#3-4th Sunday of Lent March 26, 2006

4th Sunday of Lent – Cycle B   March 26, 2006

2 Chronicles 36:14-23

John 3:14-21




The historian, Howard Zinn, observed that most histories are written by winners.  That is why he wrote his best-selling book, A People’s History of the U.S.  With over a million copies sold, it is still the best one-volume study of U.S. history from the bottom up.  It tells the story of our nation, but not from the perspective of generals fighting wars, or presidents governing or the rich and the powerful amassing wealth and resources.  Instead, Zinn tells U.S. history from the perspective of the American Indian, slaves, immigrants, women, foot soldiers, labor organizers, small farmers, civil rights activists and anti-war movements.


Much of Jewish history found in the Scriptures can also be seen as a history from the bottom up, a loser’s perspective.  The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles certainly fit this description.  They were written after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple after the Babylonian exile (i.e., post-539 B.C.).  Destined to be a second rate nation and client state for the regional empire of the day, the authors of Chronicles rewrote the history of Judah, the southern Kingdom of Israel from the time of King David to the end of the Babylonian captivity.  Their most difficult task was explaining how God’s chosen people had fallen to the Babylonians and yet still maintaining that the promises of God still held.


This week’s text from 2 Chronicles is the closing verses of the two-book history.  In it is a summary statement that explains why Judah fell to the Babylonians and was taken into captivity.  The author of 2 Chronicles concludes that it was because of the infidelity of the kings and princes, the priests and the people that God let Judah fall.  We are also told, throughout their infidelities, that God sent his messengers and prophets.  However, the Jewish people refused to listen to them.  Because of this, the author explains, the words of the prophet Jeremiah came true and Judah fell to the Babylonians.




Fifty years into the Babylonian Exile the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians.  Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquered the city of Babylon and released all the people held captive by the Babylonians, among them the Jews.  Cyrus allowed those captive people who wished to return to their native lands to go free.  This was not done out of any spirit of altruism on Cyrus’ part.  This was done for the self-interest of the Persian Empire.  The newly released Babylonian captives owed their freedom to Cyrus and he expected and demanded that they be his client states in the regions from which they came.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Chronicles, Cyrus was a liberator.  The prophet Isaiah went so far as to write that Cyrus was “the anointed” of the Lord.  (Is 45:1)  It is doubtful that King Cyrus cared one bit for the Jewish God, a loser God from his perspective.  As far as he was concerned, the only gods that mattered were the Persian gods.  Empires only rose with gods that won.


The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is rich in narrative drama.  It takes place in the 3rd chapter of John, immediately after Jesus does his direct action assault on the Temple.  Jesus is hiding out at a “safe house” in Jerusalem waiting for his chance to leave the city.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), was probably a member of the Sanhedrin.  He visits Jesus in the middle of the night.  This is an extraordinary meeting between two unlikely people.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been of the minority party within the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judah.  He would have been open to the idea of the resurrection but seeking a meeting with Jesus after the Temple cleansing action would have been dangerous for both of them.  Nicodemus was risking his standing as one of the ruling elite and Jesus was risking his life meeting with a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body that would later condemn him to death and hand him over to the Romans.

Nicodemus appears two more times in John’s Gospel.  In 7:50, Nicodemus speaks out in favor of Jesus’ right to defend himself before the high priest and others plotting to do away with him.  These comments brought Nicodemus under suspicion from the high priest and his council.  The last we hear of Nicodemus is at the end of the story after Jesus’ death on the cross.  He helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body in the tomb (John 19:39).


The consensus among the Bible study goers here is that John 3:16 is the most important verse in the Bible.  They say if you understand and accept the truth in this verse, everything else will fall into place.  I’m not so sure.

The dominant theological concern of the Jail Ministries in Pottawattamie County is: “Are you saved?”  To be ‘saved’ means: ‘Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?’  For them God deemed it necessary for Jesus to die on the cross so our fallen world could be saved.  Furthermore, no one can be saved except through the acknowledgement of Jesus as their Lord and savior.

The trouble with this version of Christianity is that it’s too narrow and two-dimensional.  It sees the world in a black and white way that leaves a lot of what it means to be human and divine out of the picture.

To listen to these folks, the only sins that matter are the personal ones, especially those that have to do with addictions and sex.  Granted these “sins” certainly abound in the inmate population (they are big in the world outside of jail too) but they are by no means the only things people are struggling with today.  They have no sense of the collective communal sins found in the social, political and economic systems whose damage to the human spirit goes way beyond any individual sin.  Worse yet, they embrace a worldview in which they see the USA as God’s favored nation, fighting God’s battles on a global level.

And even though in the very next verse John says, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17) there’s a whole lot of condemnation and judging that takes place in these circles, especially against anyone who does not profess to believe in Jesus the way they do.  In their world, a whole lot of people end up in Hell, most by virtue of being born non-Christian.

There is something wrong with the way we read text like John 3:16 that brings out the worst of what has passed for Christianity over the last 2000 years.  All the wars and killings, heretic and witch hunts brought about in the name of Jesus should be an indicator that Christians have misread their book.  The fact that the 20th century was the most war-torn bloody century in human history and that Christians were the best killers in the 20th century should give us pause in how we are practicing our faith.

One clue to understanding the fault-line in these matters has to do with our relationship with worldly power and status.  The clandestine meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus serves as a good example.  When it came to worldly power and status, Nicodemus was high-up by the Jewish standards of the times and Jesus had no worldly power or status.  In fact, those who did have worldly power and status were trying to do away with Jesus.  It may be as simple as this; Jesus could make such clear assertions about his mission, its truth and his being favored by God because he was not of any privileged class.  He had no worldly power or status.  There may be an endemic disadvantage to worldly privilege, power and status that puts any believer in Jesus at a disadvantage.  Not to take into account this disadvantage is dangerous to the Faith.



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