Archive | March 2012

4. Lent: Singing the Verses

Fourth Sunday of Lent

18 March 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO


“Singing the Verses”

Based on John 3: 14-21

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen

            We know it so well. “For God so loved the world.” We’ve heard it all our lives, whether raised in the church or not. For some Christians it is the one Bible verse that can sum up all of their theology. It’s like a song we’ve heard over and over again. It comes on the radio; we think we know all the words. We belt out the chorus—but when the verses come, well, we mumble a bit. Think of the song “White Christmas”—most of us could sing the chorus, but do you know the first verse?

The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I’ve never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.


This text is like “White Christmas,” John 3:16 is the chorus we know so well, but the rest is rather unfamiliar. This morning’s lectionary text begins in the middle of Jesus’ clandestine late-night discussion with Nicodemus, a Pharisee. The lectionary divides this discussion into two parts: in the first, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one “can enter the Kingdom of God without being born from above,” which Nicodemus questions, saying, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’”[1] Nicodemus fails to understand that Jesus speaks metaphorically. Jesus responds: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.*[2] It is at this point in the discussion that our text begins.

            We are in the midst of Lent, and here we find as our text St. John’s first prediction of the crucifixion. We still wander in the desert, but even now, the cross looms in the distance. Fittingly, Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole to save the Israelites while they were in the desert, so he must be “lifted up”—on the cross, to save us from ourselves. We see the vision of Calvary, and in the words of hymnist Brian Wren:

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?


But this prediction that Jesus offers does not stop with being “lifted up,” but he continues  with the promise of the Resurrection: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We are not left with Jesus remaining on the cross but raised to life, and us with him.

            What follows is as close to Jesus interpreting his impending crucifixion (or John’s interpretation of it) as we get. The famous John 3:16 verse frames Jesus’ explanation of this to Nicodemus. “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.” Traditionally people have thought this verse to mean that God loved the world so much that he gave God’s only child. However, some scholars suggest that in the original Greek the preposition means rather that the way God chose to show such a vast love for humanity, that God sent Christ Jesus. God’s love is vast and deep and broad and never-ending, and God chose to demonstrate that love through sending God’s beloved, Jesus. Out of God’s infinite love for us, God sends us Jesus to teach us how to live in love, in order to, as the UCC Statement of Faith says, “save us from aimlessness and sin.”

            Too often this one verse, which contains so much love and reveals so much about God’s character, has been wielded as a dogmatic weapon. How often do we fail to realize the import of the word “world” in all this? “For God so loved the world”! It is not a select group. It is not one nation of people, or even one people within a nation. It is not even God’s favorite ones. It is not those we like, not those we look like, or act like. It is the entire world. God’s love knows no boundaries. God sees our warring madness, mourns our hatred and greed, and sends to each of us, Jesus Christ, to teach us, to lead us into the Way of Life. Jesus reminds us: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God is enfleshed and comes into our world, not angry and condemning of us, seeking to judge us harshly, but deeply sorrowful for our neglect of God and our neighbor and seeks to show us yet a better way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and martyr, wisely wrote, ““God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

            Jesus describes himself as the Light come into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah ring in our ears: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” But we resist coming to Jesus. The ways of the world are comfortable for those who are comfortable—we don’t want to shake up the system, to disrupt the current order. We fear coming to Jesus, for his light will shine on the darkness of our lives—the ways in which we have sinned against God and neighbor, the hurts and pains we have caused. But we rationalize, we convince ourselves that we lead better lives than we do, that we are not in need of redemption. But the sad truth is that we are each, each and every child of God, is in need of redemption. Try as we might, in our own ways we fall short of the life God calls us to. But it is in confessing our shortcomings to God that we are released of their power. We need not fear coming into the Light for through Jesus Christ we are forgiven. All our transgressions are washed away and remembered no more. Grace and mercy rushes down in an ever-flowing stream from God’s throne. Again, the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith reminds us, “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself.”

            Jesus says to Nicodemus, to us, and all who seek him: “For all who do evil hate the 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 the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” We are called into Christ’s light to receive his grace and mercy. God offers us this, the greatest of all gifts, but we must respond to the gift. It is not easy to turn away from the world’s way of individualism, materialism, greed, and rule of the powerful to the Way of the Cross. This Way, grants victory through vulnerability rather than violence. This Way teaches that try as the world might to stifle God’s message of everlasting love and reconciliation, God will always put a comma where the world puts a period!

            Jesus challenges us to come into his light. Anthony Robinson, a United Church of Christ author writes, “The thing about the challenges that come from Jesus is that they are rooted and wrapped in love. He challenges us because he loves us. Sometimes our love of others is empty of challenge or the invitation to grow. And often our challenges are short on love.”[3] To live in the Light is to demonstrate the same love God has shown to us in Jesus Christ. It is to love God and neighbor with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind. We must not forget that living in the light of Christ includes tending to our inner spiritual lives. Personal piety is as important as our works of social justice. We demonstrate our love of God through prayer, worship, reading and meditating on Scripture and the works of the saints, and other spiritual disciplines that have been passed on to us. In drawing our hearts and minds close to God we live in the light and grow in right relationship with God. We must remember that for a truly vital and living faith, and to truly follow Jesus we are called to both go up to the mountain to be with God and to come down the mountain and serve God’s people.

            Look up and see the cross. Again hear again the words of Brian Wren:

            Yet here is help and comfort

To lives by comfort bound

When drums of dazzling progress

Give strangely hallow sound:


Life emptied of all meaning,

Drained out in bleak distress,

Can share in broken silence

Our deepest emptiness;

And love that freely entered

The pit of life’s despair

Can name our hidden darkness

And suffer with us there.


Look up to the cross, and see the hope of resurrection in the distance, and remember that it is all in the name of God’s great love for you. There is nothing you can ever do or be that will make you unworthy of God’s love. Unlike the love we experience in this world, God gives no exceptions to God’s love. Jesus Christ turns none of us away—but welcomes us freely with open arms to be reconciled to him and to walk in the glorious Light.

One final word from Brian Wren:

Lord, if you now are risen,

Help all who long for light

To hold the hand of promise

Till faith receives its sight.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.





[1] John 3:4, NRSV

[2] John 3:12-13, NRSV

[3] Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, 21 March 2009


2. Lent: God’s Laughter, Our Laughter

Second Sunday in Lent

4 March 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO


 God’s Laughter, Our Laughter

Based on Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-17

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell


            Today we once again return to covenant. Last week we heard of the first covenant God made, that with Noah and all creation. This morning we hear of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. This is one of the most important stories in the Bible. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all find their origins in Abraham and Sarah. God makes multiple covenants with them, promising law, land, and numerous ancestors. This story is near to my heart, not least because Sarah’s response to the incredulous promise is not unlike that of a dear friend of mine, also named Sarah.

            Abraham and Sarah are very much seen as some of our chief ancestors in the faith, particularly in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Even today those who convert to Judaism are referred to as “children of our father Abraham.” According to Jewish scholar Eliezar Segal, Sarah is sometimes seen “as a representative of the divine presence in the world…closely akin to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.”[1] They were the very beginning of God choosing the Hebrews for God’s special mission to humanity. One famous rabbi said that the Israelites were only chosen as God’s people after God had tried all the mighty and powerful people who refused the task, finally seeking out the Israelites who basically tell God, “Well, if you don’t have anyone else, we guess we’ll do it.”

            God says to Abram, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” How does he respond? Abram falls on his face – perhaps out of reverence, shock, or sheer disbelief – or all three. If it is shock, who can blame him? God tells this 99 year-old that he is going to father a whole nation. God lays out this covenant saying, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” You may remember a few weeks ago the reading which highlighted the renaming and transformation, of Abram into Abraham, among others. The change to Abraham is appropriate, as the name means exalted ancestor. The name Sarah actually means princess.

            The covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah is on a grand scale. They will be father and mother to a vast nation. They will be matriarch and patriarch to the greatest religions founded. When God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child, how does Abraham respond? He falls on the ground laughing and says “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” One of my favorite verses in scripture is Sarah’s own response a chapter later, simply, “Sarah laughed.” Not quite the holy, reverent, staid response we’ve come to expect from the great characters of the Bible. But their laughter at the preposterous promise of God shows that they are human, just like us. They are not the mythical stoic heroes that we sometimes make people of the Bible to be. They are human just like us, and respond like we do when we hear some ridiculous news – we laugh. Sometimes we might even fall on the floor laughing, it sounds so crazy.

            Dr. Michael Cooper-White, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, reminds us that “Abram and Sarai bore a special grief, which is hard for us moderns to fathom. Unlike our culture’s increasing embrace of those who choose to remain single, or couples who freely decide not to bear children, Abram’s and Sarai’s world abhorred a status labeled “barren.” For the ancients, the inability to conceive and bear children went far beyond disappointed yearnings to snuggle a newborn or take pride in their progeny; such was cause for shame, especially for the woman.”[2] By the time we hear of this holy couple – they likely had both given up hope for any heir, but also let go of some of their shame. Yet God comes to them, at the ages of 99 and 90, and says that now is the time! It’s unbelieveable – of course they laugh! And who can blame them, after all they’ve been through. But now, in these days when they feel so old they wonder if there is yet any use for them, let alone if God has any use for them. But there is, and God does – and they will name their son Isaac, which means “He laughs.”

            Time and again God chooses the unlikely – people so aged the wonder if they have any purpose left, Moses and Paul who had speech impediments, reluctant and cranky prophets, the unwed teenage Mary and bewildered carpenter Joseph, not to mention the ragtag team of disciples. And God chooses each of us. We each may have a reason to say why we are unlikely candidates, to balk at the ridiculous idea God comes up with, the crazy scheme God wants to involve us in, or even to lead. When we laugh at the very idea of going out and being God’s hands and feet in the world, God laughs back at us saying, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” As Christians we are heirs of Abraham and Sarah, and thus of God’s covenant. Remember that God says it is an everlasting covenant – it will never end. Once again God establishes it without any stipulations or preconditions. God promised to this aged couple offspring – which they received, and millions the world around consider them spiritual ancestors.

            We often resist the call of God on our lives. I know many stories of people who felt called to ministry when they were my age or younger, but avoided it for a lifetime before finally giving in. One friend of mine, with whom I spent a year in seminary, was first a Navy Top Gun pilot, then a corporate vice president, before accepting the call to go to seminary and now serving as a UCC pastor in Connecticut. But that is only an example of God’s call to ministry as a career. God has a mission for each of us, especially for laypeople. God calls us at all ages, even at age 99 and beyond. Recently United Church News reported about an 8-year old named Megan Miller who has answered God’s call in profound ways for such a young girl. Megan is a member of Grace United Church of Christ in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. When she heard about the tsunami and earthquake in Japan last year, she organized the kids in her church to sell artwork they made, generating $700 in response. Her mother works for an AIDS foundation for children, and now Megan is thinking about making that her next charitable project.

            You see, once we get done laughing at what God has in mind for us, we can actually get down to doing what we can to make this world look a little bit more like the Kingdom of God. Whether it’s raising a child, nurturing them, and teaching them to love God, or whether it’s that very child discovering ways he or she can show God’s love in tangible ways, or visiting and ministering to those who are sick and shut-in, and realizing that they ministered to you – God’s crazy scheme for us begins to sound less crazy. Somehow we get it into our minds that our possibilities are limited, even when God shows us a larger vision. But with God in charge and God giving us the mission, we ought to know that the possibilities are limitless. After all if God can use Abraham and Sarah who just fall down laughing at the thought of a child at their age, God can use us. And if God can use us, with all of our quirks and foibles – that’s a miracle in itself! Then why not expect that God can work miracles through us?!

            The truth is that no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, God not only welcomes us and calls us. God may call us to some absurd, ridiculous, preposterous, even downright silly things – things like ending poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, things like creating a more just world for all God’s people. Those are big audacious things – almost as crazy as a 99 year old having a son named “He laughs.” But once we get down to it and trust in God’s promise to be in relationship and in covenant with us, we can make an impact. When we answer God’s call, we can help one less person have to face the effects of the ills of our society, and slowly but surely we chip away at that poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism and be closer to the family of God that we were created to be. Crazy and audacious and bold as it may sound, God gives us the everlasting covenant to do no less.

To God be the glory. Amen.