"JEALOUS" - John 3:14-17 from March 12, 2017

Alex Evans on March 12, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Texts: Exodus 20:4-6; John 3:14-17


            One of the greatest dangers and temptations in life is our tendency to place ultimate concern on what is NOT Ultimate.

            Some of you know that prior to my life as a pastor, I served as a high school history teacher, counselor, and coach. Teaching was challenging and fun. Counseling students provided rewards. Coaching may leave me with the most lasting memories, especially coaching JV football. You can imagine this – the JV football team has some guys who have yet to grow into their age, and other guys who have grown fast beyond their body’s ability to keep up. Most of the guys on the JV football team are struggling to stay coordinated and connected as they move through the changes of that season of life.

            It takes about two weeks for the guys on the JV team to get used to their helmets and shoulder pads. And there was always a few on the team whose pants never quite stayed on – the hip pads and the thigh pads dragged the pants right off. There were a couple whose helmets did not quite fit – they would make a tackle and the face mask would be around by the ear.

Perhaps more than anything about coaching JV football, I will remember Brian. Brian was a likeable kid. He loved playing football, came to practice and games ready to play. But unlike the other kids, Brian played every play of every game seeking the affirmation of his father on the sidelines. After making a tackle, with his helmet askew, he would look to the sideline to be sure his Dad saw his achievement. After catching a pass, before he was even off the ground, he would turn to the stands to seek out his father’s glance. The sad truth was that Brian’s Dad was often not even watching; he was talking to others in the stands. What I discovered, like too many kids, was that Brian lived in constant fear of his Dad’s judgment, and in constant attempts to win his father’s approval. He could not even enjoy the game; he had to perform for his Dad. And the only time Brian could be himself was when his Dad was nowhere around.

Many of us live for pleasing others – and it is especially easy for children to live that way. But remember, one of the greatest temptations in life is our tendency to place ultimate concern on things that are NOT Ultimate.

One of my theology professors once said that all of us tend to live life with one of two difference groundings. We either live as if someone is watching over us with a suspicious stare, or as if someone is watching over us with a loving glance.

Brian, at least in those days of JV football, was clearly grounded in the former – by the suspicious stare. Many of us, maybe not as drastically, also tend to live in that grounding. In much of what we do, we are motivated by the fear of failure. We do not want to fail at our jobs, so we give everything, sacrifice so much, to them. Or we are motivated by the need for approval. We want to distinguish ourselves in the eyes of the world – so we focus on upward mobility, or financial security (and we can never seem to have enough there), or our various associations. And if we are not careful, we place ultimate concern on what is NOT Ultimate.

When we think about the central message of the Bible, about God’s love and promises, God’s presence and purposes for our lives, God keeps wanting to show us what is Ultimate, help us know how to prioritize our lives with what is Ultimate so that we will not get lost in all the things that are NOT Ultimate. And God’s approach, all through Scripture, is not the suspicious stare, but the loving glance, the attentive, passionate, caring way that wants to shape our life in the world.

There is a very memorable story early on in the Bible. Moses went up on the mountain and stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights while the Lord gave to Moses all the details about the great tabernacle they were to build, and how true worship and faithful life would be carried out. 40 days and 40 nights seemed a long time for their leader to be gone. So the people began to grow restless waiting for Moses to come back from his time with God. They decided to appoint liturgical teams and to plan and devise their own worship. They said, “we do not know what happened to Moses, this man who brought us out of the land of Egypt. We are not sure of this invisible God who is symbolized in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud in the day, this God which we cannot control. We want and need a god we can get our hands on. We need a god we can see when we need to see it.”

Aaron was the priest left behind with the people, and feeling all this pressure and angst, he asked for their gold rings. So they came and made a great pile of gold rings – nose rings, earrings, and finger rings. They took the whole pile and melted it down and molded it. And Aaron got out his engraving tools and engraved it. And there was a beautiful, shining golden calf. All the people were happy because they had a god they could see and touch. They had a god like their neighbors had. (It is really hard, you know, to be the only one with an invisible God when everyone else has a visible god.) So they worshiped the golden calf, and made offerings, and did what they thought was right.

Then, just when they were really rolling in worship and joy, Moses returned from the mountain and his time with God. He got so mad he broke the tablets of the law that God had written. Moses took the calf and burned it, ground it to powder. This really got Aaron worried. Aaron said he really didn’t make the golden calf. He just threw the gold in the fire and the calf came out. Nice try, Aaron, but that is really not the point. (see A. Winn, A Christian Primer, p. 201) The point is - God keeps wanting to show us what is Ultimate, help us know how to prioritize our lives with what is Ultimate, so that we will not get lost in all the things that are NOT Ultimate.

Can a golden calf claim you as a holy people and lead you to life and to the reign of God? Only God can do that.

Can a golden calf guide you day and night from slavery to a Promised Land? Only God can do that.

Can a golden calf give you an identity and a purpose in the world?  You are blessed to be a blessing.

Can a golden calf show you how to live? God says, “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” – in worship and service – as God’s people in the world.

Can a golden calf give you life? “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Those who live and believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

I do not think any of us have a tangible golden calf that we have made and that we worship and serve. But we can all be lured into giving ultimate concern to that what is NOT Ultimate.

The “Word of the Week” today is JEALOUS.

In the Bible, JEALOUS has two very important meanings.

The first meaning would be very familiar to us – to be JEALOUS is to carry an intense hatred rooted in envy. Most of us know something of this emotion. It is how we feel when someone has something that we know we would really enjoy or like to have too – a nice car, or home, a wonderful trip somewhere, or maybe some skill or beauty that we long for. Jealousy may be a very natural emotion. It is part of life – in fact jealousy can take over your life – leading to fixations, greed, unfortunate activity and actions, all of which certainly lead us down a bad road. This is why, in so many places in the Bible, jealousy is condemned. It is the opposite of love, the opposite of faithful life. When Jesus had disciples fussing with envy and jealousy, he condemned that way and pointed to selflessness and service. Jealousy is named as one of the deadly sins. For the apostle Paul, love is NOT jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude. Love is patient and kind. In so many lists, we are to throw off jealousy and live in the Spirit, which is about compassion, kindness, forbearance – and all things that run counter to jealousy.

But there is another understanding of JEALOUS in the Bible too – and we heard it mentioned in our first lesson in Exodus 20: you shall not make yourself and idol. That is a message about giving ultimate concern to what is NOT Ultimate. Why? We are to bow down and give allegiance to God – for God is a JEALOUS God, punishing those who reject God and showing steadfast love forever on those who love and serve God.

This understanding of JEALOUS has less to do with envy and more to do with single-minded zeal. The first understanding, as we know, is a negative emotion, which can be most destructive for us. But this second understanding, as ZEAL, is a positive emotion.

Here is a way to think about this. In Hebrew, the word - “jealous” – means literally “to be red in the face.” We can be red in the face in ways that lead us in negative actions, even to vengeful fury – like a jealous spouse might feel when one has been betrayed, like a brother might feel when one member has wasted the inheritance, like when a co-worker gets all the credit and we are left out, or a neighbor has all the signs of joy and wealth and we continue to struggle along. When jealousy is turned upon the self, and we get red in the face with hatred and envy and anger, this is most destructive. Real love is not jealous. Real faith never nurtures jealousy. Real discipleship seeks to move away from the destruction caused by jealousy.

But being “red in the face” – JEALOUS – and it is fine line - can also be positive – a single minded ZEAL. And this is how it is to be understood in Exodus – God is a JEALOUS God. God is “red in the face” in deep devotion to God’s people. God is not sitting on the mantle in the form of a golden calf, that you can look at and rub when you want, or when you need to. God maintains a single-minded ZEAL for his people. God is not a remote and indifferent God. God is “red in the face” present and devoted. God is not marginally interested in your heartfelt prayers – about your life, your loves, your deepest concerns. God is “red in the face” ready to hear your deepest concern and meet you in the worst heartache of life. God promises never to leave you. Passion. Devotion. Zeal.

When jealousy is turned beyond ourselves, it can produce a zeal leading to total selflessness. This is how we are to understand God.

Here is how this is summarized so well in the New Testament – our second lesson today, from John 3:

14And 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. 16“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. 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

God is a jealous God. This means God is so devoted, so “red in the face” for us, that God gives his only Son that whosoever believes in him shall have eternal life. That is God’s single-minded positive zeal - that the world might be saved through him. We are to align our lives in devotion and allegiance to God. We are to open our hearts, trust our lives, gives our best efforts to loving and serving God – our Ultimate Concern.

This is the essence of the gospel, the very core of our faith. And we need to hear these words – I know I need to hear there words - especially in these days – as we move through Lent and seek to find renewal for our faith. We need to hear these words especially in these days - with our heartfelt concerns about our lives, losses, and our loved ones, . . . with the complexities and uncertainties of our nation and world.

We are called to place our Ultimate concern on that which is Ultimate – love God and love God’s people. Worship the Lord – singing and praying and committing to God’s purposes – and you will have life. The Lord shepherds us from the beginning of time – we are to live our life in the house of the Lord, forever. Once we were not a people, now we are God’s people; let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold on to what is good, love one another with mutual affection, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers, for nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.

Our ultimate concern is on what is Ultimate – The Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who gives his Son that we may have life and life and abundance. I invite you – all of us – to consider today, tomorrow, all week, all season, always – how will we live as God’s trusting, serving people. We’ve been given LOVE and LIFE. We are called to believe and love and serve, and therefore find LIFE. To God be the glory. Amen

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand with you, to serve you, our Ultimate Concern – that is to abide forever. We seek that way. AMEN.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, March 12, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.