Blinking in the Light
2009-03-18 by Michael Ruffin
My Lent sermon series this year is "On the Road to the Cross"; I have decided to entitle this week's sermon "Blinking in the Light."
I had at first intended to entitle it "Walking in the Light" but I wound up not feeling that confident.
I arrived at my title through reflection on the very complicated nature of the Gospel lection. John 3:14-21, especially when viewed in relation to the other lectionary texts, has led me to ponder the inherent difficulties that can exist in (1) believing in Jesus Christ and (2) understanding how we come to believe in Jesus Christ.
In the Numbers text to which the Gospel text refers, the people are healed of the serpent bites when they look at the bronze serpent mounted on a pole by Moses. It is in looking upon it that they were healed. In my imagination I can see people who refused to look at the bronze serpent and thus get healed. Why do people do things like that? When given the opportunity to look, what causes people to blink? I'm thinking of the child's game of having a stare down contest; who will blink first (it was always me, by the way)? If "looking" upon the crucified Christ and believing in him brings eternal life, why do so many people blink?
Or is blinking the natural response to something so dazzling? Perhaps we have to blink to get past the brightness; perhaps we have to blink to get past our incredulity; perhaps we have to blink all through life as we deal with our doubts and our fears.
Then there is the part of the text about people loving darkness rather than light because they don't want their deeds exposed. Again, I am drawn to the idea of blinking because that's what bright light can cause us to do.
Perhaps the light is something that must be approached with great humility. I can imagine few people running full-bore, eyes open, into the light. On the other hand, people who screw their eyes shut against the light will not find eternal life. Maybe the best we can do--and maybe the best we can encourage--is to step tenatively into the light, eyes blinking furiously, partly trying to avoid and partly trying to let it in.
2009-03-17 by Michael Ruffin
Some further reflections, fueled by subsequent reading, on some of the questions I posed in my first post:
On Question #1:
Craig S. Keener helpfully notes regarding John’s use of “lift up” that John “most likely derives the image from Isa 52:13…, the context of the Suffering Servant,” which contains the same verb (ypsoo) meaning “lift up” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 566).
On Question #2:
In my last post I said “there seems to be a connection between the idea of ‘condemnation’ and that of ‘judgment’ in v. 19.” Please change “seems” to “is” in that sentence. In fact, the word (krino) translated “condemn” in vv. 17-18 in NRSV is the verbal form of the noun (krisis) translated “judgment” in v. 19. NASB handles the words nicely, I think: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world…. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already…. And this is the judgment….”
On Question #3:
I said, “Vv. 19-21 could be read to mean that God sent God’s Son to reveal the true nature of people. If that’s the proper way to read them, what does that mean?”
D. Moody Smith is helpful: “One asks, however, what does the coming of Jesus as the light effect? Does if effect anything—that it, does it make any difference—or does it simply reveal what people already are? The dualism that we have observed might suggest the coming of the light shows what is already the case. It has a revelatory function, so to speak, but does not change anything…. This is one way of reading this description of the effect of the coming of the light. But does the Gospel not allow an alternative reading?... Believing carries with it a kind of double determinism: who I shall be and who I was all along can only be known from the standpoint of my reaction to the light, so that everything is at stake in that decision.” (John, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, pp. 100-101.)
In other words, one’s decision in regard to the light (Jesus) reveals who that person was, who that person is, and who that person will be. So there is a sense in which the light reveals the heart of the person but there is also a sense in which the person’s reaction to the light tells the truth about her or his heart. Perhaps we cannot neatly separate God's role in salvation and our role in salvation; maybe it is all of a piece.
2009-03-17 by Stephen Schuette
There are so many possible directions to go. One way: it may be that part of the larger story is about levels of learning.
In some previous stories when people complain God responds with care and compassion, mannah and easing the burdens of leadership (Nu 11). Like mice in a maze we quickly learn where the reward is and are adept at returning to where it was previously found. So the people complain expecting a response similar to the previous one. This is rote learning, full of conditioned responses, and to be sure, much of our lives are guided by just these types of interactions. Our “buttons” are pretty easy for folk to discover and we are quick to learn theirs, and once they’re hit it’s usually a done deal. So the play is made, complaints are registered; the ball is in God’s court and the people wait to be appeased.
But God has a wider repertoire of response. God’s button will not be pushed, and so we are pressed to learn more deeply about how a relationship can be more genuine, real, authentic. To this occurrence of complaining that is prompted by impatience rather than genuine need God gives them something to truly complain about. (NB: Not that this is done in anger or with the attitude of an abusive parent. It's about learning and the flexibility of God's responses and the risks God is willing to take to move us forward.)
We are pressed to deeper learning by this odd juxtaposition where the source of the ailment turns out to be its cure. And we’re well beyond something that can be grasped by rote learning now.
Have you ever realized, perhaps after years of focus and attention on it, that what you thought you wanted isn’t what you really wanted?...what’s more, that the very experiences that were the most undesirable, most painful are full of the deepest meanings?
I agree with Michael that these texts raise questions. Perhaps we’ve done our homiletical job when we’ve invited our listeners to struggle with those questions and so to learn.
2009-03-16 by Michael Ruffin
I’m going to begin with some questions about John 3:14-21 because this text, surprisingly to me, raises so many of them; it is surprising because the verse in the middle of the lection, John 3:16, is perhaps the most quoted verse in all of the Bible.
Question #1: What is the parallel between the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness by Moses, an event that is described in this week’s Hebrew Bible lesson (Numbers 21:4-9), and the lifting up of the Son of man (v. 14)?
The parallel does not seem to be between the serpent and the Son of man per se but rather between the lifting up of the serpent on the pole and the lifting up of the Son of man on the cross. Another possible parallel is between the actions of people in response to the lifting up: in the Numbers text, when people look on the lifted up serpent they do not die of the serpent’s bite while in the John text, people who believe in the lifted up Son of man do not perish either but they in fact have eternal life.
Question #2: What is eternal life (vv. 15-16)?
I’m not sure that I have ever answered this question adequately for myself, much less for others in a sermon. The concept of eternal life surely has meaning beyond the non-cessation of life; it surely means more than being alive forever, our concept of “forever” being bound by our limited and limiting notions of time. Perhaps eternal life should be thought of as life outside of time, which might make our eternal life something like the life of God, about whom when we say “God is eternal” I think we are really saying that God exists outside of time. Does eternal life mean for us a life outside of time? And if so, what does that mean?
Question #3: What does the text mean by “condemnation” (vv. 17-18)?
The text says that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world (v. 17); it then goes on to say that the one who believes in the Son is not condemned but the one who does not believe in the Son “is condemned already” precisely because that one has not believed. In what way is the unbelieving one “condemned already”? Are we to assume that the condemnation can be turned into salvation if the unbelieving one comes to believe? Does the lifted up Son of man inspire/provoke belief or does he reveal belief? I ask that last question because there seems to be a connection between the idea of “condemnation” and that of “judgment” in v. 19 where it is said that the judgment is the preference of some for the darkness over the light; vv. 20-21 flesh out that idea by saying that those who are evil do not come to the light because they don’t want their deeds exposed while those whose deeds are true do come to the light. Vv. 19-21 could be read to mean that God sent God’s Son to reveal the true nature of people. If that’s the proper way to read them, what does that mean?
Such thinking leads to my last question.
Question #4: What does it mean to “believe in him” (vv. 15-16) or to “believe in the name of the only Son of God” (v. 18)? The language seems pretty particular: it is the Son of man who is lifted up in whom one must believe if one is to have eternal life. It might be a healthy exercise for we who preach to push ourselves this week really to think about how he is to be believed in and what constitutes such belief.
Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2009-03-16 by David Howell
Michael L. Ruffin, pastor of the First Baptist of Fitzgerald, Georgia. He has previously served as Pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia, and as Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Mercer University (B.A.) and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D.). He is the author of Living Between the Advents: Preaching Advent in Year B (CSS, 2005) and editor of Why Be a Christian: The Sermons of Howard P. Giddens (Mercer University Press, 2007).
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