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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/11/2018

After struggling with this week’s lessons for most of last Monday, I started to think it might be best to just read them today, skip the sermon, say the creed, celebrate communion and go home. It’s not that they’re not good readings, they’re really good readings actually, but it seemed like every time I thought I had an idea for a sermon I found I was writing myself into a theological trap that I would then have to try and get myself out of, most likely just leaving you hopelessly confused. I did find what I thought was an overarching theme, that today’s combination of lessons continued our movement toward the cross and especially the meaning of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, events that we’ll consider more fully in two weeks on Passion Sunday and then in the days of Holy Week that follow.

Having found a theme though, I still wasn’t sure where to go with it, I kept finding myself trapped, so instead I want to talk about monkeys and cats. It’s probably not a surprise to you that monkeys and cats are like most members of the animal kingdom in that both mother monkeys and mother cats are very protective of their young. If a mother monkey hears one of her babies calling out in distress she will immediately rush to help it. What she then does is to turn her back to the young one, inviting it to jump on her back and hang on. When the baby does so, the mother will then carry it to safety.

A mother cat on hearing one of her kittens in distress will also rush to help it. What the mother cat does though is probably more familiar to most of us. With her mouth, she picks up the kitten by the nape of its neck and the kitten dangles there somewhat helplessly as mother carries it to safety. In both cases a rescue is accomplished, but do you see the difference? There’s a similarity; in both cases the one in distress has to cry out to get mother’s attention. After that though, the young monkey has to do something in order to be rescued by its mother; it has to jump on her back and hang on. The kitten doesn’t have to do anything. The mother cat is totally responsible for its rescue.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16; that’s the King James Version I memorized as a kid, maybe it’s the version you’re most familiar with too, pretty close to what the choir sang in the anthem today. It’s one of the best known Bible verses; Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd” is probably number one but John 3:16 is right up there. If you’re old enough you might remember Rock’n Rollen, the guy with rainbow hair that used to hold up a John 3:16 sign at major sporting events. I actually met him at a bar outside Boston Garden before a Celtics game once. Unfortunately, out of curiosity I Googled him and found out he’s currently serving three consecutive life sentences for kidnapping. Everlasting life for him would be spent in prison, but I digress.

Back to monkeys and cats: does John 3:16 represent mother monkey theology or mother cat theology? In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, does God grab us by the nape of the neck and carry us to safety, or do we have to jump on God’s back? Is salvation entirely the work of God, or do we have to co-operate in some fashion with what God has done?

With our emphasis on God’s grace, these questions seem to trouble Lutherans more than anyone else. For many, the need for cooperation in some fashion seems obvious. For the moment though, rather than considering all the theological possibiliities, let’s keep it relatively simple and just consider this familiar verse from John and the verses that follow.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Right away that places emphasis on God’s love. Love is the motivating factor behind God’s action and that love is for the world. The Greek word for world is “kosmos” and in John it is a word usually used for those who are in some way at odds with Jesus and God. Remember the words from John’s prologue: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Using the same word in John 3:16 implies that out of love, God gives Jesus to all people, not just to a select group. So far then, it’s all on God like a mother cat.

That opening clause is followed by, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” “Everyone who believes in him:” the world, all people is now limited to those who believe. One can try to dance around it, and one does, but for John, the presence of Jesus in the world calls one to decide either for or against Jesus. With that, we’re now looking at the back of the mother monkey. Do we jump on or not?

In the verses that follow there’s lots about condemnation: first there’s the hopeful statement that says that the Son was not sent into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. But then we’re back to “those who believe are not condemned, those who do not believe are condemned” all of which can lead to the impression of a harsh, judgmental God, not gracious at all. A couple of things on that though. First of all, the word translated as condemn also means judge and if you read it as “those who believe are not judged, those who do not believe are judged” that at least changes the tone. Even more significant though is the fact that it is not God who is doing either the condemning or the judging here; instead it is people doing it to themselves.

These verses aren’t about end time judgment but about deciding for or against Jesus. A decision for Jesus is an invitation to what John calls eternal life, another term that tends to be misunderstood as for John it’s not so much about life after death as it is about a quality of life here and now. Eternal life is life lived in the presence of and in obedience to God. To perish is to separate oneself from this life. A decision for or against Jesus is central to John’s theology which is closest to mother monkey theology; you have to do something; a decision has to be made.

All of which can make grace centered Lutherans uncomfortable…but it doesn’t have to. The broken relationship between God and the world has been decisively overcome from God’s side by God’s grace alone as revealed in and through Jesus; it is mother cat theology. Mother monkey though represents the way of life modeled by Jesus. Do we jump on her back or don’t we? A decision does have to be made.

The text talks about those who believe in him but belief here doesn’t just mean intellectual assent, it includes the obedience of embracing a new way of life. To avoid obedience sounding like legalism, maybe a better way to put it is to say that what God as mother cat has done for us by grace gives us the chance to jump on the back of mother monkey God and to re-imagine the world and its possibilities when divine grace and love are its defining characteristics. That imagination and that vision come with an invitation to act. We are on the other side of God’s action but from our side there are choices to be made and things to be done.

Still, whether you’re Lutheran or not, the starting point is God’s grace. In biblical faith that has always been the case. Today’s psalm witnesses to that. For the people of ancient Israel it is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love, in Hebrew the word is hesed; it’s God’s love and commitment to the people no matter what. It’s all from God’s side, an attribute of God, not earned though or dependent on the actions of the people. In their distress, the people cried to the Lord and like the mother cat, the Lord delivered them, just because…just because of his steadfast love. That’s a pretty good definition of what we call grace.

For that, we can join the people of Israel as we say, “Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good, for God’s mercy, God’s steadfast love, God’s grace endures forever.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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