Mt. Olivet UMC – Lent 3: John 2
I want to thank you all for taking the time out of your Oscar Party preparations to be here this morning. I mean, Teer Hardy didn’t get a hipster haircut or start wearing beard oil until he became a pastor here at Mt. Olivet so I assume that means you’re a sophisticated, culturally savvy bunch of cinephiles.
For an erudite community of aesthetes like yourselves, coming to church on the dawn of Oscar night is akin to worshipping the Sunday after Christmas, a day when only the old, lonely guy from Home Alone attends church. Oscar Sunday is like the Sunday of Thanksgiving or Memorial Day.
Just for being here this morning, you deserve a gilded statue all your own.
I had a special Oscar-themed outfit I was going to wear for you this morning, but my wife thought it showed a little too much nipple for a guest preaching gig. Plus, I’ve not shaved my chest in days.
Show of hands, how many of you are planning to watch the Oscars tonight?
Show of hands, how many of you have seen the Vegas favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? How many of you have seen the Darkest Hour? The Post? Dunkirk? How many of you have seen the critical darling the PT Anderson flick The Phantom Thread?
How many of you are lying?
Every Oscar season I think of an article I read in Slate Magazine 10 years ago.
Back in 2008, when Netflix was not yet a streamed-movie service, reporter John Swansburg investigated which mail-order Netflix movies languished the longest on customers’ coffee tables and television consoles.
Swansburg discovered that it was Hotel Rwanda.
Even though at the time Hotel Rwanda was the 10th most popular rental among Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, only a fraction of people ever got around to watching it.
In fact, Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix, confessed to having had a copy of Hotel Rwanda on his nightstand for 2 years without having watched it, which is about how long we left it on our nightstand before sending it back, unwatched.
Other Oscar-bait films that people requested by mail but never got around to watching included No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth (made by this year’s Best Director favorite, Guillermo del Toro) and Last King of Scotland about dictator Idi Amin.
It goes without saying that Schindler’s List and the English Patient were also perennial dust collectors.
Turns out many of Netflix’s most popularly requested movies never left their red pre-paid postage sleeves. Their most requested films are also some of their least watched films.
As Swansburg notes, you add a movie like Hotel Rwanda to your Netflix queue because you don’t want to be thought a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy.”
Truthfully, most of us don’t want to watch a movie about genocide, we’re too tired for aThere Will be Blood, and we’re already too depressed for a No Country for Old Men but neither do we want to appear as the sort of people not interested in watching those worthwhile films.
We don’t want to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, but we do not want to be perceived as people who do not watch movies like Hotel Rwanda.
Unlike political pollsters who have difficulty prognosticating how prejudiced we’ll prove to be behind the voting booth curtain, Netflix knows the truth about us.
We’re not who we pretend to be.
We’re not as sophisticated or concerned or altruistic or woke as we feign.
Our queue reveals more about us than our feed.
Netflix knows that, when it comes to social justice, we’d rather hashtag than roll up our sleeves.
Netflix knows we’re more likely to stick a sentiment on our bumper than we are to know an honest-to-goodness human-style poor person by name.
Netflix knows that even though we have 12 Years a Slave sitting in our queue, we’re just as likely as anyone to cross the street when we see a black man in a hoodie walking our way.
Netflix knows that no matter what we tweet or pin or like, Vegas-odds are we spend more on our gym memberships- we spend more on Netflix– than we do on church or charity.
Netflix knows we’re all going to add The Florida Project to our queues when it becomes available because we all want to be perceived (and to perceive ourselves) as the sort of person who watches a film like The Florida Project.
But, odds are, we won’t.
Because, after a day of dealing with your boss and yelling at your kids about homework, who really wants to watch a movie about child homelessness?
For example, I’ve had The Hurt Locker in my Netflix queue for years, but I’ve never watched it; meanwhile, I’ve seen Sahara, the Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz straight-to-video action movie about Confederate gold and Civil War Ironclads in Africa at least 60 times.
And I love it.
Netflix– it’s just one example of what we do across our lives.
We pretend and we perform and we prevaricate.
We crop out our true selves and filter it through a social media sheen.
We virtue signal from behind the masks we wear.
We project a false self out onto the world.
Which makes it ironic that the one theological conviction our culture has conditioned you into believing is that God loves you just the way you are.
You don’t even love you just the way you are. You wish you were a Hotel Rwanda, Phantom Thread kind of person.
You don’t even love you just the way you are, yet our culture has conditioned you into thinking that God is just like Billy Joel.
God accepts you just the way you are, which- again- is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.
I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you Baby Boomers love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you.
Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you. Look, I know guest preachers, like Oscar hosts, are supposed to charm and delight. I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. But today in John’s Gospel- Jesus doesn’t just cleanse the Temple, whipping the money-changers and turning over their tables.
Notice- in the midst of his Temple tantrum, Jesus refers to himself as the Temple: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers at his trial. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, claiming Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…”
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the accusers make Jesus the agent of destruction but today, in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes us the agents of destruction.
Which makes Jesus the Temple. And if Jesus is the Temple then it makes sense today to point out the basic presupposition behind the Temple.
You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.
The gap between your sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. You have to be rendered acceptable. You have to be made acceptable, again and again.
That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple.
And that’s the thread that stitches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death and understood himself as the Temple.
You have to go back to Jesus’ Bible, to the Book of Leviticus, which begins with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.”
The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.
God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.”
For him. On his behalf. In his place.
The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.
God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.
Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.
But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.
Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.
After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.
And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.
It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.
In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.
As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even.
We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.
But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Or, at least, knowingly.
By contrast, the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which frames Jesus just as Jesus frames himself here in John 2- as the Temple, describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin.
All. One sacrifice. Offered once. For all.
Ephapax is the word: “once for all.”
For unwitting sin and for willful sin. For just the way you are and all the ways you aren’t who you pretend to be.
Not only is Jesus the true Temple. Not only is he the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin. He’s our Great High Priest.
Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.
But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.
He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too. And there this Great High Priest offers a gift. Not a calf or a goat or grain. But a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.
A gift that can’t be reciprocated, it can only redound to others. He offers a gift exceeding our every debt. Such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again. His own life. His own unblemished life.
We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross.
To make atonement.
Once for all so that all of us can be free and unafraid before the holy love of God just the way we are.
Ironically, Atonement, the high-brow, arthouse film starring Keira Knightley and based on the award-winning novel by Ian McEwan, has sat idle and unwatched in my Netflix queue since 2007.
I put it in my queue after it cleaned up at the Oscars.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched all 7 seasons of Californication 3 separate times, and just last night I wasted 2 hours of my life watching 3,000 Miles to Graceland starring Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and Courtney Cox,
(And I loved it).
And last night too, I was short with my kids.
And I only half-listened to my wife as she told me about her day.
And I didn’t call a friend who I know is hurting and then I told myself I’d forgotten, but I hadn’t.
And after dinner I tossed the recycling into the trashcan because it was too chilly to take it outside.
Martin Luther said the cross frees us to cut out our BS and call a thing what it is.
So here goes: Despite how sexy I am, I’m not anyone’s idea of a leading man. I’m no hero. I’m certainly no saint.
But I don’t have to be. There’s no role I have to play. There’s no mask I need to wear. There’s no character I need to project out onto the world other than the broken, butt-headed but baptized person I am.
Because Jesus Christ has taken on the role of our Great High Priest…
Because God judges me not according to my sins
But according to Christ’s perfect sacrifice…
Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, the Apostle Paul says, sets us free from performing the obligations of the Law.
And that frees us from the obligation to perform.
It frees us from the obligation to pretend. It frees us from the burden of projecting a false more faithful self. The cross frees me to be me. The cross frees me to play no other role than me because, honestly, if anyone were to play me it would probably be Steve Buschemi. Or that creep Willem Defoe.
The cross frees me to be me, unafraid and unashamed
Because my life is not the good news- and that’s good news.
You’re free to be you, just the way you are, like Adam before the apple: naked and unashamed.
Because you are not what you do.
And you are not what you have done.
You are what Christ, our Great High Priest, has done in the Temple that is his Body by his blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of a cross.
Because his sacrifice is perfect, once-for-all:
There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.
And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.
That’s called the Gospel.
And you don’t have to wait in any queue for it.
You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to deserve it.
You certainly don’t need a fake ID to purchase it.
It’s yours. By faith. And it’s free.
Just the way you are because of the way he was all the way unto a cross.
Ironically, this free gift alone has the power to transform you into more than just the way you are.