Sermon Details

Dust

Date: 16/03/2014/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

John 3:1-17
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
“Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
“No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, [that is], the Son of Man who is in heaven.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
“that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
John 3:16 is one of the, if not the, most famous passages from the Bible. We even have a photography shop named John 3:16 over in Funan Center, and those of you who have been to California, and have eaten at In N Out Burgers, will see John 3:16 on the bottom of the cups. “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.” Jhn 3:16.

Of course, when I looked at the lectionary a few weeks ago, I had to preach on this passage. It is a challenge. It is a challenge for a self-identified progressive Christian to look at this passage, and reflect on its meaning in our lives today.

Today also marks the second Sunday of Lent. For those who are not familiar with the Christian liturgical calendar, the season of Lent commemorates the 40 days that, according to the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry where he endured temptations.

It is quite ironical today that many of us here in Singapore are more familiar with Ramadan, the month of fasting for the Muslims, than Lent. Both Ramadan and Lent are seasons of preparation through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – and some of you may be familiar with the imposition of Ashes that some Christian denominations and traditions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, observe. My seminary holds Ash Wednesday services, and it is not only just a ritual – just like the communion isn’t just a ritual. It is, for many of us, an experience that marks the beginning of our journey into a spiritual desert for 40 days.

An ashen cross is marked on our foreheads, as the minister says “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Gary preached two weeks ago and mentioned the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Entropy, which is a measure of disorder, of the universe always increases. “High Fat, Low Fat, Dust.” Well, even though the engineering genes run in the my family (great grandfather – mechanic, grandfather – shipyard working, dad – engineer, uncle – lecturer in engineering), it seems that it probably skipped me. Instead of entropy, i go with Genesis 3:19 – “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

What does John 3:16 have to do with Lent? That was the question on my mind as I was preparing for the sermon. How does the promise of everlasting (or eternal) life square off “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I think that would be the same question if I was sitting in the congregation listening to the sermon. As usual, I won’t be answering the question directly – I would be taking you on a roundabout way, meandering down winding paths, instead of giving you a straight answer.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

He misunderstands what Jesus said “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

This is the passage where the idea of being born again is found. But what if we were mistaken, like Nicodemus, about what it means to be born again?

Marcus Borg writes :
John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the Bible. In the familiar form in which I memorized it more than sixty years ago: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (KJV).

For many Christians, this verse is the most concise summary of the Christian gospel. “John 3:16” often appears on homemade signs held up by fans behind the goal posts as football teams attempt to kick a field goal or the point after a touchdown.

It is easy to understand why. Understood within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity, it expresses the heart of what the heaven-and-hell framework affirms:

For God so loved the world: This expresses a main Christian conviction that God loves the world. It is how the rest of the verse is understood that gives it its distinctive meaning within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity.

That he gave his only Son (or in some translations, his one and only son): This is understood to mean both that Jesus is the only Son of God and that God gave him to die for the sins of the world. The “giving of the Son” means that Jesus died in our place, so that we can be forgiven.

So that everyone who believes in him: What we need to do is to believe in Jesus as God’s only son and as the one who died for us. This is the path of salvation.

May not perish but may have eternal life: The consequence of believing in Jesus is survival of death and everlasting life, meaning heaven.

To say the obvious, note how this understanding of the verse sounds the main themes of the heaven-and-hell Christian framework: we are saved (that is, get to go heaven) by believing that Jesus is the only son of God, who died for our sins. Notice also how this puts a condition on the opening line “For God so loved the world”; namely, the love of God is conditional. Though God loves the world, only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. In extreme form (not all that uncommon), the verse means that God loves you, but God will send you to hell and eternal torment if you don’t believe in Jesus. But all of this is a significant misunderstanding of what John 3:16 means in the context of John’s Gospel.

For God so loved the world: In John, as in the New Testament generally, world has two quite different meanings. One meaning is positive: the world is the world created by God-the whole of creation. The other meaning is negative: the world is “this world,” meaning the humanly created world of cultures with their domination systems. In John and in Paul, “this world” rejected Jesus. But God loves the divinely created world-not just you and me, not just Christians, not just people, but the whole of creation.

That he gave his only Son: John’s Gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice; indeed, none of the Gospels do. The giving of the Son in John refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily to the death of Jesus. How much does God love the world? So much that God was willing to become incarnate in the world.

So that everyone who believes in him: The premodern rather than modern meaning of believe is intended. In this verse, as in the Bible generally, believe does not mean believing theological claims about Jesus, but beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. This is the way into new life.

May not perish but may have eternal life: Eternal life is commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death. But in John’s Gospel, it is a present experience. The Greek words translated into English aseternal life mean “the life of the age to come.” Within John’s theology, this is still future and to be hoped for. But it is also present, something that can be known, experienced now. Consider John 17:3:
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Note the present tense.

This is eternal life (the life of the age to come); and its content is knowing God and Jesus. To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come.
Thus in John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God as known in Jesus, in the incarnation, and entering into “the life of the age to come” now. It is not about people going to hell because they don’t believe. It is about the path into life with God now.
It is about the path into life with God NOW.

But the path into new life can only be entered through transformation – the dying of our old selves into new lives. “Unless one is born again, one cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Lent is the journey of transformation, self-discovery, the stripping away layers of self-deception so we are at last confronted with our bare selves, our deepest temptations.

What Jesus was tempted in the desert – making stone to bread, testing God by casting off the top of the Temple, and being offered all the kingdoms of the world, what was it about? Do we face the same temptations in our lives?

It is about us playing God. About doing our will, and not God’s will. About focusing on us, and not on God. A life centered on ourselves. That is the path, not to life, but to death. God doesn’t need to condemn us – we do a very good job of self-destruction all by ourselves. But there is hope.

We enter into Lent by being marked for death. But we should not be afraid. I was reading an obituary last week, and there was a quote from Mark Twain – “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

That, to me, also neatly sums up the Christian faith – that Christ came to help us live fully, live abundantly. We are to have life abundant – and we are called to be the best we can be, to live out the fullness of our being, and not fear death.

Marcus Borg writes:
The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity—the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps—and being born into a new identity—an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.

Put slightly more concretely, this path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives—perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.

You can even die to deadness, and this dying is also oftentimes a daily rhythm in our lives—that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.

That’s the first focal point of a life that takes Jesus seriously: that radical centering in the Spirit of God that is at the very center of the Christian life.”

When we realize, admit and embrace that we are dust – we are liberated. we are free from acting like God. We are free to let go of our temptation to control everything. We are free to let go of our desire to possess, to own, to have everything. Because we are dust. Because at the end of the day, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or if you prefer Genesis 3:19 – “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

During my quiet time, I read a Lenten reflection by a Jesuit priests, Rev Michael Rogers. He writes:

“That we are dust is a reminder that our lives are fragile, and that the lives and hearts of those around us are as well. So we must tread lightly and walk joyously, spreading love for hate, peace for rancor, and healing for a world which is all too wounded. That we are dust is a reminder that in our material existence there is a limitedness, a boundedness which leaves the reality of who we are all too often far from the people that we wish to be, and that we are, ourselves, all too often far too vulnerable before the lesser angels of our nature and left needing the help of our friends, family, and indeed our God to press forward. Yet the reminder that we are dust, by reminding us of just this simple yet profound common reality of our existence, is the call to freedom and to patience, peace, and a humility within ourselves which can reconcile who we are in reality with whom we ideally wish to be.”

So often we aspire to become better. We tell ourselves, we will do this for Lent – give up something, try something new to become a better person. Then, very often we fail. And then we give up.
That again, at some level is our desire to be in control all over again. We still have not embrace the reality that we are dust. An endless pursuit of becoming better may not necessarily be a good thing. We may end up having a permanent dissatisfaction with ourselves and we are further away from being at peace with ourselves.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

Rev Michael Rogers:
“Now is the time to rid ourselves of the chains, addictions, and habits which hold us bound. Now is the time to repair those wounded friendships, and to remember once again the joy that we had in them. The time is now because we are returning to dust, and there is no other time.

This is a call that goes to people of all faiths and of no faith. This is a human call, it speaks not simply to Christian beliefs, but to all of humanity which understands that life is far too short, our time to love far to brief, our joy always far too limited. Now is the time, there is no other moment. The spring, which can never be held back, is coming. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10