Path of Salvation — Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:14-21

The cover of the February 23rd issue of Time Magazine declares: “This Baby Could Live to be 142 Years Old.”  Doesn’t that sound wonderful? So what’s the secret? It all depends on whom you ask, and the articles in that issue offer some tips for living well past one hundred. Of course, living that long poses interesting complications. As Laura Carstensen writes:

The challenge we face today is converting a world built quite literally by and for the young into a world that supports and engages populations that live to 100 and beyond. [Time, 69-70]

I’ve been taking a rather unscientific poll since the article came out, and I’m not hearing a lot of excitement about living that long. We may want to live long lives, but maybe not that long.
Having recently turned 57, which to some of you might seem old and to others rather young, I have been thinking about my own mortality. Retirement isn’t that far off. Just eight years to 65!  I have to start thinking about what it will take to live comfortably in retirement.  After all, we only have one kid to support us in our old age!
What I’m hearing in my conversations is that people prefer quality to quantity.  So, what should we make of the promise made in the reading from John 3?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life. [John 3:16]

When you hear this promise of eternal life, are you thinking in terms of quantity or quality?
On the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King spoke of his desire to live a long life:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. [The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kindle Locations 2954-2955).]

The next day, he died at the age of thirty-nine. That’s the same age at which Dietrich Bonhoeffer died. Despite their relative youth, they left a powerful legacy that continues long after their deaths. On the other hand, there is the case of Methuselah, of whom it is said in Genesis: “all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died.”  No one lived longer than Methuselah, but all that we know of him, besides being the grandfather of Noah, is that “he died” (Genesis 5:27).  And you know the story of Noah!
Returning to the Gospel of John, we’re told that God loves the world, and sent the son into the world to save it. Everyone who believes in Jesus receives eternal life. There is both judgment and grace in this passage. God didn’t send Jesus as a beacon of light to condemn the world but rather to save it.  The question then is – what will we do with this light? Will it be a sign of grace or judgment?  The choice is ours.  Fred Craddock suggests that “a saving presence can also be a disturbing presence.”  That is, “to speak the Good News, to voice the love of Christ in some gatherings is not to be unanimously received with applause and blessing” [Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary,  p. 159]. It maybe good news, but not everyone receives it that way – sort of like the outcome of a Michigan – Michigan State game. Not everyone here will be happy with the outcome!
Wrapped up in this passage is a word about salvation, which is a concept that we as a congregation struggle with. Some of you may know that we’ve been the subject of a Ph.D. dissertation study. Mark Love, a professor at Rochester College, is writing his PhD dissertation in missional theology on the relationship of understandings of salvation with a congregation’s understanding of mission. He asked us to do this in part because we have committed ourselves to being a missional congregation, and also because we offer an interesting comparison to a Church of Christ congregation here in Troy. Two very different congregations who trace their origins to the same founders. Someday we’ll find out how we compare, but what Mark has discovered so far is very interesting. Over the last couple of years, he has interviewed a number of people, conducted surveys, visit worship services, and recently he used the Elders as a focus group to finalize his thoughts. What Mark discovered is that there’s a lot of discomfort in the congregation with salvation language, even though salvation images are present in much of the life of the church, especially at the Table. We may not be very comfortable articulating a theology of salvation, but it’s there in the way in which we understand the Table of the Lord. This is most clearly expressed in the declaration that this Table belongs to Jesus and that Jesus welcomes everyone to share in the meal, no matter one’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or even one’s theology. Whatever we believe about salvation, it is being expressed in this vision of openness and welcome.
So, what is salvation? Well, I can’t go into this question in any depth this morning, but in conversation with Mark, I’ve decided to focus in on salvation in my preaching during the season after Easter. In this sermon series I’m hoping to build on our earlier conversation during Epiphany about our God-talk.
In the reading from John 3, we hear the promise that God loves the world and therefore he sent Jesus into the world as the light that shines in the darkness, illuminating the pathway of salvation. Whatever salvation entails, it involves eternal life, which has more to do with quality than quantity. The question is – are you ready to take hold of the promise?
Eternal life, according to John 3:16 is given to those who believe – but what does it mean to believe?  Does it mean giving intellectual affirmation to a set of propositions?  If you sign on the dotted line you’re in, and if not, well sorry!
A few weeks back I talked a bit about the call to discipleship. I talked about how Alexander Campbell emphasized the importance of evidence. To follow Jesus is to look at the evidence, much like you would in a court of law, and if it is conclusive then you sign on. Of course, life isn’t quite that simple. The evidence might not be as clear cut as we thought. Doubt might still be present. That doesn’t mean we don’t have faith in God. It simply means that we don’t have all the answers.
As I was contemplating this question I turned, as I often do, to Karl Barth. In his Dogmatics in Outline, he wrote that faith comes in three expressions – trust, knowledge, and confession.  To believe is to entrust your life to God, even if you don’t have all the answers. You belong before you believe, but this trust moves us toward knowledge. After all, if you’re going to put your trust in someone, eventually you’ll want to know something about that person. It’s a bit like hiring a contractor to fix the house. You want to find someone with a good reputation; a person with a good track record.  Now, we’ve all made mistakes in this regard. You might find a brochure on your mail box from a young landscaper that looks promising. You decide to hire him because you want to support his entrepreneurial spirit. But, as the summer progresses, you discover that he’s gotten himself in over his head, and he’s not fulfilling his promises. You put your trust in him, but when the letter came a few weeks back asking if you’d like to rehire him, you move on to someone else. Trust must point us toward understanding.
Finally, faith involves confession. Will you publicly identify yourself with Jesus? Will you embrace the light that has come into the world? Will you take public responsibility for your trust and knowledge?  As James writes to those who suggest that all you need is faith– even the demons believe, so what good is that?  There has to be some kind of follow-up – some practical expression of this faith in God.  For James that means – “faith without works is dead” (James 2:18-26).  Or as John puts it, our salvation is expressed through the deeds that “have been done in God.”   During this Lenten season we are invited to examine our lives. We’ve been invited to consider where we are in the journey. This journey ultimately isn’t  about quantity of years, but the quality of lives lived in God.