Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021
The scariest place on earth is the first tee of a golf course. I’ve been playing this silly game for 31 years, you would think by now I would have gotten over the first tee jitters. But I still get nervous out there. Everybody is looking at you. Everybody can see where your ball goes. There is absolutely nowhere to hide. And that’s the thing about golf. No one is playing defense against you. You can’t blame a bad shot on say, a pitcher throwing a curveball or a linebacker tackling you. The ball is completely still when you hit it. Everybody is quiet. So whether it’s a good or a bad shot, it’s completely up to you.
There are few things in life that so unflinchingly judge our characters. It’s all on us, there is no else to blame. As the Gospel of John says; “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” (John 3:19-21). There is a significant theological point here. In this setup, God is not the judge. God is not sitting on a heavenly throne picking out who is good and who is bad. No, we judge ourselves. Our deeds, our actions, unflinchingly reveal our true selves. The ball is teed up, the fairway is in front of you, you know what you’re supposed to do. The light of Jesus has come into the world. The commandments are clear; love God and love neighbor. We know what we’re supposed to do. Our actions show the world who we really are. So we judge ourselves. There is nowhere to hide.
We hear this famous line, John 3:16, “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.” At first glance, we might think this is all about belief, as in, I believe that God exists. That would be a pretty convenient version of Christianity. We believe that there is a God, we believe that God is the one revealed in the holy scriptures, and so we will have eternal life. I’ll tell you what, there is a certain appeal to that type of faith. It would be so easy. It wouldn’t require us to do works of charity. It wouldn’t require us to be part of a church. It wouldn’t require us to pray, or to give, or to serve. All we would have to do is the mental gymnastics to believe that God exists, check that box, and we’re good.
But I don’t think that is what is going on here. The word “believe” has a double meaning. Think of it, when you say to your child, “I believe in you,” you’re not saying, “I intellectually assent to your existence.” No, you’re saying, “I trust in you. I have confidence in you.” I think that is more of what is going on here with believing in God. This is about trust. This is about confidence. Sure, it’s about acknowledging God’s existence but it’s way more than that. “Believe” is a verb. It requires something of us. Believing in God is an action by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Believing in God is an action by our participation in the sacraments. Believing in God is an action through our works of prayer and charity. It’s not just something that lives in our heads, it’s in our hearts. That’s why our actions and deeds are so important. Our actions and deeds reveal what we believe in. There is nowhere to hide. If our deeds are done in the light, that reveals that we believe in the Lord God. If our deeds are done in hiding apart from God, this will reveal our hardness of heart. The flight of the golf shows everything we need to know.
This is the judgment. The judgment of our souls are the actions we take, day by day. Yes, I believe there will be a future judgment, a final reckoning. But that will just be tallying up the scorecard in the clubhouse after the round. The judgment is taking place right here and right now with everything we do or do not do.
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not waving the magic wand of “free will” over everything. That’s too convenient. Think about it: the golfer who is given the really nice clubs, who can afford the best golf balls, and gets a lesson from the pro – chances are, they’re going to hit the ball straight. The golfer who is given crumby clubs, who can only afford balls as hard as rocks – chances are they don’t have much of a chance. So, I’m not preaching a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Christianity. I’m not saying that if you work hard enough or pray hard enough or go to church all the time then you’ll be saved. That’s not my business. But what I am saying is that our deeds reveal who we are with whatever equipment we happen to have. There is nowhere to hide.
To stretch the metaphor, as any golfer knows, there is no perfect round. Over the course of 18 holes, there are mistakes and poor decisions. That is part of this silly game; that is part of life. Try as you might, your life will not be perfect. You will not do what you ought to do. You will do what you ought not to do. Some of your actions will reveal a rich and fruitful relationship with Jesus. Some of your actions will reveal a distance from Jesus, and that distance will be of your own creation. But what matters is that you’re still out there getting after it. Even if you make a bogey you move on. When you fall into sin, you repent and return to the Lord. I don’t think the judgment on our deeds comes just once. No, we judge ourselves day by day, hour by hour. And day by day, hour by hour, we see ourselves for who we really are. I think that the bible is telling us that our deeds and actions unflinchingly reveal our true natures and our faithfulness to God.
But at the same time, the bible is revealing God’s true nature, too. “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.” God’s very nature is loving, generous, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. And that’s where I put my trust, and my confidence. Even though I’ve been playing this silly game of golf for all these years, I don’t have much confidence that I can hit the ball straight. My scorecard reveals that all too well. Even though I’ve been following Jesus all these years, I don’t have much confidence in my own actions. Under pressure, with nowhere to hide, I usually fall far short of the glory of God. So I put my trust in Jesus. The One who loves me regardless of my actions.
To bring it home, allow me to make an assumption about your life of faith. By now, four weeks into Lent, you’ve probably already failed somehow in your Lenten disciplines. It’s not just me, right? Well, I think that is one of the lessons of Lent. That’s what this time reveals to us. That by our might we cannot live up to the love of God. We will always fall short. And with that realization we are driven once again into the arms of a merciful savior. The One who will call us home, the One who will care for us and comfort us, no matter how bad we’ve messed it up. And so this sermon is not so much about who we are. It’s about who God is. “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.”