Lent 5

Our Gospel starts today with this mention that among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks who came to Philip and asked to see Jesus. Remember the Jews were scattered throughout the great Roman Empire – so they likely were pilgrims coming to the Temple to sacrifice. As John makes this reference to the Passover, we also know it is Jesus’s last week, before his condemnation.

Here actually our lectionary (= set of readings for each Sunday) is a bit upside down. The passage we have just heard comes In john’s Gospel right after the triumphal entry of Jesus in the holy city – this triumphal entry that we will celebrate next week for Palm Sunday. But you get the idea: Some Jews from outside the country have heard for the first time about Jesus, maybe they have witnessed Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, the crowd welcoming him by shouting: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord – The King of Israel” and so of course, these people are eager and excited to meet him.

Now you would expect that after that request to the disciples, they have this amazing encounter with Jesus, and that the rest of the story would be about the Greeks being blown away by Jesus’s teachings and miracles.

And yet – This is not what’s going on at all. We don’t know what happen with the Greeks – but Jesus hearing that some people want to meet him gives him an opportunity to explain what it really means to “see” him: Jesus announces that he is going to be “lifted up from earth” – and that’s a double meaning as we often find in John’s. Yet this time, rather than Jesus giving spiritual meaning to earthly things (like the wine at Cana or the water with the Samaritan woman), literal meaning takes precedence on the spiritual meaning: Being lifted up does not mean first that Jesus will reign over earth, very concretely it means that he will be hung on the cross on the outskirts of town, on mount Golgotha.

So yes, and that almost sounds cynical, lifted up on the cross, that’s how the Greeks will “see” Jesus. And that’s still how we see Jesus, each time we enter a church – we see Jesus on the cross, and as we enter Holy week, more than ever, we are called to “see” the crucified, after following him in teachings, miracles and ministry.

Not a triumphant king but condemned with other criminals.

And naturally, this sight of Jesus, it’s unbearable to watch. We know that the disciples fled. The suffering, the shame and the despair one suffered on the cross was absolutely gruesome and terrifying. That’s actually why the Romans used crucifixion as away of putting criminals to death: to dissuade the people from rebellion.

But if the cross is this mirror to our suffering, it is also a mirror to our violence and to the terrible things human beings do to other human beings. Of course, we haven’t crucified Jesus on that day, but we live in a world where violence still befalls on innocent people – not necessarily those who have done nothing wrong, but those who cannot defend themselves for lack of physical or mental strength, lack of social status and relationships, lack of means and money. And we know that even when we are not violent with our acts, we still judge and condemn others with our lips, those who cannot defend themselves because they are too shy or too vulnerable, or just clueless about what we say behind their backs.

So yes, we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross not only because we hate to suffer, but maybe we also refuse to see him because we know our own violence and our own sin. On that week in Jerusalem, Jesus will become another prophet to be put to death by his people. In him, not only we reject an innocent man, but we reject God. As our confession of sins states: We deny God’s goodness and God’s goodness in one another.

To see Jesus means that we also have to see the grief we bring upon God and the pain we bring upon each other. To see Jesus means that we also have to confront our sin.

And it’s interesting because confronting our sin, this what our Psalm 51 is all about. You may have noticed that we read it each year for Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, and here we hear it again on the last Sunday before Palm Sunday. Psalm 51 is known as the psalm of repentance.

To give you a little bit of context, this psalm is believed to have been written by David after the prophet Samuel told him in a parable how he had offended God by sinning against two innocent people: Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. The sin David committed with Bathsheba is often qualified as an adultery, yet adultery is between consenting people. From the story though, it is clear that Bathsheba was taken from her house and her husband and brought to the king without her consent. David committed sexual abuse and even rape. And this was not the end. When David found out that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to manipulate Uriah to come back home from war and sleep with his wife so Uriah would assume the child was his. As David failed to talk him into doing that, David got Uriah killed by asking his General to send him to the forefront battle. One could say that it was even worse than murder because David got his rival killed by somebody else. On top of proving himself manipulative and deceptive, David acted like a coward. Then he married Bathsheba with no regard towards her feelings, after he did the worst things to her.

So this was serious sin, you see. Although he was the king, David completely over stepped the boundaries not only of good behavior, but even of human decency.

Yet in the midst of that, David cried for mercy – and this is what Psalm 51 is all about. David expressing his regrets and guilt and asking God for forgiveness – This is him confronting his sin and in this he will find redemption, because he did not give up on God’s mercy and God’s goodness, and in this he does not give up on himself either. There is a flip side to sin you see. There is active sin, the sins we commit when we abuse our power and overstep the boundaries, as did David, but there is also passive sin: despair, when, as David puts it “[our] sin is always before [us]” and we get stuck in self hatred, shame or hardheartedness. And to me, in Psalm 51 David walks that thin line: he regrets the evil he has done, mourns his wrongdoings while feeling the pain he has inflicted on others, yet he refuses to be eaten up by a past he can’t change and he refuses to be limited by a future he has destroyed. David finds hope and he finds hope because he believes that God is bigger than any sin he has committed, however awful. And so God will hear him and deliver him. David trusts in God’s power and finds a horizon beyond sin.

Life is not limited by the terrible things we have done. I love it that David trusts God to wash him and make him clean. The translation of our psalm in the Bible “The Message” actually uses images of God of “soaking David”, scrubbing his stains and doing laundry with his sins! It may seems strange to see God’s power as a washing machine, and yet I know that to me, I wash the clothes I love because I want to keep them and I want them to look beautiful. And I think it says a lot about our relationships with God. God hates sin, of course, but God wants to remove sin from us because God wants to see our beauty, God wants to use us, and God wants to keep us forever. The way God deals with our sin reveals God’s great love for us and that’s what we are invited to experience when we confront our sin in the presence of God. Not condemned, but washed and made beautiful and usable again!

We can see our sin and just despair, or we can see our sin and experience God’s love and to me this is exactly what happens to David in this psalm. We know that as God will wash David and cleanse him from his sins, God will reveal David’s soul’s beauty, God will use David for God’s purposes, and God will keep David forever. David will experience this deep knowledge and intimacy with God the prophet Jeremiah talks about in our reading today.

In the same way, when we see the cross, we are invited to see God’s love beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. That’s the glory Jesus is talking about: Not the apparent glory of walking triumphantly in Jerusalem, but the deep glory Jesus manifested as he loved his people to the end, and no matter what. This love is the true meaning of the cross and our reason to hope beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. This is this love we are invited to see during Holy week.

Lent 4

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus would say these words to Nicodemus. who, as the Gospel puts it, came to see him “at night”? [Because of the way our reading is laid out, it may not be evident for you to realize that the words of Jesus we hear today are the conclusion of his dialogue with Nicodemus, but that’s where we are]. Nicodemus was a teacher, a leader of the Jews says the text, and the common explanation for his nocturnal visit to Jesus was that he was trying to be discreet – attracted to Jesus’s teaching and amazed by his miracles, Nicodemus wanted to find out more, yet he also didn’t want to be exposed having a conversation with the one so many of his peers accused of being a blasphemer. And so, I find it quite ironic that Jesus finishes their conversation telling him that people love darkness more than light because they don’t want their deeds to be seen! Nicodemus is attracted to the light that is Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to talk to Jesus during daylight, because he doesn’t want to be seen, judged and rejected by the other religious leaders who hate Jesus so much.

Well, it may be tempting to feel a bit annoyed by Nicodemus’ behavior, but if we think about it, aren’t we all like him really? Unless we have a huge sense of provocation, who among us would bring to daylight what our friends, colleagues, family, gang or tribe would disapprove of? One of the fears the most shared among human being is the fear of being rejected, and most of us want to be seen as a good person, to be loved or admired. I guess there are some people out there who don’t mind being seen as a bad person but only if it brings them attention or respect. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be seen as idiot or as a traitor. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be mocked, shunned or even condemned by their peers.

And so it is with Nicodemus you see. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he does not want other religious leaders to find out about the admiration he has for Jesus, the questions he has on is mind, the longing he has in his heart. It could look silly, inappropriate or even dangerous for him.

And so of course Jesus picks up on that, with a sense of humor full of compassion and tenderness even as his words cut down to the heart because they speak a truth that is very hard to hear: We don’t always like the light. We don’t always like the light. We like the light when we feel good about ourselves, but we also like the darkness if it helps not being found out. We don’t always love the light for the sake of the light, we love the love the light when it’s convenient. And if it’s true with others, that we will flee the spotlight if we don’t feel good about ourselves, it’s certainly true with God as well. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are.

And I find that very interesting because we generally assume that this is what we like, what we believe in that makes us act a certain way: We believe in a good God and so we become good people. Or on the other around, we believe in a judgmental God and so we become judgmental. But here, Jesus seems to say something completely different, something we may want to think about: It’s our behavior that influences our taste, our love, and in the end our belief.

It is not our belief that changes our behavior, it’s our behavior that changes our beliefs.

Practice mercy, justice and goodness, you will look for the light and a God of mercy, justice and goodness. Live a life where you abuse, judge or condemn people, you stay in the darkness and believe in a God who abuses and condemns people.

The reason why religious leaders rejected Jesus is not that they had strong theological beliefs (although they certainly had), the reason they rejected Jesus is thatthey didn’t feel good about themselves around Jesus because of the sins they couldn’t let go of. They lived a life of judging and condemning people, so they couldn’t fathom a God who was would be welcoming to all.

This is the problem some of the Hebrews had in the wilderness, as we read in the Old Testament today. They met a God who judged them and punished them but that’s only because they had already judged and condemned God. They saw God as unreliable and untrustworthy, not because God had let them down but because they were afraid and unable to trust, and in the end they proved themselves unfaithful. You could say that they obtained the God they deserved! They acted like God was their enemy, and so God became their enemy. When they changed their minds and acted as if God was going to have mercy on them, God had mercy on them.

And that’s what Jesus wants to show people, that on top of condemning others, they condemn God and condemn themselves all the time. Only if they repent from their sin they can find who God truly is, the heart of the faith of the Hebrews that is proclaimed in our Psalm today: Give thanks to the Lord for God is good.

God is good. So to meet this God, we don’t have to convince ourselves that God is good, we just have to practice goodness. This is as simple as that. What we believe in or not believe in, even belief in God – it does not have much to do with religion or ideology. It has to do with the way we behave. What we choose to practice or not. If we practice goodness, we will see goodness. If we ourselves do good, wouldn’t it be much easier to believe in goodness, to believe that good is real? But if we practice deception, how can we experience that God can be trusted?

If you want to know God’s goodness, you have to practice goodness – would it be only towards yourself. And the more you practice goodness, the closer you come to God even if you don’t feel it. That’s why charity is a spiritual practice. Grace is there yes, and we can experience God’s mercy in our darkest hours, but in the long run we have to do good to experience goodness and a God of goodness. I haven’t known a truly good and loving person who believed in a God of wrath or vengeance – unless they had been traumatized by the evil done to them – and this is why self care is so important. Be good to you if nobody else. Love yourself if nobody does. Or find friends who truly love you and get away from abusive people. Whatever your circumstances are, if you live a life where you practice love, your God will be a loving God too.

Jesus reminded us in the text last week that we are the Temple of God. Our heart is the place where God happens, where God becomes real. The God we experience depends on the quality of our heart as surely as we can only see through our own eyes, right? If our hearts are darkness, we cannot receive a God of light. Yet it does not depend only on us as individuals, sadly. If you have experienced much darkness from others, if you have been told you are unlovable or evil – it will be hard for you to find a God who is good. And so, we have a responsibility towards one another. God is also a communal experience – the way some Christians behave make it impossible for others to believe in God and to believe in goodness. How can you support the institutions if politicians are untrustworthy? How can you trust the church, if priests are molesters? How can you believe God cares for all if innocents are put to death?

And so maybe the question we could ask ourselves today is the following:

How can we live in a way that makes it possible for others and also for ourselves to believe in goodness and, in John’s words, to give testimony to the light? How can we show in our lives that the God of Psalm 107 and the God of Jesus is real?

Lent 3

The passage from the Gospel we have just heard is one of those few stories we find in all four Gospels. Something is unique about our passage though, and it is that John places this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the event during Jesus’s last week, a few days before he is arrested, condemned and put to death. And we would understand why this timeline make sense: Jesus acted in a provocative way in the Temple, radically putting into question the way religion was organized, which would have infuriated the religious leaders. After that, they would have felt even more urgently the need to get rid of him.

But that’s not the way John sees it. John places the “purification of the Temple” – or maybe a better name would be the “disruption in the Temple” – right there at the beginning. Why would he do so?

Well, one of the ways to see it is that the evangelists recalled and related the events of Jesus’s life, not necessarily according to what was chronologically accurate but rather in a way that would explain who Jesus was for them. In the case of John, it certainly makes sense, for two reasons that are important.

In chapter One, John presents Jesus as the Word of God sent in this world to be God’s dwelling. In this passage, Jesus presents himself as the Temple. He does not so much oppose the physical Temple in Jerusalem to the Temple of his body, but he understands them in continuity. The Temple is an image, a materialization or if you prefer a sacrament of the inner Temple, heart and soul. God is present in the Temple in the same way that God is present in Jesus – and – as a consequence in each one of us. In the beginning of the Gospel, John announces to all people that we are called to become God’s children – to be ourselves, in our flesh, an indwelling of God in the world. Religion does not mean a lot if it does not lead us to change profoundly our hearts and our behaviors and leads us to be “witness” to the light that has been manifested to us (again, in John’s words)

Well, this is already something, isn’t it? If we could think of of people as as sacred as our churches, the altar, the cross or even the consecrated wine and bread we share for communion, no doubt that we would look at each other, and at ourselves, much differently. Perhaps that’s the beginning of conversion, to be able to see the beauty and preciousness of who we are when so often we are blinded by the business of life and down to earth preoccupations – in the same way that the sacredness of the Temple became elusive when it was turned into a marketplace.

– The second reason why John may have placed this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, is that in chapter one, John announces through the voice of John the baptist that Jesus is the “lamb of God” and it is an image that is very important to him and to the people who would come to join his community. In the book of Revelation, written by “John”, Jesus is presented many times as well as the “lamb of God”. It means that indeed, no sacrifices are required anymore, because Jesus gave his life for us and we, through him, are reconciled with God. This is what Jesus would be already announcing in this Chapter 2, driving out the animals out of the Temple to fulfill the sacrifice with his own person.

Again, this is also we may need to think about more deeply. The Jews in the Temple weren’t doing anything “wrong” by offering sacrifices – actually, the Bible commanded them to do these sacrifices (see the book of Leviticus!), but Jesus reminded them, as the prophets reminded the people before, that nothing replace a living relationship with God, along with practicing justice and mercy. Again, the Temple points out to this relationship and faithful living, but it’s really about becoming the Temple in ourselves and Jesus shows us the way, even more, includes us in this relationship and enable faithful living – and that’s what John is preoccupied showing.

Now there’s a third reason why John may have given priority to this episode in Jesus’s ministry, I found this explanation in one the commentaries I read while preparing for this sermon, and I think it is worth sharing. The author said that generally, we recall more vividly times in our lives that are very emotional, and she said that when John sat to write his memories about Jesus, that was probably this episode that came to his mind because it made such an impression on him.

And as I thought about it, her explanation made much sense to me. According to the tradition, John was very young when he started to follow Jesus, the youngest of all the disciples, a teenager – probably 17 or 19 at best, and then he lived a very long life and it’s only at the end that he wrote his Gospel. And so, I can only imagine him, being very old, trying to remember what was that, that as a young man, impressed him so much about Jesus – what was that that made him fall in love with him and follow him. Certainly it could be what happened on that day at the Temple where Jesus chased the cattle, overturned the tables and argued with the merchants, that made John fall in love with Jesus and made him want to follow him to the end. John, maybe unlike the other evangelists, wasn’t shocked or unsettled by Jesus’s outburst. Unlike the other evangelists, John didn’t place this episode sandwiched between many others events of Jesus’s life, and once we’ve been much acquainted to the meek and mild Jesus. John placed this episode at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry because for him it was who Jesus was and he loved it! A Jesus who was a breath of fresh air in the Temple and who was turning religion upside down.

Young people are much more at ease with anger and rebellion than we are when we reach a certain age. They want things to be different – even sometimes they just want something to happen, no matter what. Tradition does not reassure them a lot, they don’t generally find it comfortable – more likely they find it boring. I remember when I was a teenager I didn’t go to church hoping to find things the way they always were – I wanted to see something new, to hear something new, to do something new. Something that would bring me closer to God – something that would make God become alive for me.

And I really think this is what Jesus did for John. John must have thought that Jesus was really offering something different, something that wasn’t boring, something real and authentic, something that made God come to life for him. Jesus was offering something new. If you read through John’s Gospel, you will realize that almost each chapter could be called by the newness it brings:

New Revelation. New wine. New religion. New birth. New water. New food. New light. New eyes. New life. New love. And this is also what Paul testified about. Jesus brought a whole new way of understanding God. So different that it looked completely foolish to the philosophers and the religious traditionalists!

When Jesus came among the people of Israel, they had been offering sacrifices for twelve hundreds years for the forgiveness of their sins and their impurities! But as Nicodemus, a lot of them were longing for a new level of spirituality where they could be brought closer to God’s heart, to be more intimate with God – and we know that even the Jews who didn’t come to follow Jesus stopped offering sacrifices after the destruction of the Temple, the religion was much changed and more internalized.

Actually if we look in the Bible, from the beginning God wants to bring new life to God’s people. We have just read about that in the book of Exodus. Before God asks anything, God reminds the people that God “brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. God brings liberation to the people and for one reason or another, the people of God always end up “taming” God, “entrapping” God in their Temples, dogmas or prejudices!

So what about us? Are we on the side of those coming to the Temple to perform the same rites hoping God will answer our prayers, or are looking for something new to happen? Not just novelty, something that would flatter our senses or bring some entertainment, but are we looking for a fresh and authentic way to relate to God? Are we looking to grow, do we feel the need to deepen our relationship with God, to learn about God, to learn from God? And to let this happen: Are we able to let go of what has grown old? Are we willing to have an honest look at what isn’t working anymore and find ways to renew and understand better our faith and bring it to the next level?