Snakes, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

Episcopal Lent Sermon

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

If you are uncomfortable around snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.

If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. And now snakes. Why? Because they complained against the God who was delivering them.

So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.

Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the electric utility and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we whine at the water company. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a varied menu.

Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?

Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.

So, we come to the Gospel reading from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “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.” This passage is so well known that it is often coded on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.

And that may be the problem. This text taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Recently the parents of a young child who died of influenza were agonizing over why their Christian belief didn’t save their child. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.

The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.

So, Lent is not just a time for us to get closer to Jesus and hope for the best. Lent is a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to swim upstream against all of the world’s downstream current of things that pleasure us and delight us, but never satisfy.

Deep Lent, as some call this time, is when we struggle with the darkness, and may not always find answers to why it is so pervasive. We cannot answer why evil seems so prevalent because we can’t readily see it in our own choices. So, asking to be part of the light will reveal what is hidden in our darkness, and most of us would prefer not to see. That is why self-examination and confession are rare and avoided by most of us. But we have strayed like lost sheep, we have followed too much the desires of our own hearts, to the point where, left on our own, we are truly lost.

So, make today a turning point, an embracing of John 3:16 for your future. If you say this passage every day this week and ask God how to embrace it, you will find a way. You will find it as you receive the bread and the cup. You will find it as you reach out to another human being who is also lost and lonely. You will find a way to move more into the light. You will have different questions to ask, ones for which there are answers.

The only reason Jesus could go to the cross was because he dared to walk into the darkness. We have to do the same if we are going to follow him the rest of the Lenten journey. That means leaving a lot of things behind, including the world’s wisdom for how to live in the darkness by making everything pleasant for ourselves.

Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John so wonderfully writes: “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”

As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.”

Pray those words, and then make room for God to lift them up in your life. Amen.

The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for Lent 4 (B).

God so loves the world, 4 Lent (B) – 2015

March 15, 2015

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

John 3:16 – it appears a lot of places, and mostly not a quote of the text but just that citation of gospel, chapter and verse. Just the name “John” followed by the number “3,” a colon and the number “16.”

It appears on placards at sports events, on signs people post on their front lawns and inside the bottom rim of paper cups at fast-food restaurants.

The professional football quarterback Timothy Richard Tebow – you have probably heard him called Tim – has been known to print the reference in his eye black. This he did most famously in 2012 at what became known as “the 3:16 game,” when Mr. Tebow – then of the Denver Broncos – threw the ball a total 316 yards in a playoff upset against the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the game 29 to 23.

Immediately afterward, “John 3 16” became the top Google search in the United States.

On Amazon.com today, you can find books titled “The 3:16 Promise” and “3:16: The Numbers of Hope.”

People seem to be really fixated with John 3:16 – and no wonder. The verse has caught attention of sports fans, casual readers and theologians alike.

Martin Luther famously called it “the gospel in miniature,” indicating that it is the very heart of our Christian faith.

It says: “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.”

The very heart of our faith – that God loves the world.

The “giving of his Son” part will resonate with parents, who sacrifice for their children; with soldiers, who sacrifice for their country; and with anyone who sacrifices anything out of love for another.

And the idea that everyone may have eternal life – well, that’s the basic Christian hope, right?

This, too, will make sense in other contexts. For what parents want anything but the very best for their children? What manager wants anything but the very best outcome? And eternal life is the very best God has to offer.

The sacrifice, the giving of one’s best, these are all premised on one simple thing: love; God’s love for us.

When you think about it, God’s love for the world is nothing short of miraculous.

God created the world, of course – so that accounts for some of it. We tend to like the things we have created, such as when we bake a pie, or fashion a table out of wood or even draw a picture with crayons.

But we humans have continued to be such rebellious louts. We ignore God’s plan, we bargain with God’s commands and we fight against God’s justice – at least some of the time.

Martin Luther once said, “If I were as our Lord God … and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world in pieces.”

And you might think God would do just that – knock the world in pieces.

Knock the Taliban in pieces.

Knock Congress in pieces.

Knock the whatever in pieces. You fill in the blank.

And that’s not all. Each and every one of us is quite capable of doing the most vile sorts of things – and sometimes we do. We trespass against God, we commit offences, we sin.

After all, who among us has not done what we ought not to have done, or left undone what we ought to have done? Who has not – from time to time – denied God’s goodness in others, in ourselves, or in the world around us?

Maybe God should knock us in pieces, too!

But in the person of Jesus, we find a God who is not much interested in retributive justice. Not much worried about punishing offenders. Not much invested in inflicting a penalty for wrongdoings.

No. We find a God who seeks to forgive, for whom restorative justice is the priority, who seeks to repair the hurt – not inflict another.

And this, too, arises out of God’s love for us.

God loves us too much to cause us to cower in fear.

God loves us too much to inflict corporal punishment on us.

God loves us too much to make us suffer – or to suffer any more than we already do.

And that is Good News for us, for all of Christianity, and for all of the world.

God loves us.

This doesn’t mean we should go around deliberately committing offences and expecting we be forgiven.

This does mean that when we cause offense, we will be forgiven by God – but we may also have to pay the earthly penalty for our actions.

When we do things we know are wrong, irresponsible and dangerous, we can pray for God’s forgiveness. But we can also expect that our society will demand payment of a penalty, and as Christian citizens of a democratic nation we should be prepared to pay that price, make the necessary apology, restoring what was taken or serve the very community we have harmed.

Because, as the blessed Apostle Paul says in today’s epistle, God “loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ.”

When we sin, we sin against God, ourselves and the Body of Christ of which we are a part.

Yet, when we stumble into the pit of sin, God loves us.

When we follow the path of righteousness, God loves us.

So our job as Christians is first to recognize that God loves each and every one of us, and just how much God loves us.

When we truly appreciate this deep and abiding truth, our lives change.

We take responsibility for our actions, and we seek healing for those against whom we have transgressed.

We admit we have done wrong, and we strive to do better.

And we strive to be the very image of God in which we are all created – by loving others as God loves us.

“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.”

Let us pray, work and give to make it so – by seeking not punishment, but reconciliation; by sacrificing for others; and by loving as best we are able.

 

— A priest of the Episcopal Church, Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island, N.Y.

Fear of the Dark, 4 Lent (B) – 2012

March 18, 2012

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

When you were a child, were you ever afraid of the dark? Did you imagine all sorts of scary things living in the dark of your closet or under your bed? Did a night-light give you that little bit of reassurance and comfort so that you could go to sleep safely? Most of us grow out of that fear rather quickly. Some of us adults might get impatient with our children who call us out of a deep sleep because there’s a monster lurking in the shadows. As children, we rarely make a friend of our imagined nemesis.

Most adults no longer fear the dark. But listening to our readings from Numbers and John today, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to put that fear of the dark behind us. Certainly, we no longer imagine monsters hiding in closets, but as adults, maybe we ought to look at darkness in an adult way. The Israelites in the desert actually did have a sort of real-life monster to contend with: poisonous snakes! Anyone with any sense will stay away from them, but these people were suddenly set upon by snakes that bit them, so many of them died. Yes, indeed, a real-life type of monster. We hear that this happened because the Israelites were grumbling against not just Moses, but God. Big mistake! But we can’t really blame them – they were wandering in the desert, hungry, hot, thirsty. They may have been desperate. They may have feared a death of another kind before the snakes came upon them. Of course, we know that God heard their cry – like a child waking a parent out of fear – and God had Moses set up the bronze serpent on a pole and those who would look on it would live. Our passage from Numbers talks about a real fear of bodily harm – a fear of death in a natural way. Yet, underneath that natural fear was the darkness brought on them by cursing God. It was their sin of not believing that God would keep the promise of bringing them to a land of milk and honey.

Children are usually much more trusting than adults. What happens to us as we grow to adulthood and suddenly begin ignoring the true darkness of sin? This is what Jesus is talking about in John. As he does so often in scripture, Jesus refers to the Old Testament, and he tells his hearers that he is the new caduceus – the new serpent wound around the pole that doctors today use as a symbol of their ministry as healers. He tells them that when the Son of Man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. God did not send Jesus into the world like the snakes to kill the people. God sent Jesus into the world to show how much God loves us.

Jesus goes on to bring out the importance of understanding light and dark as adults. There is something very frightening about living in the dark, especially if it is an interior darkness – a despair or hate. Jesus talks about evil deeds hating the light. Many of us might feel we could sit back right now and breathe a sigh of relief, because surely none of us are evil. None of us hate the light. If we did, we might be living in a situation that we see in so many thriller movies – skulking down dark, wet streets of a city with guns in our pockets and drugs to sell. We’ve read about people in the news or seen them on TV who have no conscience, no way to keep them from killing people for money or revenge.

But we can’t just ignore that darkness. We are all sinners. We all have a place where our darkness hides so others might not see it. It comes in many forms. We need to ask ourselves how we feel about discrimination. We might have family members that we no longer bother with. It might be their fault, but have we given reconciliation one more try? How do we feel about ourselves? Darkness could be our self-loathing for whatever reason. God does not want that of us. Each of is a child of God and glorious in God’s sight.

Maryanne Williamson, a spiritual activist and author, wrote a wonderful description of how we should look at ourselves. In it she said, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”

Yes, indeed, that is what God expects of us, and if we throw that back in God’s face, couldn’t that be a type of darkness – a type of sin? Remember, the second great commandment is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we are giving our neighbors less than they deserve.

To do this, we must live in the light. John’s gospel is full of images of light and dark. If we go right back to the beginning of the Gospel of John, we hear those wonderful words: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” Hear those words: “to everyone.” That means us. We are fools if we choose to live in the darkness, especially if it’s a darkness of our making.

Unfortunately, we know that we adults do choose to live in the darkness. One of the most tragic verses in John’s gospel, maybe in all of scripture, follows that verse: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Here’s the crux of the matter. Jesus came to us. God took on the flesh of a human so that God could live among us and show us firsthand how much we are loved – and yet we chose not to recognize him. Not only that, we also chose not to receive him. That is darkness of a tragic type.

Lent is a time to consider our darkness – to see if we have been so grown-up in a foolish way that we no longer believe that sin can surround us with darkness. God so loved the world, God so loved you and me, that he came into the world, died for our sins, and rose again.

The light of that Resurrection is the light that can transfigure us all every day of our lives.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Reason enough to rejoice, 4 Lent (B) – 2009

March 22, 2009

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

[NOTE TO READER: Laetare is pronounced “lay-TAH-ray.”]

Quick, what is another name for today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent?

Give up? Actually, there are several possible answers to this question, all of them correct, and all of them originating in ecclesiastical history and liturgical practice.

In some quarters, especially among our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” It may at first seem odd to speak of rejoicing in the middle of Lent, a season of penitence and sacrifice. After all, we have put away our alleluias and festive faces for the duration. Yet, in ancient times, the special, or proper, parts of the service on this day began with the single word “rejoice,” reminding worshippers that the Church is more than halfway through its Lenten discipline and well on the way to Easter joy.

“So lighten up a little,” the Church seems to have been saying. For much the same reason, in some Anglican circles this day has become known as Refreshment Sunday.

As if that were not enough, in the United Kingdom this day has been celebrated at least since late medieval times as, of all things, Mothering Sunday, the equivalent of Mother’s Day in North America. No one quite knows why mothers have come to be honored in the middle of Lent. But some scholars speculate that the original Scripture lessons, or readings, on this day made reference to Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of the Church. In any event, if you have British friends, be sure to wish them well today.

There you have it. No matter how you name it, the Fourth Sunday of Lent – more or less the middle point of the season – is special.

Life itself, of course, is made up of middle points and transitions to which we attribute unique and special importance. It is human nature to mark time, to take note of milestones and halfway points. We may remember being halfway through high school or college; halfway through a transition between rectors at Church; or halfway through a project at work. And mothers will certainly remember being halfway through pregnancy, eager for the birth of their child.

Whatever the effort, being halfway through something is special. It can bring either anxiety or a foretaste of accomplishment. Or both.

In our first reading today, we find the ancient Israelites on their journey out of Egypt becoming downright anxious and “impatient on the way.” Their passage or transition has been long and arduous, and it is far from over. “Why,” they challenge Moses, “have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” As if that had been Moses’ purpose all along. They even complain of the food and drink. “We detest this miserable food,” they grumble like spoiled children. Did they perhaps expect gourmet fare in the desert?

The Israelites have forgotten that they are on their way home to the Promised Land. They have lost sight of the purpose and meaning of their journey. The desert and its hardships have robbed them not only of patience, but of perspective and hope as well. Only when the Lord punishes them with a multitude of poisonous serpents do the people come to their senses and repent. Only when those bitten by the serpents look upon the serpent of bronze raised by Moses do they once again come to live. The journey of the Israelites is not over, but it has gained new significance and purpose.

We find ourselves today as a nation in the midst of transformation and crisis. Our banks are failing. Our industries are staggering. People are losing their jobs at record rates. No one knows if the government’s remedies will work. And our minds are filled with anxious questions: Where do we stand? Will it end soon? Or has it just begun?

It would be easy for us to lose hope and to despair, as did the ancient Israelites. Indeed, today, as in ancient times, there seems to be no end of complaint and blame. Some fault the greed of Wall Street and business leaders for our problems. Others cite irresponsible politicians and world leaders. Yet few are willing to look in the mirror. We all feel the bite of our anxieties. Perhaps we too need a bronze serpent to gaze upon. Perhaps we too need to face our fears and learn once again to live.

We may well ask: Is there anything left for us to rejoice about on Laetare Sunday, halfway through this discontented Lenten season?

The season itself suggests that there is.

Lent is, after all, a time of reflection, repentance, and prayer – a time to allow the Lord to turn us around in faith so that we may at last be regenerated in the risen life of Easter. And that has little to do with business cycles or the size of our paycheck.

Jesus himself, in our gospel reading today, gives us the best reason of all for rejoicing. “God so loved the world,” he tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That is the kind of economy we can all believe in – the economy of salvation. So, yes: there is still plenty of room for hope and even joy.

Decades ago an irreverent wit once observed, “God protects fools, children, and the United States of America.” The truth of the matter is that God protects us all – fools as well as the wise; children as well as mothers and fathers; Americans, ancient Israelites, and people of every land and creed. In spite of our fears, complaints, and foolishness, God loves us all without bounds. We need only look to his Son to understand this truth and live.

And that is reason enough to rejoice even today – even in the middle of Lent.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus has completed his interim ministry at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California, and is looking for work.

Being a Christian is no easy calling, 4 Lent (B) – 2006

March 26, 2006

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

Taste is a very odd thing. Goodness knows where it comes from. It can be something handed down in a family, not without rebellion. It can be cultural or societal. Then we have the issue of whether something is in good taste or not. Episcopalians are sometimes accused of being more interested in taste than in truth. Even our sins are tasteful!

The gospel today contains a passage greatly beloved by almost all Christians. As the Revised English Bible reads: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Interpretation – may we term it “taste”? – has a great deal to do with how we approach this verse. To some it is a proclamation of exclusion. It might be read as “God so loved the world that he sent his Son in order that those who don’t have faith in him won’t have eternal life, but will perish.” Such an interpretation ignores the verses that precede and follow this popular saying. St. John talks about Jesus being lifted up so that all may see him and have faith in him. He says that Jesus didn’t come to judge but that through him the world may be saved.

It is so easy for us to make Jesus a prisoner of the church or of particular formulae of belief. We want this text to say that people who have difficulty with faith, people who are “not Christians,” people of other religions, because they cannot recite the Creeds are going to hell in a hand basket. Yet these passages talk about Jesus being lifted up that all may see, and that Jesus has come not to condemn the world, but to save it. Face it, we have a taste for judgment!

Despite the fact that Jesus told us that the eternal destiny of other people is none of our business, we want to judge, we want to condemn, and we want to assert that we are “saved” and others are not.

This is quite the wrong way to look at our calling. The church, we are told by St. Paul is the New Israel. St. Peter tells us that we are a nation of priests. Our catechism tells us that we have been called in baptism into a covenant relationship with God. All these are Old Testament metaphors. Israel was called to be the chosen people, chosen not to be the only people God loves, but to be the example of what it looks like to be loved by God. Old Testament priests were called to mediate between God and humanity, and humanity and God. The covenant we have with God is that we are to be His people, to the world and for the world.

As Jesus did not come to condemn or judge the world, but to save it, so the church is faithful when it demonstrates that it is the loved community, called to mediate that love to all, of whatever race, or color, or creed.

Part of our Lenten discipline might well be to examine just how we are doing in these areas. How do we as a congregation, and as individuals, “look” to the watching world? Do we look as if we are the beloved community? Do we look loving? How does the world around us see us? Are we accessible? Is there something compelling about us that draws people to the lifted-up Jesus?

Does our world, our community, our “village” see in us and our congregation the Jesus who does not judge or condemn, but the Jesus who yearns to make all whole, or “saved,” whoever they may be?

Being a Christian is no easy calling. It carries with it enormous responsibilities. Yet, as the collect for today reminds us, Jesus the true and living Bread fills us with his presence and empowers us to be for him the chosen people in whom God’s love for the whole of creation is daily made evident.

— Fr. Tony Clavier is Interim Rector of St. Thomas a Becket Church, Morgantown, in the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.