John 3:14-21 (4 Lent B)

We gave trouble with gifts. We have trouble giving gifts. And we have trouble receiving them. Giving gifts is difficult for us. And I’m not talking about questions like is it the right color? Or the right size? Or will he like it? Or does she already have one of these? Our trouble is not in choosing gifts so much as it is with giving them as gifts. Unconditionally, with no expectations, no strings attached. We give others things so that they will like us, acknowlege us, join our group, be indebted to us, give us something in return, pay attention to us, say nice things about us. And we get bent out of shape when we give someone a gift and they don’t acknowledge it, or us, or say nice things about us or give us something in return, or send a thank you note.

You knit someone a sweater and you give it to them and then you find out six months later that they gave it away at a church rummage sale. And you say, “I’m never giving him anything ever again.” Why? Because he didn’t do with your gift what you expected him to do. You expected him to wear it and enjoy it and think of you every time he put it on. Instead, he gave it away. Your gift had strings and expectations attached that weren’t met. And so your gift wasn’t really a gift it all.

We do the same with our offerings. We call them “gifts to the Lord,” but in many cases, they are strings to pull things our way. And if we don’t like what is being done with them, we “withhold our gifts,” indicating that they never really were gifts in the first place.

That’s not the way God gives. He gives without strings or expectations. He gives rain and sunshine and every good gift – to the good, the bad, the religious, the unreligious. When God gave His only-begotten Son to the world, he did it without any strings or expectations. He simply made His Son the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the whole world. On a very good Friday, God dropped dead to our sin and saved the world in the death of Jesus. And He didn’t ask the world if it wanted to be saved, or if it was really sorry, or if it promised to try real hard to do better. The Son simply said, “It is finished,” and the Father said “Amen” loud enough to raise Him from the dead. God gave a death and resurrection to the world with no strings or expectations attached. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. While we were enemies of God, He reconciled us to Himself in Jesus.

We also have trouble receiving gifts. When someone gives us an unexpected gift, we feel guilty, obligated, even angry sometimes. “You shouldn’t have.” “Oh, I feel awful.” “Now I have to get you something.” We can’t simply say “thank you” and enjoy being on the receiving end of the giving. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us feel like a “charity case,” which explains why the poor are held up as models of faith in the Bible. Receiving gifts takes our pride down a notch or two. It destroys this notion that we are “self-made” men and women who can make it on our own, we don’t need anyone’s help, thank you very much.

We’d much rather transact, cut deals, bargain, negotiate than give and receive gifts. Children these specifiy their Christmas presents by make, model, and catalog number. Bridal showers, weddings, and baby showers have become organized exercises in merchandising. It’s not only china pattern and silverware that are registered, now there are registered lists from Nordstrums to Home Depot. It’s no longer gift-giving and gift-receiving; it’s surrogate shopping.

And we transact with God, too. Or at least we try to. Transaction is the the stuff that all religion is made out of. When something goes wrong, we start praying more fervently, reading the bible more faithfully, attending church more often. Why? We’re trying to cut a deal . “I’ll be good to you and then you’ll be good to me, right?.” We transact with Baptism, as though we were performing some kind of magic ritual on the baby. A religious innoculation that you need but once, or then get a booster shot when the kid turns twelve and its time for confirmation class. We transact with confession, as though by confessing our sins we’ve earned a piece of God’s forgiveness. And the more guilty we feel, the more forgiving God should be. We transact with the Lord’s Supper, as though we were mixing up a batch of Jesus who wasn’t already present, or as though we are filling up our tanks with forgiveness for another week’s worth of sinning, or that God is sitting up in heaven taking attendance. We act as though church attendance earned us eternal frequent flyer miles, or doing church-related work buys us box seats at the heavenly banquet.

Luther was raised in that kind of transactional religion. It’s what brought him to the monastary. As a young man, home from college, he was caught in a severe thunderstorm. Fearing for his life, he prayed to his family’s patron saint, St. Anne, the patron of miners. He bargained that, if St. Anne would save his life, he would join a monastary. Think about it. Luther was on his way to becoming a lawyer, and instead became a monk. And the rest was history, as they say.

But somewhere along the line in that Augustinian monastary, with its rigorous life of prayer and fasting and study and confession, Luther came to the stark recognition that God can’t be bargained with. God is not in the negotiation business, and any attempt on our part to transact with God is with the counterfeit currency of religion. Luther recognized that a person stands before God justified – acquitted, declared innocent – not because of anything good that he does, or any inherent goodness in him, but solely on the merits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In himself, he was dead. But in Christ, he was alive. As St. Paul says, “You are dead, and you’re life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Dead is the necessary condition to receive the gift of life. You can’t be raised from the dead unless you’re dead. There’s nothing more giveable to than the dead. The dead can’t do anything, just be dead. And that’s what Paul says we are in the passage in Ephesians. He says we’re dead in our trespasses along with the rest of the world. He doesn’t say we “were dead,” as our translation has it. He says we “are dead.” “Being dead in trespasses and sin, God made us alive in Christ Jesus.” And dead means jsut what it says. Dead. Lifeless. Helpless. Not weak, or sick, or in need of a spiritual tune-up. Dead. As far as God is concerned, you’re dead.

That’s dead in yourself. But in yourself is not where the action is. In Christ is where the action is. In Christ is where the gifts are given and received. In Christ is where everything happens. Everything that happens to us happens in Christ. In Christ we were chosen before the creation of the world. In Christ we have redemption. In Christ we were made alive, being dead in ourselves. In Christ, we were crucified to sin on Good Friday. In Christ, we were raised to life on Easter Sunday. In Christ, we are seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. In Christ we are new creations. In Christ and not in ourselves.

In ourselves, we are dead as dead can be. But in Christ, we are as alive as Christ can be. That’s how we need to see ourselves – dead to sin and self, but alive to God in Christ.

That’s why salvation is by grace. When you hear the word “grace,” think “gift.” It’s entirely a gift from God to you from beginning to end, in Christ. No matter where you stop the video and check out the replay, God gives and you receive with the utterly dead hand of faith. From the foundations of the world, God saved you in Christ. On the cross of Calvary, God saved you in Christ. In your Baptism (which for your part all you had to do was get wet), God saved you in Christ. On the Last Day, God will save you and raise you in Christ. And all you have to do in order to rise from the dead is be nicely dead, which isn’t much of an accomplishment at all on your part, lest anyone should boast.

And don’t go and make faith into some kind of work that you do. “You gotta’ believe.” Faith is simply dead trust. Trust – like you do when you get in an elevator and push the button and go to the top floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago trusting that this elevator works. Trust – like you do when you get into an airplane and fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride trusting that the pilot, the co-pilot and the mechanics all know what they’re doing.

Believing in Christ means trust that Jesus truly is the Lamb of God who truly does take away the sins of the whole world. Trust that when Jesus died, you died in Him. That when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant it, that everything needful for your forgiveness, life, salvation was finished. Trust that when Jesus rose, you rose in Him. Trust that when Jesus ascended to sit at His Father’s right hand in glory, you ascended in Him. Trust that when God saved the world in Jesus He had youin mind, a fact testified to you when you were buried into Jesus’ death in your Baptism and when you feed off His death in the Lord’s Supper.

Forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, resurrection are all received and enjoyed now by faith, by trust that it’s a done deal in Jesus. And only by faith. You can’t know it, feel it, smell it, sense it, or taste it. You can only believe it and enjoy the ride. And this is something that no religion in the world gets, at least very clearly, if at all. Religion always tries to cut a deal with God and it uses counterfeit currency. But God cannot be bargained with. He simply forgives and raises the dead. And He’s already done it all in Christ. “It is finished.”

Think of Jesus on the cross as a one-man world, the new head of humanity, the second Adam in whom the whole world is bundled. Not simply our sin, but us. Not only us, but everyone from Adam and Eve to the last baby born on the Last Day. So when Christ dies, the world dies. And when Christ rises, the world rises. And when Christ is glorified, the world is glorified in Him. All that is left for us is to re-cogize (the word is “repent,” re-think, re-consider), or as St. John has it “do the truth.” “He who does the truth comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his works have been worked in God (not in him but in God.)

St. Paul puts it this way: We are God workmanship, created in Christ upon good works (not for good works, the text comes nowhere close to saying this). We are created in Christ upon good works, that is, upon the foundation of His good works which God prepared from all eternity that we should walk, that is live, in them (instead of our own works which couldn’t save a flea.)

[Serpent in the wilderness]
“As Moses lifted up the serpant in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him would have eternal life.” The Israelites were being bitten by fiery snakes whose venom was deadly. And God directed Moses to make a bronze model of the snakes and put it on a pole and lift it up before the people so that everyone could see it and live. The snake-bitten people didn’t have to do anything but see the serpent on the stick, a sacrament of life, a gift of God. And notice that the cure looks just like the disease, a snake.

And Jesus’ says that’s just like Him on His cross. Lifted up for a snake-bitten world. He will be the cure that looks like the disease. Death. He will be lifted up so that all who look on him in faith will live. Jesus is the anti-serum of death, the One who took the sting of death and the venom of the Law into His own body. He is the medicine of immortality for the snake bite of sin that has poisoned us all to death. And it doesn’t matter how good or how bad or even how ugly you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or who you are, or how much or little you worked. Just look on Jesus lifted up for your life, and trust Him, this Jesus who died for you and in whom you died. In whom you live. In whom you are glorified. In whom you are already a new creation.

You might want to think of salvation as going to a big game. It’s not as though God were offering you tickets to the big game providing you shape up and behave yourself. Nor is it as though He put tickets in your hand and now it’s up to you to decide whether or not you really want to go to the game. Nor is it as though the tickets are waiting for you at the Will Call box. It’s more like you’re already at the game in Christ, with a Coke in one hand and a hot dog in the other, and you know you don’t deserve to be there, and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, and all you can do is thank the guy that got you there for free.

In the Name of Jesus,






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