They say that you can tell a lot about a culture from what its tallest buildings are. Of course, the tallest buildings are always the easiest to see. Once upon a time, the tallest buildings in the world were family homes; they were the first kinds of structures to be built. In later times and in later cultures, military installations, government facilities, royal palaces, and houses of worship dueled for the “tallest building” title. In various parts of the world and in multiple eras, a different one of those might be the one casting an imposing shadow over the place where people lived.
And now, today? In every major city in the world, in every culture, we can see what takes up our highest spaces. It’s always business. Money talks, after all, and it elevates itself above all other concerns. We live in a time in history in which the families, governments, militaries, and religions are all subject to the whims of money. After all, money’s what makes the world go ‘round, as people are fond of saying. In fact, there’s a huge sermon about idolatry in that idea somewhere, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Instead, I would ask that you accept my premise that we put what’s important up highest, and think about it in relation to our stories today.
I read for you an odd little story from the book of Numbers this morning. This is one of those weird stories that I remember talking about as an undergrad in religion, and a lot of people born & raised in the church had no idea about. I’m not surprised if most of you out there have never heard this story before. It’s this story of poisonous snakes. It’s such a weird story that most preachers will avoid it. In fact, I’m not really going to preach on it today, either, but it is referenced in our other reading, so I think it merits some explanation before we move on to talk about the passage from John. The passage from John relies on us understanding this Numbers passage, so let’s make sure we all get that one first.
As you probably know, there was a time when the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses helped lead them out of their time of slavery and to the Promised Land of Israel. The journey, though not a long one by miles, took them forty years as they would set up camp for a while, then move along, slowly and deliberately. The story we read today takes place in one of those times, when the Israelites have not yet arrived in the Promised Land.
On the trip, this trip which has been long, difficult, and boring, the Israelites begin to complain. Now, I don’t want to be too critical of that, nor should any of us be. The furnace went -out at our house this week – Monday, I think it was – and it got cold. Carissa and I complained, as you do. It was “way down” to 60 degrees at the coldest point. And honestly, that’s really not that cold. I mean, think about what people did in South Dakota 130 years ago. I’m sure most houses were substantially colder than 60 degrees on the day of a blizzard. So we do the same thing; it’s very easy to take what you have for granted.
And beyond that, we can often forget what things were like before. I think the Israelites suggest that “at least the food was better in Egypt” out of the same sort of logic that can cause any one of us to wish to return to an earlier time in our lives. Sometimes, earlier times were better; but honestly, most of the time, we forget the things about the “good ol’ days” that were worse than now, because we’re idealizing the things we miss. If the Israelites had given it much thought, they certainly wouldn’t’ve been wishing for Egyptian food at the cost of days of rest, the ability to control their own lives, and the promise of better days ahead. But, in a moment of difficulty, it’s very easy to make a desire to go back to something before.
So, that’s when we get to the tricky part of the passage; see, this is where the book of Numbers tells us that “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many Israelites died.” Now, to my ear, that makes God sound petty and childish.
It’s one of those situations where I think we have to acknowledge that the writers of Scripture were more often concerned with explaining everything than they were with necessarily being consistent in their portrayal of God. So, in order to explain a plague of snakes, they say, “God did it; clean, easy answer.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that works for me; it doesn’t sound like the God I know. I don’t know God to punish everyone every time we complain about something. So I prefer to think of it in one way, but your mileage may vary.
Regardless, there are these poisonous snakes around, and people are dying. The Israelites ask Moses for guidance, and Moses prays to God. See, this is part of why I don’t love (or really even understand) that earlier part about God sending the poisonous snakes – God is, in this passage, the one who offers deliverance, not the one who gets the people in trouble in the first place. But either way, Moses’ prayer is answered. God tells Moses to build the highest thing in the camp – a bronze snake on a pole, which will miraculously heal anyone who looks at it. Just as we have in our cultures throughout history, the most important thing is elevated. In this case, it’s a promise of deliverance from God, and it’s healing for people who are desperately in need of it.
So hopefully that clears some of that up. Even if you didn’t know the story before, you do now. And it’s relevant, because our brief reading from John’s Gospel begins with that line, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It’s a weird reference, but think of the commonalities. The serpent was lifted up so everyone could see; likewise, when the Romans crucified people, part of the point was to have them up high on display, so that people could see the execution. The serpent was on a pole, while Jesus was on the cross. The serpent was a direct result of fleeing a foreign power who wanted to control the Israelites; Jesus was executed by a foreign power who was controlling the Israelites. Finally, and most importantly of all, the serpent on that bronze pole and Jesus were also a means of salvation.
Yes, the serpent was a means of salvation from a physical illness. And when we’re struggling with physical illness, it’s probably very tempting to wish for some sort of serpent of our own; something we could just look at an be made well. When we’re ill, and while we walk this earth in our bodies, it’s pretty easy to think of our physical health as being the most important thing in the world. But really, think about why John’s Gospel chooses to include this reference to the story from Numbers; it’s a story about the most important thing being raised up the highest.
As I’ve said before, the season of Lent is a long march to the cross. It’s a metaphorical journey we make as we attempt to think our way through what Jesus is doing in the season of Lent. He knows that he has to prepare himself for his death and resurrection; we must therefore prepare ourselves, too. Many people choose to do so with prayer and with fasting, depriving our bodies to focus our spiritual lives. But what for?
And that’s where our passage hits us with those verses that we all probably know; those verses that are so famous that people go to sporting events and hold up only one verse from the whole Bible to describe Christianity and choose John 3:16 – “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.” Continuing in verse 17, “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.”
Jesus does not come to us as a poisonous snake to bite us, to make us ill, and to kill us; Jesus comes as the way out – the deliverance, the promise of hope. Yet, Jesus also goes through his own trials, and through them, offers us change. We’re told in these most famous of words from the Bible that od loved the entire world so much that we who believe would be given the keys to everlasting life. That’s where we see the similarity to this snake: we see that lifting up of the thing that will save us.
But the case of Jesus is different than a snake. The promise in Jesus is not a temporary relief from the pains of life, but a permanent home of life everlasting, enjoy the fruits of heaven with the creator of the universe. That’s the great hope in the promise of this passage. We know that Jesus comes to save.
And that last point is crucial; verse 17, so often omitted from readings of this passage, is just as important as its more famous counterpart in verse 16. Jesus did not come here just to condemn us; he came here to save us. It would be easy to compare ourselves to Jesus, to see where we don’t stack up, and for that to be God’s proof that we’re worthless, or that we need to be discarded. There are Christian groups a lot more excited about God’s judgment than God’s deliverance – except, that’s not what John’s Gospel has us concerned about. Instead, Jesus is the proof that God loves us, and that we will be saved, in spite of our imperfections. Jesus is the proof that God so loves us all that God’s primary concern is not harming us, rather saving us from harm.
Brothers and sisters, the life of faith is not an easy one, as the journey to the cross shows us. We will face poisonous snakes throughout our lives. But most importantly, we always have the option to look up; and when we do, we should not look to the things that the world towers over us – buildings desperate to show off the extravagance of wealth and power – but rather to the humility of the cross, on which God in human flesh came to show us that we are saved. Amen.
There’s a baseball writer I very much admire named Bill James. He is a powerful thinker and a great analyst, and has taught me a great deal about how to approach a problem. He went from being a night watchman at a factory in Kansas City in the 1970s to being named, in 2006, one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Of course, like most people, his story isn’t always a straight line. And, as it does for so many of us, his story really begins with school.
In one of his books, James wrote about how frustrating school was for him. Not because he wasn’t good at it or anything; he was a fine student, not straight-A’s or anything, but he did okay. The problem was, we was always getting in trouble. He would spend his classes taping baseball statistics into a notebook and analyzing them; asking questions about them, performing mathematical operations on them, etc. He loved baseball, and that’s what he wanted to do with his time. Of course, teachers would yell at him to study the “important” stuff. But I think all of us can understand being frustrated in school (or perhaps at work) because there’s something else you’d rather be doing.
Well, when he wasn’t messing around with baseball statistics, he spent his time in class trying to make his classmates laugh by writing funny notes and passing them around. Again, this is not unusual behavior – plenty of kids pass notes. But specifically, he liked to make people laugh. By passing notes to his friends, he learned what worked and what didn’t, what got a laugh and what was ignored. But most of all, he learned that getting caught was a problem – just like with the baseball statistics he would mess around with in class, his teachers would yell at him for passing these notes.
In the book he wrote as an adult, he wrote that, reflecting on all those years in school, the two most valuable things he ever did were 1.) mess around with baseball statistics, and 2.) write funny notes to his classmates. As it turned out, paying attention to what the teachers thought was the “important” stuff was actually distracting him from his life’s work – which is to entertain through his writing and to educate about baseball, its statistics, and its history. He’s a very funny writer even now, so I imagine that was true when he was younger, too.
Now, of course, he recognizes that, “Just let the kids do whatever they want,” is not really a viable classroom management technique; his point was really that, what appeared to be valuable was actually not actually as valuable as the thing that appeared to be value-less. What other people assumed was important was not necessarily the most important thing. I thought of this little story today because of our reading from 1 Corinthians.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God,” writes Paul. Paul tells us that “the world” views the cross as foolishness. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
What is a cross? Sure, we can start by talking about its physical description: it’s a tall plank of wood with a cross-bar, meant for execution. We can talk about its meaning to us as Christians, and we’ll get there, but for right now, I’d like to put that aside. Instead, I’d rather that you imagined yourself in ancient Israel, two thousand years ago, before Jesus was executed. Imagine that you’re just an ordinary person, minding your own business – perhaps going to market to make a purchase to help feed or clothe yourself or your family. Suddenly, on the horizon, you spot a group of Roman soldiers bringing a few crosses into town. They find a spot visible to everyone, probably on top o a hill, and start pounding the crosses into the ground. So, what would you, as an ordinary person, see, think, and feel?
Of course, as I said earlier, you’d see the planks of wood, familiarly in the cross shape. But you’d know that it had more meaning than that. The meaning would be death. It would be that the Roman Empire is all-powerful, because they will come and kill you if you represent a threat to them. Not only will they kill you, they will do it painfully, publicly, and in a way that will scare other people into not doing whatever it was you did. The cross was a symbol of death, pain, and the power of the Romans. It was meant to instill fear. And you would’ve felt it. I mean, what American doesn’t at some point, complain about the government? If you did that in ancient Israel, which was part of the Roman Empire, you’d have to worry that your passing comment about the Emperor was overheard by someone who told someone, and now they were coming for you.
Okay, now that we’ve thought that through a bit, I’d ask you to imagine being a Christian in the years immediately after Jesus was crucified, when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians from which we read today. Christians didn’t necessarily use the cross commonly as a symbol as we do today (they used a fish more often), but they did talk about the cross, meditate on it, and talk about what Christ accomplished through it.
If a non-Christian saw that, they’d probably think that all these Christians being so giddy about a cross were crazy! WHY did they care about this scary, powerful, even evil symbol? Why would they talk about it, think about it, and even revere it? How could it turn their thoughts to God, rather than to the awesome and frightening power of the Roman Empire? After all, wasn’t the cross a symbol of how Jesus failed? After all, what kind of Messiah ends up executed?
Well, here’s the thing. It’s possible to understand a non-Christian having this perspective. But this is what Paul is talking about in our letter to the Corinthians today; the cross is a stumbling-block or foolishness if you’re not a believer. But if you’re one of us, if you place your faith in Jesus, the cross is a symbol, not of death nor Roman power; rather, a symbol of life and of God’s power.
You may notice that we have an empty cross at the front of our church. Perhaps that’s something you’ve wondered about: why do some churches have crosses with no one on them at the front of the church? Our cross is empty because it’s a reminder that Christ is not crucified forever; rather, he moved beyond the cross. He is not dead, but he is alive! The cross, painful though it was, is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning; rather, it reveals the truth about who God is.
Sometimes, the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world, and the wisdom of the world can be foolish in the eyes of God. In the passage we read from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus turns over tables and drives out money-changers, we see this in action. The people in the Temple are doing what seems wise in the world: they’re maximizing their profits. They’re selling stuff, and they’re makin’ money. That’s wisdom, in the world’s eyes.
But Jesus goes out there to tell them that that’s not what God wants. They’re supposed to be there to worship, not to profit. While the world may see making money and taking advantage of the people in the Temple with nothing to sacrifice as “good business sense,” God sees it as deplorable; as something that threatens to undermine the very idea of worshiping God.
People were selling things in the Temple to help people make sacrifices on their trips to Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s all it had been, I don’t think Jesus would’ve had any problem with it: after all, not everyone could come equipped with a goat or a dove to sacrifice. Instead, the problem was the sporting event problem: you ever go to a Major League Baseball game, get ready to pay 8 bucks for a hot dog. Why? Because you have no other choice! That’s what happened here; people had no competition, and they could basically charge whatever they wanted. Good people, just wanting to worship properly, were taken advantage of by people who were looking out for themselves, rather than honoring the Temple as God’s house and treating it with proper justice.
Look, a little wisdom in the eyes of the world never hurt anyone. Paul is not telling us here is to be stupid. He’s not saying to close your eyes and walk across 41st and Louise. That’s not what this means. Paul is not saying that all wisdom is bad; rather, he’s telling us that when the world thinks it knows what the most important things are, the world will always be wrong if it hasn’t considered God. God shows us things we might never have dreamt of if we didn’t listen.
So, this passage is really about how we’re supposed to have our eyes on the prize. We need to look to the cross and see, not an instrument of death as the world sees, but the very way of life. The world may look at a cross and see one thing, but we should see something much greater. To us, it’s not humanity’s final solution for enemies; it’s proof that, no matter how cruel we can be to one another, God can show us kindness, and grace, and life. It’s easy for someone outside the church to look at a cross and see foolishness; in fact, it’s just as easy now as it was 2000 years ago. But we know there’s more to the story than that.
So, brothers and sisters, go out there and be fools for Christ. Go ahead and ignore the wisdom of the world. Keep your mind on the wisdom of God, stay focused on Christ and the cross, and remember that, no matter how powerful a symbol we can construct, however dark an answer we can provide, God can grant us life, and love, and grace. Amen.
There’s clearly something wrong with this generation of young people today, isn’t there? Here are some things that millennials are ruining: the napkin industry, golf, movie theaters, vacations, Home Depot, running, the NFL, suits… and so many more things. Those are just a few from one aggregator article I saw online. It’s so easy to find articles about what this generation is ruining, in fact, that you start to wonder… how much truth is there in it?
Of course, it’s not hard to go back to the generation that truly ruined everything: the Baby Boomers. Go read some news articles from the ‘50s and ‘60s about Baby Boomers. You’ll see what I’m talking about. All their newfangled music and dancing and their long hair on men and their lack of respect, and… well, of course, you get the point.
But then, those from a generation before had been told how lazy they were getting – the automobile, after all, was ruining everything. A man can’t even know the value of a hard day’s work if things are automated! I mean, after all, it was really the early part of the 20th century that ruined us all.
Of course, I joke. I find tremendous comfort in Jesus’ rebuke at the end of his speech about “This adulterous and sinful generation.” On the one hand, it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words as meaningless because complaints about “these young people today” have existed for literally thousands of years. On the other hand, I like to think that it’s here because, on some level, you have to respect that Jesus would come up with words that would resonate throughout history, because there will always be some part of us that nods just a little bit when we hear complaints about the “next generation.” Jesus knows that people will always be able to relate to that part because it will always be relevant, and it will always be a little true.
See, Jesus says that he lives in a sinful generation. Well… yeah, he did. That’s because every generation is sinful. We’ve all put ourselves before God; we’ve all had lapses in morality and judgment, we’ve all been selfish or cruel at times. In short, we’ve all done the same things that generations of human beings have done. So of course Jesus is right in his complaints about his own generation; they’re the same as every generation – prone to live in the world they’re given, with all that entails, including preferences for certain sins over other ones.
But look, that’s not the majority of what Jesus says here. Rather, Jesus spends most of his time in this passage actually talking about who he is. First, Jesus asks the disciples the most basic question of all – the one on which all other questions hinge: “Who do you say that I am?”
Now, that should be an easy question for a Christian to answer. We should know who Jesus is, right? But, in some way, being asked that fundamental question can be hard. It can be difficult for some of us to know exactly who Jesus is. Most of us, I think, would like it to be a more academic question, and not a question of our hearts. Frankly, we’re less comfortable speaking our hearts than we are speaking our minds – I mean, how emotional do we get in public, anyway?
That’s why one of my favorite things in the life of the church is a wedding. Weddings are a public celebration of love. Rarely do we see two people stand up in public and say that they love each other. In fact, most of us probably keep all that mushy “love” talk to the privacy of our homes. You might say that you love potatoes in public, but heaven forbid you say it about a person.
And the disciples are no different than we are. In fact, if there’s an overarching thing we notice in reading the Bible, it’s how similar, rather than how different, people are and have been for the last several thousand years. This tendency toward the “head” answer rather than the “heart” answer is exactly what happens here. Jesus asks the personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” And the disciples immediately deflect and start talking about what other people think.
“Well, some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets,” they say to Jesus. They aren’t willing to go far enough to make a personal claim, as they just present Jesus with several opinions of what others say. So Jesus asks again, “But who do you say that I am?”
At this point, the disciples are struck dumb. It’s interesting; in the Gospels, the disciples are often presented as speaking with one voice. Now, I don’t think this means that all of them said stuff in unison all the time; rather, the words of the Bible are just standing in for things that are like what they said. It’s about getting the gist of it. But while the first part of the verse says it was “the disciples” who answered Jesus, when he asks that personal question, there’s only one person brave enough to actually say, “You are the Messiah.”
That’s Peter – and it’s important that we know it’s Peter for context later in the passage. Peter has the courage to say who Jesus is. I always imagined Jesus smiling and nodding at someone finally giving the statement of faith that was needed for Jesus to convey all that was going to happen to the disciples. So I figure he smiled, happy for someone to acknowledge who we was, nodded… and then explained how he would be beaten, tried, and executed.
At this point, Peter, the hero like 30 seconds ago, starts rebuking Jesus. “Rebuke” is not a word we often use, but it means a criticism, a “telling off.” So basically Peter starts telling Jesus that he’s wrong about this whole thing. This “rebuke” might actually be more emotional than intellectual. It could just as easily be Peter saying, “NO, Lord! It can’t be true!” as it could be Peter saying, “Stop it Jesus! Don’t say that stuff.” You can’t really tell from context. But either way, this is where Jesus gives his famous, “Get behind me, Satan!” rebuke of his own to Peter.
Jesus is not saying here that Peter is Satan, or a demon, or even hat he’s possessed. Rather, he’s just telling Peter that his ideas are wrong-headed; that he’s thinking in this world rather than the next.
And we see this in the next thing Jesus says to the disciples. Because instead of just laying in to Peter and yelling at him, Jesus changes tactics here. I’m reminded of what good teachers, or good coaches, or good parents do. Instead of just taking one kid to task in front of the group, they turn it into a learning opportunity for everyone. So, while Jesus gets the rebuke in in private, he then returns to the group and tells them that they need to start thinking of their walk with him differently.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus tells them.
That’s right – Jesus here is telling people that you’re supposed to lose your life on his behalf. It’s probably not, ultimately, the way that most people would recommend you gain followers. Yet, as Christians, that’s our call. But there are a couple of caveats.
First of all, “lose your life,” is a really loaded phrase. Obviously, we think of that most as meaning, “dying.” However, it doesn’t have to mean that, does it? It could mean giving up your life – again, not as in dying, but as in giving yourself to a greater cause. Jesus is asking us here, not necessarily to die for him, but rather to give up our own right to our lives, and to follow him.
Second of all, he says specifically that we are supposed to “take up our cross and follow him.” that means that we’re called to bear the burdens of life, rather than try to just pawn them off on someone else. It means that we have to be willing to endure difficult consequences in order to follow what Jesus tells us to do. But it also means that the reward for us, in the end, is that we save our own lives. In different times and places, this has meant enduring persecution, it has meant literally dying, and it has meant giving up our time, energy, and resources for the sake of Christ. All of these are valid interpretations and ways to follow the guidance of this passage.
I began my sermon today with what I think is probably the most memorable bit from this little moment in Mark’s Gospel, the part about the awful generation – but the truth is, that’s not the heart of the passage. Instead, the real lessons come from what Jesus teaches the disciples. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the love of God. We shouldn’t be afraid of giving “heart” answers rather than “head” answers to difficult questions. Jesus has to teach his disciples to do that, and he has to teach us to do it, too. Because their sins and ours, their weaknesses and ours, have a lot in common.
So note again that Jesus asks two things of the disciples in this short teaching. The first: “Who do you say that I am?” And the second is like it: “Take up your cross and follow me.” We have to ask ourselves the same first question. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Depending on how you answer that question, it’s necessary to ask the follow-up – are you willing to take up your cross and follow him, even when it’s not popular, even when it’s hard, even when those around you think you’re wrong, even when the pressure you get from others tells you not to? If you, like Peter, believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords… well, then you must be willing to lose your life for his sake.
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, church has a hard message to sell, if this is the point, isn’t it? “Come to church so you can lose your life!” That’s not really going to attract too many people. On the other hand, you know what church offers that other people don’t? Meaning. We’re not losing our lives to addiction or to something that fades in the morning; we’re not giving our time or our energy to the next election cycle or to the popular trend of the day or to the place that gives us the most return on investment. Instead, we’re giving our time, our energy, our resources, and our love to God almighty, who cares for us, who loves us, and who sent us Jesus to show us the way. We give ourselves up for the one who looked death square in the eye and said, “Do your worst.” And then, he won!
Brothers and sisters, Lent is a time in which we contemplate and work our way to the cross. Usually, that’s a metaphor about how we follow Jesus’ journey to Good Friday. But today, I suggest to you that it’s more than metaphor – it’s about your own life, too. We must be willing to do what Jesus did, and take up a cross of our own. We know the answer to the fundamental question, the most basic question, “Who do you say that I am?” We, like Peter, know Jesus to be the Messiah, the Lord. And knowing that, we get ready to bear our own crosses in the march up the hill. But brothers and sisters, do not despair that the journey is hard and that the pain is great; we know that we live for something more. And we know, too, something that God promises us on Easter Sunday morning, just a few short weeks from now: in the end, it is not the wealthy nor wise who win; it is not the prudent nor the adventurous; it is not the attractive nor the popular who win. Rather, it is God who wins, who conquers all, and who asks us to follow Christ, even to the cross. Amen.
One of my all-time favorite Christian stories is about Karl Barth. Barth was, perhaps, the most important theologian of the 20th century. He stood up to Hitler and got himself kicked out of Europe. He came to the United States where he wrote his magnum opus, his masterwork, his systematic theology. It’s called Church Dogmatics, and it’s a 14-volume work that took him 35 years to complete. It’s one of the great works of Christian history, if you’re a really big nerd.
Anyway, he was on one of his various tours to promote some edition of his life’s work, and he was asked about it by a seminary student. The student pointed out that, with a work so long, it would be difficult for people to actually follow along with it. The student asked if there was a simple, brief, even elevator-pitch-style version of his theology. Barth thought about it for a moment, and he said, “Yes, there is.” This surprised the students in the room – after all, who can sum up something so long, so fast. “Yes, there is,” Barth said, “and I learned it at my mother’s knee. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
It’s a great moment in the history of the faith, because you realize that, so often, really complicated ideas can be boiled down to simple thoughts. I mean, when you think about it, this happens really often in Christian belief, doesn’t it? I mean, think of the complicated ideas we deal with all the time in church: Jesus being born without a human father; the idea of someone who is both fully human and fully God; the concept of the Trinity where one is three and three are one. We throw around these ideas because they’re so important… yet, at the heart, while they help us to understand God, they themselves are too complicated to really get the point of our faith across. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to have a good passage to preach with a simple, catchy hook. And other times, we have the reading from 1 Peter that we did today.
I’m going to read it again, just so we can hear it. See if it makes any more sense to you this time than it did last time:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
In three long and fairly convoluted sentences, this reading says a lot of things about a lot of things, so I want to talk about some of the highlights. First this passage dives in deep talking about the flesh and the spirit. The letters of Peter are clearly composed with the sensibilities of someone who grew up knowing Greek philosophy. The Greeks were much more into the idea of the duality of the body and soul. To them, there was a real difference. Judaism, for its part, has traditionally been more interested in the idea of nephesh, which is perhaps best translated as “the self,” meaning that it includes the totality of you, body and soul.
But Greek philosophy has shaped Christian thought more completely, particularly because of passages like this, written in Greek by Greek-speakers and shared with Greek-speakers. This passage talks about how Jesus, though he died, continued to be alive in spirit; he continued to work through those who were “in prison.”
Now, not to get too technical here, but this passage is using “prison” as a metaphor. It’s really about people who are captive to sin – as all of us are. And then the first letter of Peter talks about our earlier reading from today, having to do with Noah and the ark.
I have this theory that Noah’s Ark is actually the best-known story in the Bible, other than maybe the Christmas story. It’s on a lot of artwork, in movies, and even people who have never set foot in a church seem to know at least a little about it. This passage from 1 Peter talks about how God was patient with Noah and his children and saved the whole earth through water.
Then, the passage makes an interesting connection: it connects the waters of the flood to the waters of baptism. The letter implies that the world was wicked, so God used water to wash away the wickedness; now, in today’s world, we have the waters of baptism to wash away sin.
Again, though, the letter wants to get really technical about the whole thing, because that’s what you do when you’re a letter about theology. It states that, of course, the baptism itself is not salvific; in other words, it’s not that the waters are doing something, but rather that they represent something: an appeal to God. We are baptized, this says, because it serves as sort of a phone call to God, reminding God that we’re here, and requesting to Jesus that we would receive the benefits of his resurrection, which is the actual thing that causes us to be saved.
Are you bored yet? You’re supposed to be bored. I tried to summarize quickly, because no one (myself included) wants to actually run down all the little details of this passage, at least not in a sermon. This is a hard teaching, perhaps because it’s only three sentences. But they’re long sentences, complicated sentences – sentences you have a be a linguist of the first degree to parse and diagram and figure out. The Bible is rarely easy reading, and this is as good an example as any as to why people are sometimes loath to crack it open – it’s complicated, and it’s just a whole lot easier to have a pastor explain something in church on Sunday than it is to read it.
But the truth is, while there are a lot of difficult details in the passage, the message at the heart of it is not difficult at all. Not only that, the message at the heart of the passage is not only quite simple, it’s central to the Christian faith. In fact, while we read it all in a very difficult and mentally-exhausting passage to read, the heart of this passage is the very heart of our lives in Christ.
At the beginning of this sermon, I talked about Karl Barth, who summarized a 14-volume set of theology – his life’s work – by reciting the first lines of “Jesus Loves Me,” a children’s song. Brothers and sisters, we were given a difficult passage from 1 Peter today; a passage that uses words like “prefigured;” a passage that uses confusing sentences to try to describe complicated theological concepts; a passage that says things like, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” and then starts using literal words as metaphors and using metaphors concretely. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a heavy theological task to read and interpret it, and I thank you for indulging me in the time to go through each little portion of the reading.
Yet, this passage, in and of itself, in spite of the difficult language and syntax, breaks down pretty simply. You’re welcome to look at the passage in your Bible as I go through this; it might help. In the first portion, you can strip away that bit about the righteous and unrighteous. You can also take out the parts about the flesh, and the spirit, and the prison – not to mention the details about the ark.
In the latter portion of the reading, who cares about that “prefiguring” business; take it out. It was complicated anyway, and we removed the flood earlier, so now there’s no context for it here, so go ahead and remove it, too. Next, peel away the details about the dirt and the appeal, and forget for a moment the business about “angels, authorities, and powers.” If you strip that away, move a couple words around for clarity’s sake, and you’re left with this sentence:
“Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection.” That’s it. Complicated, full of allusions to other biblical texts and to complicated theology though it was, this text is simple. Christ suffered so you could be closer to God, and you are now saved by his suffering, death, and resurrection. In other, perhaps even simpler words, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
We can easily get bogged down in the difficult parts of our faith. We can (and we should!) question, discern, wrestle, and attempt to know more. But oftentimes in life, the simplest things are the truths we can hold onto. As you begin this Lenten journey this year, hold on to this: Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved through his resurrection. May you go forth, knowing that Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection. Live in that redemption, praising God for your salvation, and sharing the love of God with everyone you meet. Amen.