Sunday, March 11, 2018

4 Lent B, 2018: Look up and live

Lectionary: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

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En el nombre Del Dios: Padre, Hij, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

The 4th Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, also known as Mothering or Refreshment Sunday. In the tradition of Mothering Sunday, we pause to give thanks for our mother church, for Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and for the motherliness of God – hence the pink vestments. (Note: We’ll talk more about this during the Anglo-fact.)

‘Laetare’ means ‘rejoice” and it is a reminder to us that, even as we dig deep within ourselves and confront our growth edges, our weaknesses, and our self-protective barriers, we are always on a trajectory of joy.

Joy, complete joy, is one of Jesus’ goals for us. He says so twice a bit later in John’s gospel: “ I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete…(Jn 15.11); and “Ask and you shall receive, so that your joy may be complete. 16.24)

It is also a tradition on Refreshment Sunday to take a break from our Lenten disciplines after a month of faithfully observing them. We do this to remind ourselves that we aren’t “doing Lent.” God is doing Lent in us by our invitation.

This also helps us to remember that we are sinners saved by grace. We can’t earn our salvation by our own efforts no matter how faithfully we behave. The fact of our salvation has nothing to do with us or what we do; it has everything to do with the grace of an inexplicably loving God.

Today’s story from the book of Numbers makes that abundantly clear. You’ll remember the people were whining at Moses and at God as they wandered in the wilderness: ‘Why have you brought us out here - to die? The food stinks, what little there is of it. And there isn’t enough water either. Wah, wah, wah.’

Then suddenly their camp is full of snakes. Recognizing their own petulance, the people figure God must have sent the snakes as punishment, so they apologize - kind of: ‘We were wrong to whine like we did. Help us, Lord. Take the snakes away please. We’ll be good.’

Real snakes live in the wilderness and if people enter their home and tromp through their nesting areas, they’ll attack. It’s what snakes do.

But this is a story about spiritual snakes, that is, the spiritual issues snakes represent. Spiritual snakes are found in our spiritual wildernesses, the places we willingly enter during Lent, for example.

Snakes, who regularly shed their skins, traditionally represent rebirth and transformation. When snakes shed their skins, it’s to allow for new growth. The old skin won’t be shed, however, until the new skin - the new identity - underneath is complete.

As the people of Israel wandered through the wilderness, their old identity was sloughing off as their new identity was being formed. It was an uncomfortable process and they complained along the way. It’s what children in pain do, isn’t it? They whine at their parent when they are uncomfortable - make this stop! I don’t like it!

God hears their whining and responds - not with anger but with a compassionate solution. God tells Moses to take their fear, in the form of a bronze snake, and mount it to a pole, so that it can be lifted up for the people to see. Whenever the change of identity they are undergoing gets painful or feels too much like death, have them look up at this symbol of God’s promise and they will live.

This spiritual lesson was brought up by Jesus in today’s Gospel from John. It’s actually part of the conversation Jesus was having with Nicodemus about being reborn in the Spirit. You may remember that it was very hard for Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, to understand, so if it’s hard for us too, that’s OK.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (this word also translates as ‘exalted’), that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus took our greatest fear - death - to that cross, and we who look at it and trust in God’s promise, will live.

I need to pause a minute to acknowledge the “football passage” here… 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.” And I want to ask you a favor: whenever this comes up, whenever you quote Jn 3:16, please add verse 17 to complete Jesus’ thought: “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.”

The reason I ask this is because we need to remember that the action here is God’s. The actor is God in Christ - not us. It isn’t about our behavior, but our trust, which is what belief is: a “self-surrendering fellowship and unswerving confidence.” (Source: Greek lexicon)

As Mona Lisa Vito said in “My Cousin Vinny,” “…but wait, there’s more!” Jesus continues this explanation with one of the most mind-blowing phrases in Scripture: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world…”

God’s judgement is to dispel our darkness with the light of life - who is Jesus the Christ. God’s judgement is transforming love.

It is the character and nature of God to respond to our sins, our weakness, our whining with a compassionate solution. Look up at what has been exalted. Look up and live.

What is our typical stance when we pray? When someone says, “Let us pray” what does our body do? We look down and close our eyes.

Watch a child receive communion. They run up, hold their hands up, and look up at the priest with joy and expectation as they take the food of life into their hands. Now compare that with how so many of us were taught to behave at the communion rail. (Note: the preacher demonstrates the posture)

There are times when entering an interior space of private prayer is perfectly appropriate, but as we complete our Lenten journey our Scripture offers us an opportunity to discover something new - a new posture for prayer - look up! Look up and see the face of God loving us.
Look up and live.

Before we leave this phrase, I want to finish it and discuss the meaning of the second half. Jesus said, “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.”

Two words need clarifying here: love and evil. The word “love” here translates more accurately as “prefer”… people preferred the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were “evil.”

“Evil” means something that causes sorrow or pain, something that makes it harder, makes someone work harder. Compare that to Jesus’ words: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus is teaching that people preferred the darkness where their deeds could be hidden from others and from themselves. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with the truth about themselves so they avoid it.

In order to avoid the truth about themselves, people would avoid Jesus, who is the light and the truth. That’s why the first half of that sentence is so mind-blowing: THIS is the judgment, not punishment of sins, but forgiveness through the light who has come into the world…

Like the serpent on a stick lifted up by Moses, like the body of Christ lifted up on the cross, God always has and always will provide a compassionate response to our sin. All we need to do is look up and live.

And so , as our psalmist says, we give thanks to the Lord who is good, whose mercy endures forever. We go into the world and proclaim the goodness of God who hears our cries and responds with love even when we are fools, rebellious, and afflicted because of our sins.

This is evangelism: sharing that Good News. So much of what the modern church calls evangelism is anything but that. It’s hate-filled, judgmental, and exclusionary. It isn’t good at all. It’s evil - causing sorrow, pain, and making it harder for people to live as one in the love of God.

The Good News always leads to joy. We may be uncomfortable along the way, but we now know what to do when that happens: look up and live with confidence in the power of God’s love to transform us and any circumstance we face in the world or in our spiritual wilderness.

We are on a trajectory of joy; and the driving force of our trajectory is God’s love. So let us rejoice together on this 4th Sunday in Lent for the love of God in Christ in whom we are continually reborn and transformed.


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