3rd Sunday of Lent (A) – March 12, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
The Story Points Our Attention to “Rescue”
I want you to think back to an image I have been using the past several weeks (which I plagiarized from Jesus). In each of the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells this very brief, very enigmatic parable: “When a strongman fully armed guards his house, his possessions are safe…” (Luke 11:21). Who is the strongman? The Enemy, this Rebel who has led us into rebellion against God. What is his house? This world. And what are his possessions? Us. You and me.
In this beautiful world, which was created by God (not just a comic accident)—in this amazing creation, where the most important creature is you, me, humanity—we have all fallen into captivity. And no matter what we do, we cannot get ourselves out of it. We are helpless, hopeless, captured. These were the answers to those first two questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God created it, brought it into existence. Why is everything so obviously messed up? Because we have been deceived, sold ourselves into captivity; we are captive to powers we literally cannot compete with. Powers like Death, and Sin, and Satan and his kingdom. If one of you has a solution for these, please let me know. But no, unless one of you has figured out how to conquer Death, we’re stuck. “When a strong man guards his house…”
Today, then, we want to answer the third question: What, if anything, has God done about it? And the answer to that question is summed up in one word: RESCUE. In the great story of Scripture, the old Testament is chalked full of this theme. Our first reading today was from the book of Exodus, which is literally the story of God rescuing His people from captivity, slavery to a power they could not compete against. This rescue, the Exodus, is the central event of the Old Testament. What the story continues to show, over and over—it shows that there is a captivity we experience that is far, far more powerful than Pharaoh. It’s what we’ve been talking about: the captivity to Sin and Death themselves. And so they look forward to a day—especially through the promises of the prophets—they look forward to a day when God will rescue them not just from enemies like Egypt or Babylon or something, no. Rescue them from the Enemy himself.
Jesus’ very enigmatic parable has a second half: “When a strongman fully armed guards his house, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil” (Luke 11:21-22). Today, our goals are simple. First, we want to answer the question, “Why did Jesus come?” And secondly, “What was Jesus doing on the cross?”
Why did Jesus come?
So think back to that image from a few weeks ago, the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” “Saving Private Ryan” is famous for its depiction of D-Day, the Allied Forces landing at Normandy. And if I were to ask you, “Why did the Allies land at Normandy?”—if that was a multiple choice quiz on a history test, what would you say? Option A: They heard the beaches in France are second to none. Option B: They wanted to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Option C: To eat a chocolate croissants from the bakery Le Moulin de la Vierge in Paris. OR, is it option D: They’re there to fight. Obviously it’s D! They’re there to fight, to rescue, to liberate, to save a people in the grip of a tyrant. Something has gone wrong in Europe. The people of France and all the rest of the continent have been captured, enslaved, murdered, destroyed by this tyrannical, demonic regime; suffering, isolation, hopeless abound. And they have come to put an end to it.
Why did Jesus come? Same answer. At Christmas, we get caught up in the nostalgia and presents and cookies and Hallmark movies. And when that’s the case, Jesus, all of this? It’s kind of lame. And that’s what’s happened. Somehow, someway, Jesus has become some figure who came to teach us to be kind and to love. Somehow, someway, Jesus has become some figure who told stories and taught with parables. Somehow someway, Jesus has been reduced to someone who did miracles. Now, to be sure, Jesus did teach us to be kind, and to love! And he did do miracles. And he did teach with stories (because that’s an effective way to teach). But those reasons are not the reason why He came.
God became man to fight, to liberate, to rescue—to rescue a people in a situation infinitely worse than occupied France during World War II. At Christmas, we are celebrating the “landing” of Jesus on the shores of the Normandy, not of France, but of the whole world, the entire human race. C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, he says it this way, “Enemy occupied territory—that is what this world is.” That’s what we’ve been talking about, right? Behind the scenes, hidden in the shadows—there is an Enemy worse than your worse nightmare at work. And Jesus has come to fight.
That’s why Scripture says things like this: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). The very first miracle Jesus performs in the three synoptic Gospels is the driving out of a demon. And the demon screams at him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24). And Jesus doesn’t answer, but clearly the implicit answer is, “Why yes. As a matter of fact I have.” Right before his passion, Jesus tells us what he’s doing; he says, “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of the world be cast out” (John 12:31).
Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, our celebration of Christmas, why did Jesus come? It’s all about someone arriving that can finally, finally contend with these powers we cannot contend with. God is doing something about it. And the way God chooses to do something about it? In disguise. In the disguise of human flesh, human nature. That’s what C.S. Lewis is getting at. He says, “Enemy occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise.”
Why? Why does he land in disguise? Because he’s trying to provoke a fight. The Enemy isn’t stupid—he isn’t going to fight God. He knows he will lose. And so God comes in disguise so as to provoke the Enemy into a fight.
What was Jesus doing on the cross?
And so this leads to the second question: What was Jesus doing on the cross? Because it doesn’t look like he’s doing anything. In fact, it looks like he’s losing! Many people see the crucifixion as a tragic end to an otherwise incredible life. And then as a bonus, God raises Jesus from the dead as the most incredible of miracles. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. At all.
The earliest Christians and the writings of the Church Fathers—the early preaching of the Church focused on this idea, that Jesus came to fight, to fight for you. The cross is NOT—I repeat, the cross IS NOT an image of Jesus being defeated and then he gets resurrected. THAT is an image of victory.
Do you know what an ambush predator is? Ambush predators are creatures which lie motionless and still, camouflaged with their environments, for one purpose: to attract the prey. Think of those National Geographic videos of crocodiles just waiting in the water—and along come this unsuspecting water buffalo and gets wrecked! That’s what Jesus is doing on the cross: he’s attracting the prey. Lying motionless and still, he’s attracting prey. From the moment of his agony in the garden, Jesus’s divinity is more and more obscured, hidden, camouflaged. Think about it: he begins to sweat blood, he is arrested, chained, slapped, beaten, stripped, mocked, betrayed, scourged, crowned with thorns, condemned by a puppet king, nailed to a cross. Why? All for the purpose of attracting the prey. Jesus is hunting.
If you have seen the movie The Passion of the Christ, in the scene where Jesus dies there is a strange moment. There is this shot of a single drop of rain falling from the sky, almost like a tear being shed by God. And it hits the ground and makes this dramatic splash. But then, we see a shot of the Enemy, the Devil…screaming. Why? Because he realizes that he just undid himself. The Lord is hanging there, drawing the prey close, enticing Death itself to come. And when Sin, and Death, and Satan grab him, as he dies…Jesus pounces. The rightful king has landed in disguise, and here on the cross, he pounces. The Enemy is defeated.
This is how the early Christians would talk about the cross. Origen of Alexandria wrote, “It is only right that the one who deceived our race at the beginning of our history should himself be deceived and bring about his own destruction.” Gregory of Nyssa said that Jesus on the cross is like a fishhook: his humanity is the bait, and his divinity is the hook—the fishing line is the genealogy, and the one holding the rod is the Father…just fishing for Satan. Ephrem the Syrian wrote that by his death, “Jesus invaded Death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom and scattered all its treasure.”
From the cross, as he dies, Jesus says these words: “It is finished.” Not, “I’m dead. Show’s over.” No. “It is finished.” That word means, “It is accomplished, fulfilled, achieved, carried out, completed, brought to and end.” IT is finished. What is the it? The hunt. The battle. The rescue. The time of our captivity. The power of the Enemy. IT is finished.
What do we take from this?
So what do we take from this? Well, think back to a few weeks ago. Remember when we were talking about “Saving Private Ryan.” Remember that scene where Ryan is walking through the cemetery, and when he gets to the grave of Captain Miller, he collapses? Why? Why is he so overwhelmed? Because this is the man who saved his life. This is the man who rescued him. This is the man who died so that he might live.
This is the scandalous claim of the story, the gospel. The HEART of the gospel is this. The God who made the universe, who made us out of love, who destined us to share his divine life—who we have rebelled against and continue to rebel against on a regular basis—he did this. He went to the cross. He went to war to rescue us. He did it all for you. That’s the scandalous claim of Christianity. The God who made all of this, did this for you.
Why? Why? You know why? Because you matter. You matter to God. You’re worth the trouble. You are far, far more important than you have ever imagined. You matter!
Again, many, so many have written off the gospel for a lot of reasons, not least of which is because they just think it’s about following a lot of rules and regulations and teachings and beliefs. And that if you don’t follow them, God is sitting there capriciously waiting to send you to hell. That’s simply not true. That is a deception sown by the Enemy himself. Without God, we are already trapped in the captivity of Satan. That’s our destiny. What does God do about it? “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Jesus comes to rescue us, to rescue us from the grip, the captivity of Death, and Sin, and Satan; Jesus comes to give us eternal life, which begins even now! But he cannot do it without us. Or better, he cannot force us to accept his help. He will respect our freedom. “Whoever believes in him will not perish.” That word for “believe” is the same word for having faith, entrusting ourself, surrendering our lives into his hands!
The heart of the gospel is that you are loved. And love only wants one thing: union. This is why a man and woman, when they love each other and they get married it is not enough to say, “I love you” — although they should; it is not enough to buy gifts — although they should; it is not enough to perform acts of service; to spend quality time together; it is not enough to be physically intimate. Love wants union. Total union. Thoughts, actions, time, shared goals, physical intimacy, emotional intimacy. Total union. God, this God who is love, wants union.
Here in this Eucharist, God gives himself to you—body, blood, soul, and divinity—because he wants union. We don’t eat it because it’s a magical vitamin to make us holy. We don’t receive it because it would be embarrassing if everyone else receives it and we don’t. No! We don’t deserve this! We aren’t owed this! We don’t take it! It is a gift!!
Because when we say “Amen,” we aren’t just saying, “Thanks. Give me the cookie, Father.” No. We are saying, “Amen. Yes. As you have given yourself to me, I give myself to you. Wholly. Completely. Holding nothing back. My life. My thoughts. My emotions. My preferences. My body. My time. My money. My everything. I surrender everything to you! Here’s my life, Lord. It is yours.” This man saved our life. We owe him everything. And all he wants … is you.
Will we continue to hold back parts of our life? Will we continue to live life as we see fit? Will we tell him that He can have some parts of our life but not others? Or will we give him everything? Will we live our lives in union with him? All he wants is to rescue you, but will you let him?