Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
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Have you ever been in a situation in which someone did something or said something to you that, at the time, seemed so vile, so sinister that you thought you would never recover?  Maybe you thought you might even die, at least in spirit if not in body.  The pain of it all, the insensitivity, deliberateness, and intentionality.  Surely they knew better.  And you dragged that pain around so comfortably with no place to put it.  It was like the sun in the morning, rising, and the moon at night, setting – just there; handy, ready, and available.  But one day, to your surprise, it no longer held sway.  It was just gone.  Memory remained, but the torch had disappeared.

Or perhaps you once held a certain point of view or position about a certain thing, or certain person, or group of people.  And at the time you were so sure; so sure about them.  You were born into that perspective and baptized into it.  It was all you ever heard.  Your parents and grandparents believed it.  There was a righteousness about it, or indifference altogether.  Sunday afternoon conversations and dinner-time talk.  Surely something that God never intended.  Pick an issue, say homosexuality – men sleeping with men, or women sleeping with women – and all the people around you just become fixated with the issue, and there you were trying to understand or figure out what was so wrong about it.

We’ve all heard conversations like that, have we not?  I know I have.  And I suspect that if we were honest, we might admit that we used to think a certain way because we didn’t know any better.  Or I could pick any number of topics or issues.  We heard sermons about them, and they have been on the airwaves, and we did not have other choices at the time – so embedded they were – and we grew up thinking that opinion or that way was right.  But then, one day something got ahold of us.  We heard something different and it resonated with a truth deep down.  We began to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in a new way, and we began to wonder what all the fuss was about.

There was a gentleman who stopped by the church a few weeks ago (Ash Wednesday), and he was lost.  I tell you, he was lost.  He was alone and desperate – not for money – but for someone to sit with him and help carry his load.  He was walking by and saw the doors of the church open and wandered.  His mother had died the weekend before and he did not know where to begin, what funeral home to call, how to plan a service, who to do the eulogy; and he was alone.  The pieces were not in place, and though he did not ask for money, there was very little available; no insurance, no savings account.  I could not imagine such a thing.  We brought him upstairs and called the funeral home as tears ran down his face.  He was like a little child.

I never saw him again.  But one day last week, Elena handed me a laminated card that he had dropped off – he didn’t forget.  He wanted to thank us for helping him, for being there for him.  Have you ever felt lost?  I mean really lost?  When it seemed that everything was piling on and on at one time, and you literally felt like you were in a quagmire drowning, not knowing what to do, where to turn?

Grace, you see, is only amazing in context.  It is the very best news – really wonderful news – only when we receive it and recognize it for what it is.  There must be some awareness of love being poured out; mercy extended; opportunity for new life.

It invites us to pay attention to the part of ourselves that constantly screams ME and MINE without regard to others or the larger picture.  That side of ourselves that is often wounded, but blind to the wounds we impose upon others.  It is that nature that tugs at us – wants to rule – more than anything else.

God’s good grace is amazing when we understand that we don’t always get what we deserve; sometimes we just get stuff because.  And we don’t get other stuff because.  We deserve judgment, but instead we get pardon.  Without some sensibility around that, it is just another thing among so many things, never fully embraced and certainly never fully given away.

This time of year especially, we pay attention to such things as Jesus is headed toward the cross to declare to the whole world the graciousness of God.  The prophet Isaiah wrote that “all of us have sinned against God and one another.  We have all gone astray; all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid upon him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all.  For us, he was oppressed, and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth.  For us, he was led as a lamb to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers he was silent.  By a perversion of justice, he was taken away; cut down from the land of the living; stricken for our transgressions; made his grave with the wicked although he had done no wrong; no violence; and there was no deceit in him at all…Yet, it was the will of the Lord to crush him…and make his life an offering for sin.”[1]

So when God looks at us, my friends, contrary to what so many say – particularly in the church – God does not do so with judgment and wrath, a longing to punish or strike down and enslave, but rather God looks at all of God’s creation to love it and set us free to choose and to be gracious gifts one to another.

It is this sign of Christ being lifted up on the cross for the world’s sake that John speaks about in our Gospel lesson this morning.  John’s Gospel, as you may know, is often characterized by his use of symbols in which things represent something else.  It is in this particular passage that we find one of the most repeated lines in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes on Him will not perish but will have eternal life.”[2]

He makes reference to the Old Testament passage in which God used the symbol of a snake being lifted up to remind the children of Israel of God’s grace and forgiveness.   They had become impatient, you see, after so many years wandering in the wilderness.  Life had become uncomfortable, and they were having to come to consensus and figure things out together.  There was no task master to oppress them; to decide every turn they made.  They grew fearful and wearisome.  They forgot what it was like to be in slavery all those years; some of them had been born that way – they never knew the taste of freedom.   They forgot how God had miraculously brought them out of Egypt through the Red Sea.  They forgot who had sustained them and held them together as a people all those years.

And so, they murmured; they complained; they argued and turned inward.  The text says against God and Moses “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water?  And we detest this miserable bread!”[3]; that “manna” that God had given to sustain them.  So, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and the snakes bit the people and many of them died.

Now, thank God for the New Testament and a new covenant.  Like Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness, Jesus being lifted up on the cross reminds us that that which was poisonous and deadly, a symbol of torture and suffering, has become a sign of healing and new life; a sign of hope, forgiveness and life eternal.  Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.

And I’ve been thinking about that.  “For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him shall have eternal life.”  Does this suggest that only Christians will be saved or have eternal life?  Or Methodist or Baptists?  No hope for Muslims, or Buddhist, or Siks, or Jews?  Or other people or other traditions throughout the world – only those who believe as we believe?

Maybe.  But I don’t really think so – though I have colleagues that would disagree with me about this.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and the power of His resurrection.  The supremacy of Christ – for me.

On the other hand, I think God’s view and God’s love is too broad, too wide, too mysterious for such a narrow perspective.  No, I believe that it is the way of Jesus – the way of sacrificial love; the way of generous love and mercy – given away that saves us.

A few years ago at our Lenten retreat up at Holy Cross monastery, our facilitator Brother Bernard led us in a discussion about the Simplicity of Life; to do, to have, to be.  He challenged us to think about our lives and how complicated they often are.  I think we all agreed that all too often our lives are fraught by one complication after another.  And my guess is that all too often we create chaos because chaos can be comforting and familiar.

I honestly think there are people who thrive in it.  Does everything really have to be complicated all the time?  We have to ask ourselves what needs to happen in order to clear out the chaos so that we can land on a new path?

And are we not also guilty of complicating our faith and our life in community?  Of making it so overwhelming, so fraught with rules and regulations – who’s in and who’s out, who can be saved and who cannot – the only path to God.  We are the ones who have it right and everyone else is wrong.  How we do communion and who gets to take it.

Are we not also guilty of so wanting things our way that any other way is taboo?  How ready are we to condemn one another, when John reminds us that God did not send his Son into the world to judge, but to save.

What if it could be simpler?  What if the only symbol necessary is that of Christ being lifted up and everything else just sort of flows from that?  A reminder that grace has been given and love triumphs over all.  For God so loved the world – all of us, even the most despicable among us, the one most difficult to know or understand – that God gave God’s son and anyone who believes in Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.  May it be so.

[1] Isaiah 53:6-10a Paraphrased
[2] John 3:16.
[3] Numbers 21:5b