Part 3 of the series “Lead Us Not Into Temptation”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Image courtesy wordle.net
Numbers 21:4–9 • They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.
The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.
John 3:14–21 • “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”
Click below to listen to the audio recording of this sermon.The logo from our sermon series in 2011
Four years ago, our fall sermon series was called “10 Things I Hate about Church”. We even had a logo that looked like the one from the movie and everything. We got the idea based on a book that had come out earlier that year called Unchristian by the Barna research group. This is a group of evangelical researchers who spent a lot of time looking at what other people thought about Christianity and Christians. And the report was not a flattering one. There were all kinds of things that people believed about Christians, and very high on the list was that we were judgmental. And so that was certainly one of the ten things we hated about church, was sort of the judgmental, intolerant nature of so many Christians.
But why are Christians so judgmental? The reality is that we have specific instructions not to be judgmental. There is a passage in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, “don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give, whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother or sister’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say to your brother or sister, “let me take the splinter out of your eye” when there’s a log in your own eye. You deceive yourself. First take the log out of your eye, then you’ll see clearly to take the sister out of your brother or sister’s eye.” Notwithstanding this fairly clear instruction from Jesus, Christians have nevertheless been judgmental in all kinds of ways.
Now perhaps, that’s a function of monotheism. See, whenever you claim that there is one God, it stands to reason that there’s one truth, one way of worshipping that god, and one way of correct this, correct that. And so perhaps it’s a function of our inclination about monotheism to insist that therefore there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong. And the wrong people ought to be judged for doing it wrong.
Perhaps it’s a function of a certain sense of exclusivism, a desire to know how to differentiate who’s on the outside and who’s on the inside. How else can we judge among them except for being judgmental. How else can we know for sure what group we belong to unless we’re willing to say, “that’s inappropriate, that is incorrect, that is heterodox, that is a heresy.” If we don’t know that, how do we know if we’re really standing on the right side of the line?”
Now, that seems to me to be a function of a basic spiritual insecurity that we have. It’s a need to know that we’re doing it right. And since we can’t know that we’re doing it right, its sometimes good enough to know that someone else is doing it wrong. “Well I don’t know if I’ve got it all figured out, but that guy sure as hell doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, so I might feel a little better that maybe accidentally if nothing else, stepped into salvation.” So part of it, I think, of our judgementalism, is a function of our humanity. You know we make all kinds of judgments, some of them are necessary of our survival, some of them are necessary to obey our human societal structures. And we’re tempted to make those kinds of judgments, when it comes to people of God, to judge other people. If for nothing else than to create an acceptable boundary, who’s in, who’s out, who’s a member of the group, who isn’t? Am I on the inside or the outside? It’s a very human response, but it’s so un-Christian.
It’s so un-Christian in so many ways. It’s not just that Jesus told us “don’t do it,” it’s not that we have this fairly explicit teaching, it’s also that it seems to be against even an understanding of not just what it means to be Christian, but what it means to be Christ-like. Because if we look at Jesus, we see a number of remarkable signs that he was not a judgmental person. He told truth to power, he told it like it was, but we have several instances from the gospel of John in which Jesus demonstrates a remarkable resistance to that type of judgment. There’s a famous passage in john’s gospel where they drag a woman caught in adultery before him, and they ask him what her sentence should be. “The law says that she should be stoned to death, but what do you say, rabbi?” And he says, just drawing in the dirt in the ground, he just says: “what does the law say, stone her to death? Fine. Whoever among you is without sin, go ahead, you stone her.” Well of course they all kind of shuffled around and realized that they can’t really do this, and they walk away. And when he walks up to the woman afterward, he says “is there anyone left to condemn you?” And when she says, no, he says, “then I don’t condemn you either.”
Another story in John’s gospel is this interesting conversation that he has with a Samaritan woman, or a woman at the well. And he walks up to her and they’re talking at the well, and she says something and he asks her about her husband. She says, “well, I don’t have a husband,” and he says, “oh that’s right, you’ve had five husbands, actually, and the guy you’re shacking up with now isn’t exactly your husband, is he?” She admits that that’s the case, they have another conversation, and then she goes off and runs into the city and tells everyone that she met the Messiah and that he knew everything about her. Curiously, he doesn’t judge her anywhere in that. He encounters her as she is.
Those are famous stories from the gospel of John. The most famous passage of the gospel of John would have to be John 3:16. Even if you didn’t know a thing about Christianity, if you’ve been to or watched a sporting event in the last 50 years, you’ve at least seen this scripture written down, you’ve at least seen the verse referenced. You might not know what it says, but you at least know that it’s there. Actually there was an ad a couple years ago during the Superbowl—some religious group said “go look it up!” already—their ad was something like “you’ve seen the verse referenced, now go find out what it actually says.”
And what does it say? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s the King James version I learned how to sing, so that’s why I know that one off the top of my head. It’s the famous verse. Perhaps, one of the most famous verses in all of the Bible. It’s pretty simple: “believe in Jesus, and you’ll have eternal life.” As far as not believing in Jesus, I suppose you’ve been warned.
But with any bumper sticker theology, what often goes overlooked is the broader context. In this case, the very next verse. “God didn’t send his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Now the text does go on to say, somewhat paradoxically, that those who don’t believe in Jesus have already been judged. However you might interpret that it sounds like it means is that you bring judgment on yourself through that. It’s not God who’s judging you, it’s not Jesus who’s judging you, but perhaps you’ve brought this on yourself. But it’s clear that Jesus did not come in order to judge others. Jesus came in order to bring salvation. So however we understand it in the broader context, it’s clear that what Jesus is doing here is not judging. Now I want to point out, even if he were, there’s nothing in it that says we should be judging. There’s nothing in it that gives us the license to judge in Jesus’ name. It doesn’t say “judge one another as I have judged you, by this all will know that you are my disciples.” That’s what we’re doing, but that’s not what he said to us. What he said is “love one another, as I have loved you.” Judgment is not nearly as central to our faith as we are inclined to think. It’s that human reaction, that insecurity that we bring to it. So even if we would not simply follow the explicit instructions of our master but his example, we wouldn’t engage in that kind of judgement.
There’s a very human reason for why we do it, as I said. There’s human insecurity, there’s human need for certainty, there’s human need for order that brings about judgement. Indeed by definition you can’t have legal order without some measure of judgement. If the judge says, “I don’t know what’s going on in this case, it’s all the same to me,” that’s not how a legal system works. And so our basic inclination towards order and structure and stability and certainty and right and wrong trends us towards judgment in matters of faith. But when we do that we miss out on something even more powerful: the willingness to let go of judgement.
So this past week a number of us spent our spring break at the Qualla boundary of the Eastern band of the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. And in that time we get to hear from a lot of people, we learn about the Cherokee experience. For those of those who don’t know or were asleep during that part of social studies class, the Cherokee were removed from their land by the result of a treaty that was highly suspect. A treaty that was overruled by the Supreme Court but nonetheless enforced by Andrew Jackson, who evicted the Cherokees. He sent them on a thousand mile trail of tears towards the Oklahoma territory in which thousands and thousands died, and then had it even worse when they got to Oklahoma. It was a trauma of a kind that I daresay very few of us but perhaps our Jewish brothers and sisters can even contemplate the scale. And for all of that, there are a lot of Cherokees, though they aren’t particularly fond of Andrew Jackson, who are willing to let that go.
We met with Amy Walker, a repeated friend of our community, who talked about going to a Native American gathering in Minnesota and publically forgiving Andrew Jackson for herself. And when we asked her why she would do that, what would lead her to forgive Andrew Jackson, she said, “I didn’t want to carry that around with me anymore. I didn’t want to carry around that kind of hate towards him. I didn’t want my life to be controlled by a dead man.” When we judge, when we are willing to let go of judgement, we are letting go of other people controlling our reaction.
It takes a lot of energy to judge people. It takes a lot of people to try to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s got their theology correct, who’s go their theology a little off, who’s worship practice needs tuning, who’s choir isn’t quite religious enough, who’s order for faith is inappropriate. It’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of devoting your time and energy to policing something that I don’t think you can be sure of in the first place.
Imagine the freedom, then, imagine the joy, the release that comes from letting go of judging others, of realizing how much more uplifting, how much more empowering it is not to police but to love. How much more empowering it is to set the terms of engagement not based on what the other does or thinks or believes or says, but on who you choose to be. You choose to be Christ in the world. You choose to be the one who loves without regard to all the things that the world enforces. That you choose to incarnate that word that God sends not to judge but to save, but to heal. How much more powerful is that?
We’ll be tempted to judge. We’re human. We can’t help it. We can’t help that need, that drive we will always have to imposing that kind of order, a kind of orthodoxy, or whatever kind of “-orthos” we want to put out there. But that’s for our needs, for our insecurities. It has nothing to do with what God wants, it has nothing to do with what God calls us to be, to transcend those limits of our humanities, to engage across those lines. Jesus engaged with that woman at the well, when all the rules should have told him that he should have judged her and sent her away. Jesus transforms the life of that woman caught in adultery, when the rules said he should have judged her and let her take the punishment. If God were playing by our rules, we would all of us be in a lot of trouble, but we are not in a relationship with a God who comes to judge us but who loves us as we are.
And that love is what transforms us much more than any kind of sentence under law. Our condemnation doesn’t transform us nearly as much as our pardon, as our acceptance, as our love. That’s how the world is saved. When Jesus comes into the world, it is to love the world, to save the world. So as we continue our journey through this wilderness of temptation, we continue to follow the example of the one who showed us both the power of temptation and the power to resist temptation. And in things we find it is simply being like him, willing to love rather than to judge, to accept rather than to reject, to treat with grace and love rather than with hard rule and human inclination. We still have a ways to go, and there are still temptations we face as we head through this wilderness, but if we remember not only the commands of Christ but the example, then you and I will receive that gift. We become agents of that salvation for the whole world.