Life UNDER God [John 9:13-22]
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Life Under God – 09.18.2022
I am so excited about this sermon series. This is the first time I’ve ever done a biblical sermon series based on an external book that I read. This book is called “With”, written by Skye Jethani. I first read it back in April, DURING holy week. Which, as you know, is literally the busiest week of the year for pastors. Prepping for Maundy Thursday, prepping for the Good Friday stations of the cross, prepping for Easter Sunday – there’s a lot going on. And in the middle of all that chaos, I finished this book in two days – and I’m a really slow reader. It’s that good. What he does is he walks through the different ways that Christians try to connect with God. A lot of us have experience trying to connect with God and it’s never been quite enough. It doesn’t quite line up the way it should. There’s good stuff, but there’s always a weak spot in our faith journey. So he goes over the four different ways that Christians encounter God and in each category there are good things – I saw myself in every chapter. But by looking at things honestly, and practically – you can identify the places where you need to grow. This series is designed for people who love Jesus, but you’ve always had a suspicion that there is more to your faith journey than what you have experienced so far. In the next four weeks we are going to discover Life WITH God. Let’s dive in.
On November 28, 2010, the Buffalo Bills faced off against their rival The Pittsburgh Steelers. At that time, Steve Johnson was a wide receiver for the Bills. At the end of the game, in overtime the Bills lost because Johnson dropped a pass in the end zone. After the game, he got on twitter and he publicly blamed God for the loss. He tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How???? I’ll never for forget this!! Ever!!” It’s hard for me to explain – like every statement has multiple exclamation points on it. What Steve Johnson is showing us is Life Under God. Life Under God is the belief system that says, “if I follow the rules, God owes me good things.” Right? The football player gives God his worship, like he said, “I praise you 24/7”, and in exchange he expects to receive God’s help on the field. And when that doesn’t work out, he blames God for not coming through on his end of the deal. Skye writes, “For Steve Johnson, and many others, religion is a means of seeking control over otherwise unpredictable events – in his case football games – by incurring divine favor. Life under God is the “make a deal with God” position.
For a lot of us, Life Under God sounds really great. You gotta jump through some hoops, go to church, be a good person, don’t lie, cheat, steal, murder – and God will rain down blessings on your life. The problem is that we are trying to control God with our good behavior. We’ve talked about this before – we turn a relationship into a transaction. I follow your rules, and you do what I want. This actually goes way back to the origins of religion. The world was full of scary things they couldn’t explain – earthquakes and droughts, famine or disease. In a world of danger, we are filled with fear, and we want to gain some control. So primitive people created religious ritual to help people regain control. They believed that there were gods out there, and you had to do stuff to keep them happy. They created elaborate rituals and systems to make people believe they were more than passive victims of chance. “We want to believe that our actions can and do affect the world around us.” (p26) Appeasing the gods is sort of the ancient version of Life Under God.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. Skye writes, “as much as we might want to control God, history has proven that he is notoriously uncooperative.” If people view their connection to God as a transaction, what are you going to do when God doesn’t deliver the product? I live my life, I’m a good person, I honor God – so I’m not going to get cancer. But then I get cancer. What? What just happened? I want get up there and knock on the door to HR, I’d like to talk to a manager, I want a refund. This is a mentality where faith goes to die. When you use ritual to try and control God, and then things get out of control – you’ll end up abandoning the faith, because it feels like God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain we made. Here’s a simple example – purity culture. For those who don’t know back in the 90’s and early 2000’s there was a string of teaching called purity culture. It was all centered around keeping teenagers from having sex. It was like prosperity gospel for horny teenagers. When I was growing up in high school, they told teenagers, “if you wait until marriage, the sex will be better.” “if you wait to have sex, God will send you the greatest husband or the greatest wife you’ve ever seen.” Follow the rule, get the reward. It’s how we trained puppies, and so teachers back in the 90’s they figured – that’ll work. But do you know what happened? Those kids grew up. And they followed the rules, and some of them got married. And some of them didn’t. And some of them had great sex and a perfect relationship, and some of them didn’t. And for those who did not get what their youth leader promised them – they walked away from the faith. My generation is FULL of faithful kids who were raised with transaction religion, Life Under God, and when it didn’t work out, they walked away. Using ritual to control God, eventually it backfires. (Sidenote: for parents who are wondering, the better way to talk to your kid about sex is that this is how God asked us to live. It’s not a transaction, we’re not gaining anything – it's just, God asked us to keep sexual intimacy inside the covenant of marriage. And if we love God, we’re going to do what he asked. Because we love him.)
Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand why people do it. In this crazy mixed up world, there is so much to be afraid of. We’ve got this dangerous and unpredictable life to live, and this form of religion, Life Under God, it offers to take away our fears. This is a teaching that says, you don’t have to be afraid – because if you’re good, you’re good. Life Under God gives us this false hope that your actions control how much God loves you. We think, well if it’s just this simple transaction, now I understand how the universe works, and that makes me feel better – and so we jump on it. We’re not afraid of a random and chaotic universe anymore, because we have the secret formula. If I’m good, only good things will happen to me. I don’t even need faith anymore, I don’t even really need to trust God at all – because I’ve got the secret formula. Be good, and good things happen to you. I don’t even need to know God, I don’t need to live my life WITH God in it. Problem is, it doesn’t actually make us less afraid. It just transfers the fear. I’m not afraid of a random and chaotic universe, but now I’m terrified of breaking a rule. And every time anything bad happens in my life, I have to wrack my brain and figure out what I did wrong, what I did to deserve this problem in my life. It leads to extreme legalism. Here’s a silly example – I have a friend who grew up, and she wasn’t allowed to play Yahtzee because it had dice and dice are kind of like gambling which is kind of like a thing Christians aren’t super okay with. Like, there’s casting lots in the bible, but most Christians agree gambling is not a great idea and we’ve seen that it’s not great on society, it’s addictive and whatnot. Now if you’ve ever played Yahtzee, you know there’s no gambling involved – but if everything depends on your legalism, on your following the rules, it’s terrifying and you’ll take it to the extreme. Life Under God – trying to get control, backfires. Trying to get rid of your fear, backfires.
Also, life under God changes my job. If the way of faith was simply a transaction and good behavior is all you need to get blessings. Then pastors become divine police officers. All I would care about is your actions, and how much you’re following the rules. I wouldn’t spend time trying to help you grow closer to God, learning how to love God and reminding you how loved you are – I mean, who cares about that? If Life Under God was all there was, I would be obsessed with only one thing – getting you to behave. I’d get up here and tell you that being good is the most important thing, and then I’d spend all my time telling you what being good is. But I spend my time trying to help you grow closer to a God who loves you, because I don’t want you to live your life UNDER God, I want you to live life WITH God. It’s so much better.
This is the message that John has for us in our scripture today. We come into this story where Jesus walks past a blind guy. And everybody’s looking at the blind guy with “Life Under God” mentality. They’re thinking, what did he do wrong? If he’s suffering, he must be a bad guy. [read v.2]. Now THERE’s a question. If it’s a transaction, and someone has something bad happen – it’s somebody’s fault. Did the parents do a bad thing? Or did the guy do a bad thing? But Jesus shuts it down, [read v.3]. This happened so that the power of God can be seen in this blind man. Then he healed the blind man’s sight. Why did the bad thing happen? Well, in this case, it was to show God’s power – the beautiful healing is the why. But the Pharisees don’t get it. They can’t wrap their minds around it. [v.13-16]. They’re arguing and trying to figure this out. I mean, we’ve got a miracle on our hands – but they want to know how it fits with the transaction. What great thing did he do to earn his sight – because it kind of looked like Jesus just gave it to him, for no reason other than to show his power and kindness. [read v.17-23] The Jewish leaders are so confused – maybe he wasn’t really blind, let’s check with the parents. They confirm he was blind, but then they ask – so then HOW? And the parents, they don’t want to disagree with the church leaders – but they’re starting to see how this legalism, this transaction faith, doesn’t adequately explain how God can be with his people.
The good news this morning is that God’s love is UNpurchased. Life under God is a sham and there’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love. There’s no transaction and you don’t have control. God’s love is unpurchased, a gift given for your good and for his glory. Now sometimes when we hear that God’s love is unconditional and that we cannot earn it through obedience – that sort of freaks us out. We’re sad because we think there’s no way I can get God’s love. It feels like we have lost the secret formula. We have lost God’s love! If I let go of the obedience method of getting God to love me, that means I would actually have to trust God’s goodness. Trust that God loves me for me, and then my obedience is not purchasing anything, suddenly my obedience is my love back to him. Moving from Life UNDER God to Life WITH God is a process of reclaiming faith. We start to actually trust God to love us, even if we don’t deserve it. Mr Jethani says it like this, “While the religious leaders sought obedience and conformity of behavior, Jesus sought to welcome people back into relationship with God. He inspired love and compassion, not simply sacrifice. Through both his words and actions, Jesus revealed the bankruptcy of the Life UNDER God posture.” (p.39) Basically what’s going on here, is that I am trying to invite you into a relationship with God. Esau McCaulley puts it like this, he posted this tweet last week, “I am not a Christian because I believe that my blessing is around the corner. I am a Christian because I believe that whatever is around the bend, God will be there with me to handle it.”
Now in this series the challenge is the same every week – we want to move from living life without God, to living life WITH God. But that’s going to look different depending on where we start out. My challenge to you this week is to live life WITH God, and there’s three steps. First – we have to realize that control is an illusion. You are not in control, and that’s actually a good thing! “No amount of control will ever be enough to ensure our safety, and no amount of control will ever remove our fears.” (p119) Only actually trusting the one who is in control can take away our fears. There’s a story about Henry Nouwen, famous author, professor, theologian guy who went to the circus and watched a trapeze group from South Africa. When he was in Germany, he attended their performance and was in awe of the flying and spinning that he saw. But to Nouwen, it wasn’t just people flipping and flying through the air – it was theology in motion. He saw that the person soaring through the air is not really the important one, the key to successful trapeze is the one who catches. The maneuvers are only possible because the flyer fully trusts that he will be caught. This led Nouwen to a new way of understanding his life with God. After the performance he actually got to go up and try out the trapeze himself. 65 year old yale professor giggling like a child wearing a harness and soaring through the air. He said, “If we are to take risks, to be free, in the air, in life, we have to know there’s a catcher. We have to know that when we come down from it all, we’re going to be caught, we’re going to be safe. The great hero is the least visible. Trust the catcher.” If you want to start living your life WITH God the first step is to realize that control is an illusion – we’re not in control, and we’ve got to learn to trust the catcher.
The second step is to realize how stupid sheep are. We’re all familiar with the metaphor – we are the sheep, and Jesus is the good shepherd. He calls us and we come because we know his name. He leaves the 99 sheep and goes to save the one – you’ve heard the stories, it’s a very common metaphor. But what a lot of modern day Christians fail to catch is just how offensive that metaphor is. It’s very offensive to be called a sheep, because sheep are SO dumb. There’s a story that was in the news in 2005 over in Turkey. People from the town of Gevas watched in horror as one sheep jumped to its death off the edge of a cliff in this little down in Turkey. And then one thousand five hundred other sheep followed off the edge of a cliff. The villagers were horrified, in part because a lot of their livelihood depended upon those sheep. So they went down and around to the bottom of the cliff and they found a big billowy pile of death. They lost four hundred and fifty sheep, but what’s amazing is that one thousand of the sheep survived. Best they can figure, as the pile of sheep grew higher the fall was more cushioned. Sheep don’t have the brains to NOT jump off a cliff. They would not survive without a shepherd looking after them. Sheep get themselves into all kinds of trouble, and you in your life – you’re going to see all kinds of trouble. But God is a good shepherd – he is there to guide us and protect us. King David in the 23rd Psalm says, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David knew that God was WITH him, and that took away his fears, even his fear of death. We need to let go of control, because the control is an illusion. And we need to let go of our fear, because even though we’re dumb sheep who get into trouble all the time – we have a good shepherd. Do you see what I’m trying to get at? We have to take it off of our shoulders, and put it on God’s shoulders.
The final piece of application really just ties it all together. We need to trade cycles. There is a cycle, where there is danger in the world. Danger makes us afraid, and so we grab for control. It doesn’t work, so there’s more danger, which makes us more afraid, which makes us grab for more control. It’s this vicious cycle and it never ends! But we need to move to a life WITH God posture. Where we start with surrender, which leads us to safety, which leads us to faith. One of the things I love about Skye’s book is that he includes these little doodles that help illustrate. I think we can put that on the screen. Skye writes, “It is only when we live WITH God and come to experientally know his goodness and love that the shadows break and these commands begin to make sense. If I am eternally safe in the care of my Good Shepherd, and I come to see the world as a safe place, then I am set free from my fears. I am free to give rather than to hoard. I am free to enjoy each day rather than worry. I am free to forgive others rather than retaliate against them. And I am even free to love the person determined to harm me. But all of it starts with trust (a.k.a. faith) in God’s ever-present love and care for me.” (p127)
Steve Johnson, of the Buffalo Bills, dropped a pass in the endzone and blamed God. He’d been a good boy, so he thought he had control of God and was waiting for his blessing to rain down. But that life UNDER God posture was never going to be good enough. Life WITH God is so much better. I really like the way Esau McCauley put it, so I’ll leave you with his words: “I am not a Christian because I believe that my blessing is around the corner. I am a Christian because I believe that whatever is around the bend, God will be there with me to handle it.” Amen.