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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Judgment Has Come - 03/11/2018

I had to be in Marquette kind of late one night this past week and since the weather was a little weathery anyway and I was kind of tired, I decided to crash at my sister's place and come back in the morning. But before I left Marquette, I wanted to take a walk around Presque Isle. I've gone around that little park a million times – on foot, snowshoe, bike, car. And yet, no matter how many times I go there it continues to move me to this place of thankfulness and this deep amazement, especially when there aren't a lot of people around. It's the only way I can think to put a word on it. It amazes me how up here you can live in town and still be only steps away to disconnecting from it all. It amazes me how beautiful the trees sound in stillness of winter. It amazes me that I get to live here.

I know many of you here and people throughout this beautiful northern Great Lake part of the country feel similarly because I've talked to so many people about it. So I think or I hope you get that sense of the wonder and smallness and holiness and stillness I felt that morning, even in the face of a sharp and serious wind coming off Lake Superior on the windward side of the “island.”

While I was walking my mind turned to these kids from the west side of Chicago, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned them before. They are not kids I've met. They are kids I know through some statistics I read showing the majority of kids born in the western suburbs of Chicago had never seen Lake Michigan, which can be as close as five miles away.

Now this isn't to say that the places these Chicago kids live aren't also beautiful, or that God doesn't break into their homes and faith communities and daily lives as amazingly as we experience. At the same time, I think God means for all people who live there to experience the benefits of living near such a beautiful body of water.

So this statistic haunts me. Maybe because we know how beneficial it is for us human creatures to be around water. It makes us healthier. Maybe because there's nothing like answering a hot summer day in the city with a dip in cool Lake Michigan. Maybe it's because even in Chicago, the environment of the lake can drown out the mechanical busyness of the city for bit.

Whatever the reason, these kids often come to mind when I'm out in the woods.

Because let's face it, even if they've seen pictures of places like this or hear someone else talk about it, they may not fully believe that a sunset over a lake can make you feel closer to our Creator. Or that there is a spring called Kitch-i-ti-kipi where big healthy trout can be seen swimming around in green blue waters all year long and that waterfalls can freeze into beautiful still lives. Or that a quiet walk in the woods is a great place to listen for how God is calling your gifts forward …  for your own benefit, as well as the benefit of those you encounter.

Even if those kids heard about all these things, I'm not sure they would believe it, in the sense of how you believe something you can touch or feel or smell or taste or hear. So it would be like Lake Michigan didn't even exist for them, one could argue.

So as I was walking and thinking about these kids, I also started thinking about this message from John we have today and how we can be a lot like those Great-Lake-less kids when it comes to believing in the immensity and creation-changing act of God in Jesus.

This gospel reading we have today contains one of the most well-known, well-loved, verses in the bible. We see it on wall plagues and bumper stickers and Internet memes all the time. “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.” (John 3:16)

It is a good one, isn't it? It's no wonder we hold it up like Moses lifting the serpent on a stick to heal and protect the meandering Israelites on the way to the Promised Land. It serves us Jesus-following people well because it names something most people crave in some way – the steadfast love of God, the presence of a higher, divine, infallible power at work in our lives. And it relates it to something we center ourselves upon – the gift of Jesus, the Messiah … the one we walk with this Lenten season, to a cross and a tomb and the promise of life … life everlasting.

So it's no wonder this verse speaks so profoundly to so many.

I think we also have to be mindful that this verse has been abused. Our singular love of it has – over time – pulled it out of its whole context. In its whole context, it's actually even a bigger deal then this beloved statement is on its own.

And that's important because this verse is too often used to exclude whole populations of God's people; to say that yes, God has done this, but only for certain people … only for Christians … and in some cases, only for certain Christians. But John 3:17 challenges that leap.

“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.” So right away, Jesus is making it clear, verse 16 is not a statement of condemnation on those who we deem unworthy or unrighteous.

This challenges a one-dimensional  lukewarm understanding of verse16 and serves to push us forward in this lesson and flesh it out some more.

To unpack this a little, I'd like to point something out about John 3:19, because I think it is key to understanding the verses around it … “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world...”

I think we should challenge ourselves regularly and honestly look at whether we hear and act like Jesus actually says: “And this (will be) the judgment, that the light  (will come) into the world...”

The judgment has already been made – and the light has already come into the world, Jesus is telling us. We don't have to worry about that and that insight casts a different light on what Jesus is trying to get across to us here.

And this is also where I think we are a lot like those Great-Lake-less kids of Chicago – because we cannot see the immensity, the fullness of God's judgment on the world, we don't fully believe it. We may begin to conclude that there must be limits to that judgment – that others still need to be judged.

Because we cannot comprehend the omnipotent luminosity of God's light in the world, we start to think and speak and act as though there are places in God's creation it cannot reach, places where it does not exist, one could argue.

But Jesus tells us, this gracious judgment and all-penetrating light is as real and accessible as Lake Superior sunsets, abundant natural springs, whispering trees and waterfalls frozen into winter paintings you can walk right into.

And so, in light of all this, how then are we to understand the parts of this lesson that so clearly point to the Way of Jesus being the ultimate Way to loving God and loving one another?

Like John 3:18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

They are condemned already.

I have two things I would like to say about this … this question of how we understand or respond to this.

First – go forth in that sureness that you are not condemned. As Jesus-following people we remain confident that our salvation is won in Jesus. Believe it. Feel it cool and cleanse you in the waters of your baptism. Take it fully into your whole self when you eat the bread of life and drink the wine of forgiveness.

Second, I think this is another place we can put human limits on what Jesus is saying here. For one thing, I think we often read this as though it only applies to our life after death. But the light has come already – this is about our eternal life with God and about our life right now. In other words, we live this life and our next knowing that we have forgiveness as our judgment and the light of God in and around us already.

So perhaps we are better to understand this as more of a lament on Jesus' part … he is lamenting over the reality that despite the fact that God's judgment is already made and the light has already come into the world, many people will still live as though the opposite is true – people will continue to turn away from the light and respond to God's gift of this life as though they or others are condemned already. But that is not what God chooses for us, my friends.

As we hear from Paul today, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised … up with him.” (Eph 2:4-6a)

May we all believe it, speak it, live it.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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