The Son of God

“Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).  Their affirmation was not an official statement.  But it carries more weight than any political, religious, or military edict.  Those who were closest to Jesus, as He died, recognized His divinity.
The crowd joined the Jewish leaders and Romans to crucify Jesus.  The unanimity of those who represented the world against the innocent Lamb justified their position legally, religiously, and socially.  Too often, we still believe this way, that, “This is the way the world works!  Somebody has to pay!”
In Christ Jesus, God was willing to die at the hands of humanity.  He gave Himself to us and for us.  To our will God submitted His own will.  This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus.
We killed the Son of God.  God lets us have our way.  Even when our way ends in death, God allows us freedom.  Even when it ends in the death of God’s Son, God allows us agency.  It looks like wrath to us, but it is the way of profound, un-controlling love.
Lord, thank you for revealing Your Son and our evil at the cross.  May we receive your gracious forgiveness with gratitude and changed hearts.  Amen.
What does it take to recognize the Son of God on the cross?

Gethsemane
We must look back to the introduction to the reading for this morning.  Jesus went to the place called Gethsemane, to pray.  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with Him.  While the disciples flagged with sleepy eyes, Jesus prayed three times “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39b).  “…But as You will!”
Where we get our desires defines how we live.  We get our desires from one another.  This begins as parents teach their children and siblings show one another the way to the ice cream.  We get our desires from one another.
As we grow up, this process becomes less visible, but it is built into our system of life.  World-based desires wind up self-centered.  Worldly desires are marked by envy, revenge, and violence.  Our enemies, our neighbors, Madison Avenue, and Washington, D.C., dictate our desires even when we are not aware of it.
Like any sane human being, Jesus did not want to suffer and die.  But in His prayer, He gave His will over to the will of the Father.  What His Father did with His own will fills out the rest of the story.  Together, They gave Themselves to the will of the crowd.  And this crowd represented the whole world, rejecting the life-giving mission and message of Jesus.
The dynamic of conflicting desires between people brings us squarely into the realm of human justice.  Early on, society learned to handle interpersonal violence by creating a scapegoat to neutralize the growing conflicts of selfish willfulness.  After His appearance with Caiaphas, we find Jesus before Pilate as the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, the Lamb of God.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we recognize the possible sources of our desires.

Pilate and Company
Pilate was managing the scapegoat mechanism.  This so-called scapegoat mechanism is a device of polite societies everywhere.  This mechanism works to make peace by the periodic sacrifice of a victim.  Often, in our justice system, this victim is guilty of some terrible deeds and deserves death according to our standards.
Capital punishment troubles many of us.  Arguments about how the death penalty deters crime may or may not be convincing.  And the satisfaction of a vengeance wrought usually shows itself shallow and fleeting.  Revenge leaves a deep bitterness in the soul.
More often, our scapegoats are not in the judicial system.  As a prelude to the scapegoating of an individual, groups find solidarity and security by identifying the latest threat to their safety.
We think in binary and exclusive terms.  We want it clear who is in and who is out of our group.  We then scapegoat that person or group of people: Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, Muslims, Communists, women, men, heterosexuals, homosexuals, the rich, the poor.  Almost any group can feel “picked on.”
As long as the conflicts are between groups of nearly equal size and power, we continue in the polarized situation such as we have in American politics today.  Or, we see the world-wide conflicts such as that between the White Satan of American exceptionalism and the Axis of Evil in Islamic society.
This teetering war between groups takes a huge toll.  It is horrible.  Conflict between “equals” is symptomatic of our unresolved envy and bent towards violent resolution.  Polarization is the first step towards rectifying our conflicting desires.  We think, “Find some folks with whom you agree and dig in your heels!”
However, beware of when the majority finds a small group or an individual to blame for its ills.  This often happens in the classroom or on the playground or in the boardroom or in the family or even in the church.  Bullies can turn an entire class against the geek.
Whether a bonafide individual scapegoat or a commensurate enemy, the cure in either case is grace.  Violence begets violence, vengeance compounds revenge.  Grace gives new life.  The grace of God in Jesus Christ identified the scapegoat mechanism and revealed the evil of the crowd.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we must admit that violence funds society.

Soldiers’ Improv and More
The soldiers mocked Jesus.  They improvised a riff on His rule as King.
The Prince of Peace was made to wear a warrior’s robe.  They used the pretend scepter as a club against Him.  The crown of thorns, their mock obeisance, and the sign they put above His head show us more about the soldiers than about Jesus.  They were completely consumed by the system.  The scapegoat mechanism works, and they were model employees.
The disciples fled; the crowds gathered.  Only a few women disciples stood by at a distance.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world had turned against Jesus.   “And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:25, emphasis added).  The phrase translated, “all the people,” literally means that all the people were complicit.
The scribes and elders and priests joined in identifying Jesus as the one who must die for His blasphemy and threats against the temple.  Such it is with scapegoats.  They become the source of all our troubles.  We become unanimous against them; removing them, casting them out, killing them becomes the only viable solution.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we admit our willingness to crucify others.  Whether you realize it or not, to the extent you already think in non-violent terms, the story of Jesus has informed your life.  Any gracious, forgiving, loving impulse the world finds today God gave us on the cross of Jesus.  All genuine goodness comes from God and is revealed on the cross.

The Voice of Jesus
The gracious cure hung before them on the cross.  The gracious cure calls for someone to stand apart from the crowd and to provide the minority report.
The gracious cure called for someone to endure the humiliation and to absorb the pain.  The gracious cure called for someone to forgive our evil, sinful, violent actions and attitudes.  The gracious cure called for God to give Himself for us, to us.  And Jesus gave Himself.
We know this happened because Jesus sowed the seeds of a contrary witness.  Crying out in what is the most difficult passage of Scripture to understand, Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (27:46b).
The mystery of the Trinity complicates this exchange.  We only hear God answer in the darkness, and the torn veil, and the earthquake, and the raising of the many dead from their tombs.  We cannot appreciate one God in three persons no matter how many times we sing or teach or pray about it.  Yet, we hear the Son of Man calling out to God, “Why have You forsaken Me?”
In Christ Jesus, (who is fully God and fully man), God was willing to die at the hands of humanity.  He gave Himself to us and for us.  To our will God submitted His own will.  This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus.  And He cried out as He absorbed the terrible pain of our wrath.
That’s the best I can do to understand this mystery.  Others have extended, alternative, explanations.  I will rest in this, God loved us more than He loved Himself.  God’s will was, in this awful moment, to abandon His will to our will.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we must see the love of God, willing and obedient unto death.  We must see that the way to life requires self-giving through the place of living sacrifice.  We must be willing to take up our own crosses and to follow Jesus.  Amen.

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Worship in Spirit and Truth

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Last week, we met Nicodemus.  That is, he came one night and met Jesus.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and apparently a successful businessman.  This week, we read that Jesus met an unnamed woman of Samaria, of the village of Sychar.  She was drawing water in the middle of the day, at a time when encounters with other women of the village would be least likely.  A person from a more opposite situation in life than that of Nicodemus could probably not be found.  But Jesus found her.  And she met Jesus.
God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and truth.  Her journey was quite different from that of Nicodemus.  Her starting point grew from a totally different world.  She was well-versed in matters of faith from the perspective she shared with others of Samaria.  Still, God sought her and found her and invited her to faith through one of the deepest, most extended theological discussions in Scripture.
We believe Jesus and give our lives to God as we worship Him in spirit and truth.  The story of the woman at the well shapes our faith in ways the story of Nicodemus does not.  We often get entangled in various challenges to worship.  These things short-circuit our worship of God in spirit and truth.  This story clarifies at least five challenges to worship in spirit and truth.
Lord, lead us to worship in spirit and truth.  Amen.
What are some challenges to our worship in spirit and truth?

Water of Unity
Jesus had asked this woman for some water.  She protested.  He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan.  Didn’t He know how inappropriate this was?  Samaritans and Jews do not deal with one another.  The first matter is this life-giving water which washes away our prejudice.  Divisive thinking and acting short-circuits worship.
Muslims and Christians, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, our binary distinctions keep us comfortably separate and clearly decided on who is who.  The truth that one God created all of us often fails to change our minds.  Too often, the spirit of grace fails to persuade us to share that same spirit of grace with others.
God challenges our divisiveness through group-expanding metaphors such as water from the well.  The request for water from Jacob’s well, Jesus turned into an offer for a gusher of spiritual water renewing and giving life to the soul.  This water washes away the distinction between Jew and Samaritan.  This water satisfies our deepest thirst.  The currents of this water carry us into an everlasting age of life without the pains of exclusion.

Husbands and Others
The woman asked for some of this spiritual water and to be cleansed by its truth.  Jesus countered with the request that she go get her husband.  This brings up the matter of relationship.  Broken relationships short-circuit worship.
She admitted that she “currently” had no husband.  Jesus clarified that indeed, she had had five husbands and that she was not married to her current companion.
She presumed He must be a prophet to have knowledge of all this truth.  How could He know, otherwise?  More perplexing is the lack of condemnation from Jesus.  He simply declared the reality of her broken relationships with a spirit of grace.  Jesus offered no particular blame.  Nor did He suggest she get married now, or reconcile to the first one, or whatever.
While it might be important that the woman recognize Jesus as a prophet, I doubt that that was even the point.  God challenges our brokenness by leading us to deal with failing and failed relationships.  When we face the truths of our lives God opens a spirit of grace which convicts and consoles and challenges.
To the challenge, she abruptly shifted the conversation.  But she was brought face to face with perhaps her greatest need, fulfilling her desire to be in relationship with someone to love and by whom to be loved.

My Mountain of Sacrifice
By calling out her need, Jesus moved the conversation to the next level.  When you start touching upon a person’s deepest needs and desires they begin to think about ultimate matters such as who God is and how you worship Him.  Is He the God whose anger must be soothed or the God whose grace can be received?  Thinking of God as retributive rather than restorative short-circuits our worship in spirit and truth.
God challenges our worship by calling us away from worship based on our particular place and practice of punitive sacrifice.  First, she focused on place.  “Our mountain, in Samaria, is the only right place to worship.”  So many substitutes for the mountain come to mind: our church, our denomination, our doctrine, our color, our … you fill in the blank.  Most importantly, the mountain signified a place of sacrificial ritual, the spilling of blood.
Jesus did not take the bait.  She framed her argument in opposition to the position of the Jews who approved only Jerusalem as the place of worship.  Jesus spoke an immediate and comprehensive answer filled with the spirit of love and profound truth.  Jesus said, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Beyond the exclusionary constraints of place or any of its substitutes or the spilling of blood, God bids us worship Him in spirit and truth.  Whether Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, we maintain our mountains as places to sacrifice.  We develop and maintain places to shed blood in hopes of keeping the peace.  The invitation to worship God in spirit and truth erases our presumed need for continued blood offering.  Rather now, as Paul said in Romans 12, we present our bodies as living sacrifices!
The spirit is one of openness; it’s not my mountain or your mountain—neither is the point.  The truth invites the immediate and living response of our lives in praise and adoration.  The truth refuses to embrace bloody scapegoating and retribution and wrath and fear.

Waterpots, Carry-out, and Witness
The story then pivots on the moment when Jesus admitted to being the Messiah, the Christ.  The woman claimed that she knew the Messiah was coming and would help us understand everything.  In response, “Jesus said, to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (John 4:26).  Jesus revealed this truth because He was already busy doing the will of the Father who sent Him.  He was bringing to harvest a dear lady with troubled relationships.  He was revealing how God was working in and through Him.
About this time the disciples returned from their mission to find food.  Interrupted by the disciples, the woman left her water-pot and headed into town.  The truth she took back into the village was far more important than a pot of water.  She proclaimed the possibility that the Christ was nearby.
Meanwhile, Jesus refused to eat the carry-out.  Rather, Jesus schooled the disciples on how ripe for harvest the souls of the people were.  The value and readiness of souls changes the spirit of our work.
We witness of so many things.  We get excited about our ball teams, and we should.  March even goes into a madness over playoffs.  We have “spirit.”  In a spirit of excited witness we may point to our church, our pastor, our doctrines, our politics.  Here is the challenge.  The woman did none of this.  She pointed to Jesus.  He claimed to be the Christ.
Our misguided witness to our pet projects and ideologies short-circuits worship.  It is as harmful as failing to witness at all.  Both hurt worship.  God challenges us to witness that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, the One anointed to save the world.  We have no other message to offer.  This singular focus enables and guides our worship.

Samaritan Disciples
Then, the Samaritans offer a final shaping of our worship in spirit and truth.  A measure of the effectiveness of worship is the extent to which others begin to hear and respond to that word of grace which moved us.  Walking through faith in another person’s steps short-circuits worship.  With Jesus, each of us can walk on his or her own.  Indeed, it is incumbent on us to so walk.
As exciting as it is for the pastor to lead someone to Christ or to prompt a spiritual breakthrough in someone’s life, it excites the pastor beyond measure to see disciples begin to hear God for themselves and to grow in faith without being spoon-fed.  The Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and because they began hearing from Christ, Himself.
Perhaps we’ve read this verse as a put down to the woman.  Now I see it as the ultimate goal of any Christian leader.  “[A]nd they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42, emphasis added).
We worship in spirit and truth as God convinces us of His great truth through the power of His Spirit.  Then we begin to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  Will you join in listening and hearing and sharing and worshiping in spirit and truth?  Amen.