March 14, 2021
 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)
 Scott Walters

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
Amen.

Let us pray.
A brief silence is kept before the prayer.

O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.

Then the readings for this day may be read, as follows:

First Reading:  Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Word of God, word of life.
Thanks be to God.

The Psalm may be sung or read in response to the First Reading.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1Give thanks to the LORD, for the | LORD is good,
for God’s mercy en- | dures forever.
2Let the redeemed of the | LORD proclaim
that God redeemed them from the hand | of the foe,
3gathering them in | from the lands;
from the east and from the west, from the north and | from the south.
17Some were fools and took re- | bellious paths;
through their sins they | were afflicted.
18They loathed all man- | ner of food
and drew near | to death’s door.
19Then in their trouble they cried | to the LORD
and you delivered them from | their distress.
20You sent forth your | word and healed them
and rescued them | from the grave.
21Let them give thanks to you, LORD, for your | steadfast love
and your wonderful works | for all people.
22Let them offer sacrifices | of thanksgiving
and tell of your deeds with | shouts of joy.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. With Christ 6God raised us up and enthroned us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus 7so that in the ages to come might be shown the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not you own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what God  has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Word of God, word of life.
Thanks be to God.

 

Gospel: John 3:14-21

The holy gospel according to John.
Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son-of-Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17“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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”

The gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ. 

Thoughts from Scott Walters

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – Amen.

 

When Pr. Phil asked me to preach this Sunday because Pr Steve was going to be on vacation, I said sure. Then, when I saw that John 3:16 was part of today’s Gospel reading – what I call the End Zone verse because of all the years that a guy named Rollen Stewart would wear a rainbow-colored wig and hold up a sign in the End Zone of NFL games reading “John 3:16” – and when I realized that I’d be preaching on the Sunday right before the start of the NFL Free Agency period, I thought: Coincidence? I think not!

For those of you who didn’t note which one of the verses we read is John 3:16 (and you’re not alone: when Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore eye black with the verse inscribed on it while winning the 2009 college football national championship game, he claimed that 94 million people Googled the verse afterwards), it goes like this: "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.”

I’ve often thought that was an odd thing to draw our attention to during a football game, especially in an end zone. I mean, if you have to hold up a sign with a Bible verse in the end zone, why not something like 1 Corinthians 15:57:  "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”? That seems more to the point.

After all, an endzone is the place of often-excessive celebrations of individual triumph. Whether it is a touchdown dance, a windmill spike, dunking the ball over the goalpasts, whatever – the message is the same: yay for me, I did this great thing because I’m really talented and I’m gonna boast about it. And while any player who scores a TD is expected to do some sort of celebration (including massive offensive linemen who, if they have scored a touchdown, are probably desperately in need of oxygen), I’m not suggesting that they need to make a complex theological statement before heading to the sideline. And yet, that John 3:16 sign in the background does sort of create a theological context to their actions. To illustrate this further, I’d like to focus on the former Carolina Panthers MVP quarterback Cam Newton.

Cam was a showman, and he took end zone celebrations to a new level. When he first arrived in the league, Cam was known for his Superman TD celebration. He’d stand in the end zone and mime opening his shirt like Christopher Reeve peeling back his shirt to reveal the Superman costume beneath. Some people didn’t like it much – thought it was arrogant. After all, there’s no I in TEAM right? But that’s true of all TD celebrations: an individual takes credit for something that was created by a whole group of people.

And that is not only the case in sports -- this tendency to claim total credit for success seems to be an awfully common phenomenon, at least in our country.

Back when I was teaching, I would sometimes use TED talks to introduce certain discussion topics, and one of my favorites was by a guy with the awesome name of Paul Piff, who is a professor of social psychology at the Univ of California at Berkeley. Piff talked about an experiment he did with a rigged game of Monopoly.

In this experiment, pairs of students would be set down at a table to play a game of Monopoly and, Piff said, “with the flip of a coin, randomly assigned one of the two to be a rich player in a rigged game. They got two times as much money; when they passed Go, they collected twice the salary; and they got to roll both dice instead of one, so they got to move around the board a lot more.” 

So it was clear from the start that one of them had quite an advantage.

And yet, Piff said, “as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences, dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with the piece as he went around….We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players.” Essentially, Monopoly touchdown dances!

“And as the game went on,” Piff says, “one of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person -- less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success, more likely to showcase how well they're doing.” They were spiking the ball!

But here's the capper, according to Piff: “at the end of the 15 minutes, we asked the players to talk about their experience during the game. And when the rich players talked about why they had inevitably won in this rigged game of Monopoly…They talked about what they'd done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game. And they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation -- including that flip of a coin -- that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.” 

And it’s not just students playing Monopoly. All you have to do is watch speeches at a political convention to hear politicians describe themselves as “self-made men,” and successful people in business or in life will almost always talk about how they succeeded because of all the hard work they put in and if others are less successful, well, it’s because they’re just too lazy to succeed. And they tend to forget about all the help and benefits they had. Like the football players celebrating solo in the end zone, we all tend to forget all of our advantages, all of the gifts we’ve been given.

Which brings us back to Rollen Stewart’s John 3:16 sign in the end zone. “God so loved the world that he gave –“ Let’s just stop there. “God so loved the world that he gave.” Yes, he gave his only begotten son, but that’s not all he gave.

He also gave:

  • The Heaven and the earth
  • And light and the darkness
  • And the dry land and the waters
  • And the grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit
  • And the sun and the moon and the stars
  • And the fish in the sea and the birds of the air
  • And the beasts of the earth, and the cattle, and the creeping things
  • And then he made human beings

And then at that point, 31 “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” He just scored a game winning touchdown. So does he spike the ball and do a dance and take full credit for his accomplishment? No, what he does is -- He gives it all away … to US. All of it. It’s a gift, and we’re put in charge of taking care of it.

And it’s not just the “stuff” of the world that he gives us. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 spells this out for us:

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 

And no doubt, to one is given the gift of being a 245 lb, 6’5” QB who can throw, scramble, break tackles, and summersault into the endzone. But maybe that’s what the John 3:16 sign in the background reminds us: that He is the god who gives. And he gives because he loves the world so much. To love is to give. And ultimately he gives us his son, and through him, he gives us salvation. Paul reminds us, though, that “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” So don’t be spiking the ball.

So here we are given gift after gift after gift from God. I have a question for all of you parents and grandparents: when a kid is given a gift, you always prompt them, right? “What do you say…?” And the kid goes, “Thank you.” Kids get so wrapped up in the awesomeness of the gift that they forget to say thank you – they have to be reminded. And man, sometimes it feels as if we could spend 24/7 just saying thank you to God. Thank you for my wife, thank you for my warm house, thank you for those mountains in the distance, thank you for these eggs and bacon, thank you for the toilet flushing – I mean, it would be non-stop! And maybe that is what Paul meant when he told the Thessalonians to “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances.”

But another way to thank God for His gifts might be to try to imitate him like in John 3:16: To love so much that we give to others the things that we most love.

I’m reminded of the movie Pay It Forward that starred Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey, and a kid named Haley Joel Osment. Do any of you remember this movie? Osment plays 11-year-old Trevor whose 5th-grade teacher, Spacey, gave his class an assignment to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. That’s quite an assignment! Trevor calls his plan "pay it forward," which means that the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying the favor back. However, it needs to be a major favor that the recipient cannot complete him or herself.

The movie shows us how Trevor’s three favors are multiplied one recipient at a time until thousands and thousands of people are paying it forward. The movie has a real tearjerker ending that I won’t spoil for you, but I do think the message is right. Not only God, but we can so love the world that we give.

And while I said that I didn’t expect Cam Newton to make a complex theological statement each time he scored a touchdown, it turns out, well, that he ends up doing exactly that. During his first year, Cam did his Superman celebration, and devised all kinds of other end zone celebrations, and his quarterback coach, Mike Shula, didn’t like that. Cam said Shula told him “I was bringing more attention to myself and not the team.” So Cam asked him what else he should do, and Shula said: ‘Next time you score, I want you to find a kid in the front row and hand them the football’.” Newton agreed to try it, but admits he forgot when the next touchdown came during a game with Washington. Shula quickly reminded him, however.

Cam said: “In the NFL, you can hear your coaches in your headset...All I kept hearing was: ‘Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,” Newton said, laughing. “So...I grabbed the ball and made eye contact with a kid in the front row. And it was as if we knew each other forever. I handed him the football and it was the most priceless moment I could put my finger on up to that moment...Giving a child or a kid a football...is something you will cherish for your whole professional career. I’ve seen kids cry.” The team has since named that tradition “the Sunday giveaway.”

Pay it forward. See that your TD is good and then give it away.

In 2015, the Panthers were playing the Green Bay Packers, and Cam scored a 1-yard touchdown run and, following the tradition of the “Sunday giveaway,” he gave the football to 6-year-old Colin Toler. Little did he know that Colin’s father had died a month earlier of a medical condition. Colin’s Dad had always promised that he was going to take him to see a football game, but he got too sick to do it. And so friends of the family bought tickets and his grandfather’s took him. According to a TV report, when Cam started walking toward him after the TD, Colin said "I was like oh gosh, oh gosh," Toler said. "Am I going to be on the big screen or am I going to be on TV? I was jumping up and down like yeah!... "The back people were like, 'can I take your picture?' And I was like yeah. And the side people gave me high fives and stuff, it was pretty fun." Colin's family said complete strangers in the stands also went out of their way to make Colin's day extra special. Look at that face.

John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave. You never know when giving something away might be exactly what somebody needs.

If we love God like He loves us, first we are thankful for his gifts to us, and then we pay it forward by giving to someone else.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[Additional Reflection]

Having read these readings, think on this:

The writers of the New Testament sought in many ways to present the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus, a tragic event that at first seems too horrible to have any meaning. The Gospel according to John here means to transform our horror into hope, borrowing an Old Testament image to do so. In Numbers, the people are dying and serpents are giving out this death. At God’s command, the serpent on the pole, as if it were death enthroned, gives life. The people look and live. So, for us, the man executed on the cross gives life to the world. We all are dead in sin. Christ shares the worst of our deaths. Now, not by looking but by looking in faith, by trusting what God has done, we are made alive together with Christ. The Spirit, poured out in baptism, lifts us up together with Christ into life. God loves the world and, giving us that gift of love, enables us also to love others with our good works.

 

If you have a hymnal, you may now sing or read “God Loved the World” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 323), There in God’s Garden” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 342), Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 779). Selected hymns are provided below for those without a hymnal at home.

God Loved the World

Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound

Then pray these intercessions:

On this fourth Sunday in Lent, let us pray to our loving God for all the needs of the world, responding to each petition with words from today’s psalm, “your mercy endures forever.”

A brief silence.

O God, preserve your church through good times and bad. Empower pastors, missionaries, Young Adults in Global Mission, and all ministries of service for their work throughout this pandemic. Bless Lutherans around the world, our ecumenical partners, and everyone preparing for baptism at Easter.

A brief silence.

O God our Redeemer, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

Continue your creation of this good earth. Nourish seas and rivers, and give water to thirsty lands. Nurture spring growth that feeds hungry creatures, and bless the fields being prepared for the growing season.

A brief silence.

O God our Creator, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

In Brazil and wherever COVID-19 rages, send healing. In Myanmar and wherever tyranny rules, restore human rights. In Nigeria and wherever there is domestic terrorism, send concord. In Ethiopia and wherever there is bloodshed, bring peace. In Yemen and wherever people starve, give food and water. In the United States and wherever there is discrimination, inspire all residents to honor one another and to strive for justice. Prosper the work of those who care for victims of violence, and grant legislators wisdom in decision-making.

A brief silence.

O God our Protector, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

Give rest and welcome to migrants. Bring run-aways to places of safety. Protect all who are incarcerated. Provide caring families to children who seek adoption. Give a decent life to all who live on our streets.

A brief silence.

O God our Homeland, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

As you saved your people of old from snakebite, so now deliver all who suffer from disaster, hunger, disease, and despair, and those we name here before you. . .

A brief silence.

O God our Savior, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

Shine light into our darkness, make night into a blessing, and in mercy hear the prayers of our hearts:

A longer time of silence.

O God our Friend, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

We praise you for all the saints who have lived and died in Christ, especially Patrick and Joseph, and we remember before you all who have died from COVID-19. At the end, bring us with them into life in your presence.

A brief silence.

O God our Comforter, receive our prayers:
your mercy endures forever.

To you, O God, our only God, we entrust all for whom we pray, through Jesus Christ our loving Lord.
Amen.

 

If you have a hymnal, you may now sing or read “O Christ, Our Hope” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 604), What Wondrous Love Is This” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 666), “By Grace We Have Been Saved” (All Creation Sings 1006). Selected hymns are provided below for those without a hymnal at home.

O Christ, Our Hope

What Wondrous Love Is This

By Grace We Have Been Saved

Then conclude with these prayers:

Let us pray.
A brief silence is kept before the prayer.

Holy God,
our living Water, our faithful Companion, our true Guide,
by your Word you created a world with rivers and seas, wells and springs,
and in mercy you provided water for your people in the wilderness.
For your Word with the water of baptism, we thank you, O God.
We thank you, O God.

We praise you for Christ, who joined us in our desert,
calling us to righteousness, granting forgiveness,
and walking with us into newness of life.
For Jesus, your gracious Word, we glorify you, O God.
We glorify you, O God. 

Through these days of Lent we plead for your Spirit,
that strengthened by your Word,
we may care for others and for the world you made,
and work for justice and peace for all.
For your Word in our hearts and minds, we praise you, O God.
We praise you, O God. 

Receive our thanksgiving, and grant us your blessing,
Holy God, now and forever.
Amen.

Merciful God, accompany our journey through these forty days. Renew us in the gift of baptism, that we may provide for those who are poor, pray for those in need, fast from self-indulgence, and above all that we may find our treasure in the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.

Gathered into one by the Holy Spirit, let us pray as Jesus taught us:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours,
now and forever.
Amen.

Then speak the Blessing:

Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless us now and forever.
Amen.

Devotional Music Links: For your individual or group devotion, you may choose to listen to the following choral recordings made available through Augsburg Fortress: “God So Loved the World;” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul;” “Amazing Grace.”

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