wounded can receive healing.
God loved. God didn’t condemn.
And that’s why Jesus was sent to Israel millennia after the Israelites wandered in the desert. In the intervening years, they had done little to improve upon the human condition. Forty years wandering in the desert had taught them nothing. They sinned, repeatedly. The kingdom split. Half was conquered by Assyria, the other half by Babylon. Even after their exiles had ended, they continued to sin, again, and again, and again. Religious sects developed, proclaiming themselves the most righteous. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes all uplifted themselves, condemning the lesser people of Israel.
But time and time again, God showed no interest in condemning the people as their own religious elite had. When Saul of Tarsus condemned the Christian people for heresy and had them imprisoned and even killed, God, instead of condemning Saul, showed him grace and mercy, giving him the opportunity to come to know Christ and become Paul, one of the greatest apostles. This grace and mercy was shown time and time again through God’s love for all humanity, and nowhere was it seen more clearly than in the presence of Jesus on earth.
The Gospel of John is frequently referred to as the pastoral gospel, or the gospel of love. It is very different from Matthew, Mark, or Luke in that its narrative is shaped around the teachings of Jesus rather than a chronology. And indeed, if you go through John, you will see that time and time again, Jesus’ words and actions are based on the idea of love instead of condemnation.
When Jesus turned the water into wine, he didn’t believe that he was yet supposed to reveal himself to the world. But his mother asked him to do it, and so he did it. How many of us, do you suppose, have done something for our mothers, not because we wanted to, but because she asked us to do so, and because we love our mothers, we did?
When Jesus sat and spoke with the Samaritan woman, many might have expected him to condemn her, like society had. But instead, he shared with her the good news of God’s grace and mercy. He showed her love that most other people would have found to be a foreign concept.
When the adulterous woman was brought before Jesus for judgment, the Pharisees and scribes expected him to condemn her, as the law of Moses demanded. But instead of doing so, Jesus turned their own condemnation back on them, asking which of them had a soul clean enough to demand such condemnation of this woman. He showed her love, forgiving her of her sins and imploring her to sin no more.
Perhaps no clearer indication of Jesus’ love was when his friend Lazarus died. His own sisters, in their anger, condemned Jesus for not having come to Bethany faster, believing that Jesus’ presence could have kept Lazarus from the grave. So overcome was Jesus that he is recorded as actually having wept over the death of his friend. And then, out of love, Jesus called forth into the tomb, bringing Lazarus back to life once again.
Even when Jesus drove the cows out of the sanctuary, he was doing so out of love. He did not go into the temple to condemn the people there, but rather, to show them that there was a new way – a way in which they were not condemned by their sin, but saved from their sin through the love of God.
Love, don’t condemn.
When Nicodemus came to visit Jesus late that night in the third chapter of John, he was likely expecting a theological explanation from Jesus about how he was the Messiah, and what he would be doing for the people of Israel. Instead, Jesus explained to him the great love of God, telling Nicodemus that his presence on earth was not for the condemnation of humanity, but for its salvation. God does not condemn, Jesus told Nicodemus. Only those who refuse to believe, and who continue to perpetrate evil, are condemned, and that through their own actions.
When we choose to love rather than to condemn, we choose the path of Christ. As the hymn says, in Christ there is no east nor west, and in the same way, in Christ there are no condemned or un-condemned – there are only those who are loved.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Remember those words. God’s love is so great that all who live in this world are invited to know eternal life through Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. While people may be condemned by their own actions, it is our calling to love them, as God first loved us.
For we are called not to condemn, but to love.