"Trophies or Transformation" – John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.
“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. Those 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. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.
Think of images that we lift up as images of victory and achievement – images that drive and influence our pursuit of excellence and inform our understanding of what success looks like.
First, if you are a professional football player, or merely a fan, what is the image of ultimate success?
The image we lift up is an image of someone literally ‘lifting up’ the Lombardi trophy following victory in the Super Bowl, while team-colors-specific confetti fill the atmosphere of the stadium.
Next question. If you are someone who likes to go fishing, what image motivates you? What does success look like?
An image of someone literally ‘lifting up’ a big fish.
How about if you are in the movie business, either as an actor or producer or director or sound engineer or costume designer; what image of success comes to mind?
‘Lifting up’ that Oscar, or Academy Award, as applause fills the theater and millions of people watching at home resolve to watch your movie.
Now think of students who work so hard day in and day out solving problems, reading, writing essays, and taking tests. What is the image of ultimate achievement?
It’s likely the image of wearing the cap and gown and ‘lifting up’ the diploma case (even though they’re always empty!).
If you’re a golfer, what is the image that motivates you?
An image of someone literally ‘lifting up’ a club above his or her head after hitting a hole-in-one or sinking the winning put.
Now think about your image of retirement – something that some of you are immersed in while others are still thinking, dreaming, planning, and saving for (or should be!).
How about this image! Sitting on a beach before a beautiful sunset, ‘lifting up’ your hand held by the spouse who has been with you for the wild ride of marriage, work, and kids.
Last one: As a disciple of Jesus, a child of the one true God, what image do we “lift up;” what image influences our pursuit of excellence and inform our understanding of what a ‘successful’ Christian life looks like.
The ‘lifted up’ broken and bloodied body of God on the cross.
So, to conclude this exercise, I ask you, which is these is not like the other?
There’s nothing wrong with…
rooting for your team to win the championship;
seeking that big fish;
wanting your creative work to be celebrated;
dreaming about finally getting that hole-in-one;
celebrating academic success;
or planning for and enjoying a relaxing retirement.
Where we get into trouble, however, is in mixing up these images of success with what it means to be followers of Christ.
The Christian life is not about winning trophies or awards; it’s not about earning achievements or recognition or success. Rather, it’s about self-sacrifice, generosity, adversity, love in the face of rejection, faith without assurance, and hope in the midst of despair. Christian disciples don’t worship the lifted up trophy of victory; we worship the lifted up broken and bloodied body of God on the cross.
The image of the broken and bloodied body of God lifted up on the cross reminds us that we do damage to God and God’s children with our efforts to earn salvation, compete for religious goods and services, and wrap our self-serving pursuit of power in holy language and holy war.
That’s actually good news; but it’s also the news we don’t really want to hear.
We prefer to think that our faith in Jesus Christ means that we have won and now we can relax, even if others are suffering.
We prefer to think that our faith in Jesus Christ gives us rights and privileges and power over and above those who do not believe.
We prefer to think that our faith in Jesus Christ will be rewarded with personal safety, wealth, and a life of ease.
As a church, we prefer to think that our faith in Jesus Christ will yield bigger sanctuaries, more parishioners, and balanced budgets.
But look at the Son of Man who has been “lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Look at him.
That’s what we worship.
True, divine, faithful victory looks anything but victorious.
The esteemed theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “Sometimes, by some strange alchemy, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ morphs into ‘I’ll bring out the champion in you,’ or the cross itself becomes a symbol of destruction and violence rather than of creative love that overcomes enmity.”1
All-too-often we want to skip ahead to the resurrection, preferring to believe in the Jesus wrapped in brilliant white garments who ascends into heaven. We forget that believing in Jesus also means believing in the Jesus who suffered a criminal’s death on a cross because the truth he revealed unsettled the powerful, released the captives, and forgave the unworthy.
All-too-often we want to reap all the benefits of faith (such as: eternal life, a renewed creation, peace, love, and hope for the hopeless) without acknowledging just how much suffering we will experience in the process; and without realizing that the cross is a promise of love.
I was convicted by something I read this week: “To ‘believe that’ Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But…to “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “‘believing that’ [it happened]; it requires “trusting in.” To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story.”2
The Christian life is not a pursuit of trophies; it is a process of transformation.
The Christian life is not about being the best; it is simply about being present for others.
The Christian life is not about consumption; it is about conservation.
The Christian life is not about rejection; it is about redemption.
This is the image of success and victory that the Christian faith lifts up. This is the truth that motivates our lives as followers of Christ.
The good news is that in the shadow of the cross we don’t have to keep working on being a better and better Christian in order to be loved by God. Christ’s love has won victory over death and sin, which frees us to live in a way that is humble, honorable, honest, and holy.
1. Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith, Brazos Press, p12.
2. Lance Pape, “Commentary on John 3:14-21” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394