GiftsEden On The Bay

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Judgment Has Come Remix - 03/14/2021

I had a chance to get away recently and I went up to that little cabin near L’Anse I’ve told some of you about. It’s just a simply-appointed cabin out in the woods, 200 yards from the Lake Superior shoreline, with a great wood-fired sauna and no Wi-Fi.

There is just a level of relaxation, restoration and resetting I am able to do when I am out in the woods and on the lake like that. I know it’s a love, a connection to God and creation and a privilege many of us share.

One of the things I love so much about resting or even just biking and hiking in places like this is the coziness and calm I feel when I’m surrounded by trees. I’ve always been fascinated by trees. When I was a wee girl, I even imagined that trees could walk. I reasoned that they just moved so slowly, that we could not even detect a single step in the span of a human life – and I hadn’t even read the Lord the Rings. Imagine my delight when I saw the Ents in the movies as an adult! It caught my breath.

I was equally surprised to learn of another perspective on trees when I had the blessed opportunity to hang out with a bunch of Lutherans in Nebraska for a couple of weeks. It is hard to find a stand of trees in the SE farmland of that state. The soil there is considered poor in many ways, and yet families have been farming that land for generations, at times just barely eking an existence out of it. They are tough like us, dealing with an environment that can be very harsh, just in diverse ways.

And so, where there were trees, even trees planted to keep something like the dust bowl from happening again, the farmers liked to remove them, “so I can see all my fields,” one farmer said to me while giving me a tour of is multi-million-dollar farming equipment. They could plant more crops where the trees used to be much of the time. Every inch counts when farming that soil. And, several people told me being enclosed by many trees made them feel trapped and claustrophobic, like they couldn’t see what was coming. It unnerved them.

I was a tree loving, tree hugging child of the woods among strangers. And while I appreciate their perspective and loved getting to know them and the glimpse they gave me into a vastly different kind of rural, I cannot fully understand how anyone cannot see the beauty of trees and want as many as possible around them.

Now this isn't to say that Nebraskans don’t live in beauty or appreciate beauty, or that they aren’t beautiful themselves. Nebraska and these people and their lives are God’s creation too. Of course, they are beautiful.

What strikes me is that even if I were to do my absolute best to describe the beauty of trees and my connection to them, I'm not sure they would believe it. It is as if the magnificence and comfort and mysticism of the forest so many of us find familiar doesn’t even exist for them, one could argue.

***

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 social media posts. I even saw it as body paint on a beer-bellied NFL football fan caught on the TV cameras once. His torso simply read “John 3:16.”

You might know it too: “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.”

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 give the meandering Israelites something to believe in 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 must 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 a bigger deal then this beloved statement is on its own.

The reason it’s important for us disciples to understand this is because this verse is too often used to exclude whole populations of God's people. It has been used to intimate that, yes, God has done this in Jesus, but only for certain people … only for Christians … and in some cases, only for certain Christians. But John 3:17 challenges that assumption. Which is good because you know what they say about assuming? (If you don’t, ask me later.)

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 6 and serves to push us forward in this lesson and flesh it out some more.

Like John 3:19, which 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 on this. Like when we judge others and ourselves for choices, screwups, foul moods, lack of understanding, poverty, belief or unbelief.

We should challenge ourselves 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...”

It reminds me of something that was said of our sister Gloria Brown, who we commended to God this past week. She would tell people, “always be kind to others (in other words, do not judge), because you don’t know what’s going on in their lives.”

I’ve heard that before, many times to be sure, and it never seems to lose it’s loud ring of truth.

An even more compelling and authoritative reason to challenge our tendency to misunderstand God’s judgment and light as things that “will be” and “will come” instead of “is” and “has come,” is, quite plainly, God. It is not your neighbor or your besties or your pastor who decides this. It is God in Jesus. And God says the judgment has already been made – and the light has already come into the world. We don't have to worry, and that insight casts a different light on what Jesus is trying to get across to us here.

This is about our eternal life that has already started and whether we are going to live as acquitted children of the light … or children of the darkness burdened by sin and already assuming condemnation.

This is where I think we are a lot like those Nebraska poor-soil farmers with their strong aversion to trees. 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, considering 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, some say only, Way to loving God and loving one another?

 Some of these verses are not easy verses to wrestle with, and yet wrestle with them we must, in our lives a Jesus’ disciples. Lives in which we strive to expand and include, not contract and exclude.

I have two things I would like to say about wrestling with the text like 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. Long for it when you remember how you take it 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 … perhaps Jesus is lamenting over the reality that even though 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.

Amen.

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 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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