Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Oh that men would praise Jehovah for his lovingkindness, And for his wonderful works to the children of men!

The psalm for today is a call to praise God, given to those who know God’s redemption. The psalm names several groups of people, including those who are wandering in the wilderness, freed prisoners and seafarers who have been saved from a shipwreck. In the section we read today, the psalmist calls out to those who have been healed from their sickness. They passage tells us that they abhor all manner of food and they draw near the gates of death. I’m sure we’ve all felt that way at some point. When we are suffering from the flu, we can’t possibly eat anything and we feel like we will never survive. At those times we do cry out for help and we eventually get better. Do we think God when we do? Do we really see our healing from the flu as an act of God?

Most often, I think, we see getting well from something like the flu as a natural course in the disease. While we felt like we were going to die from it, we knew we wouldn’t. We knew that we would eventually feel better and would be able to return to normal life as we know it. We don’t really give God the credit for making us better because there was nothing miraculous about getting over a cold or flu. So, we forget to thank and praise God for His healing, even though we did cry out for His help.

And what happens when our cry is not answered as we might hope? Sometimes faithful people get sick and never get well. Sometimes we ask for healing but we only see further deterioration of the one we love. Now, I am not saying the loss of a pet is the same as the loss of a human being, but how many of us have watched someone we love go through a similar process as our Felix? I’ve lost both my parents to disease, and prayed expectantly that they would both be healed. Though medical science is gaining ground on remedies and cures for disease, people still die. Does God not hear their cry, too?

We have to wonder if God really heard the cries of His people in the wilderness. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the people have been grumbling about the conditions of their wilderness wandering. They are tired. They are sick of the manna. They are thirsty. They are beginning to fear what lies ahead. Is this Promised Land everything we expect? What suffering will we experience there? How many of us will die along the way? God answered their grumbling with poisonous snakes. When they were bit, they died.

The Hebrews had plenty to eat, but they were tired of eating the same old manna day after day after day. I can see them as well as I can see myself standing in the pantry saying, “There’s nothing to eat here!” They complained about wandering in the wilderness. They complained against Moses and God. They wanted to return to the slavery of Egypt. Did they really expect that the food would be better in Egypt? After all, they were slaves and would never have received the best of fare. However, when we are not satisfied with our situation we always expect that things will be greener on the other side of the fence. They thought that the food for slaves had to be better than the manna of freemen.

It is really hard for us to hear this story because we live in a time and a place where God does not send poisonous snakes, so we'd rather skip over that part and ignore it. Yet, is it something we should ignore? How could God send poisonous snakes to bite the people He chose and loved? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people's attention before they did more harm to themselves—perhaps even rebelling against Moses and returning to Egypt. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and it would be alone, without God. If they turned back to Egypt, they turned their back on God.

God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Hebrews wanted control. They, perhaps rightfully, felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. Perhaps their life was not comfortable. They were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they hated their life. When Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free. But the Promised Land was not right around the corner. Their wandering in the wilderness became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. It had to be better in slavery than starving and thirsting lost in the desert. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed—safety, food and water—they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.

The snakes got their attention. The people went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. Moses did pray and the LORD heard their pleas. Did He remove the snakes? That certainly would have been the most logical and loving solution to the problem. But in His mercy, God did not remove the poisonous snakes. Instead, He commanded Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bit, they could look at the snake and be healed. Ironic, isn’t it? Looking to the very thing that brought death brought them healing and life. God gave them the sign so that they could have a visible reminder of His salvation and deliverance.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses this story to explain to Nicodemus the reality of God’s plan for His people. Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council. If anyone knew God’s word it would be a man like Nicodemus. Yet, he understood God only from the perspective of law and tradition, not from grace. He knew only the things of flesh, not spirit. So, Jesus points back to a story Nicodemus would have known very well, of the snakes in the wilderness, to show how God will give a sign to His people. Moses’ snake was just a type. The Savior will be lifted, too, but it will be the Son of Man. Jesus was referring to Himself. He would be lifted on the cross and those who look to Him would have eternal life.

Our passage for today contains one of the most beloved verses in the bible; John 3:16 is probably one of the most quoted (and perhaps even misquoted) verses of the scriptures. Yet, there is so much more to this passage. This is a message about light. Jesus Christ is the light, and without Him we live in darkness. He is like those night vision cameras that help us to see when there is no natural light around us. We might prefer to live in the world as we know it, without that Light of Christ, because there is so much in that world we enjoy. Yet, peace, hope and life are found in the world Jesus has created by redeeming His people by His blood. Living in God’s love, living in love of others and serving them, might not seem like the happiest way of life, that’s why so many people reject it. Those of us who believe have seen that light and will never perish.

John 3:16, is a wonderful message, a message that many people have used to share the love of God with the world. As a matter of fact, when you see “JOHN 3:16” in the end zone of a football game or on a billboard, you know exactly what it means. We worship a God of love.

This is so very true. Our God loves us so much that He sent His Son for us. However, how many people understand that God sent His Son to die? They look at the cross and see it as a horrific torture device and not a symbol of freedom and glory. Yet, as you read the witness of John, you will see that the cross is where Christ was glorified, because it was on the cross that He was perfectly obedient to the will of God. It was there the world was saved, not in the empty tomb. Our salvation rests in the One hanging on the pole, and it is to Him that we look for healing and peace.

We are bothered by the image of Jesus on the cross. As a matter of fact, we are so bothered that we often prefer to have the cross empty, a remembrance of what Christ did but also a reminder that He rose again. We like the empty cross because the crucifixion goes against our image of a loving God. I’ve heard from too many people say that they can’t believe in the Christian God, because the god they know is a god of love. A god of love would not require sacrifice. But, Jesus Christ had to die on the cross. The world is full of human beings who are sinners in need of a Savior. Just as the savior to the Hebrews in a desert was the very thing that brought them the pain, so too it would take a human to be lifted up to bring healing and peace. Who would have thought that it would be the Son of God hanging on a cross?

We don’t want to say it, but according to Jesus, those who do not look to Him for salvation stand condemned. They aren’t condemned because God has seen fit to punish them for some sin, but rather because they have turned their back on the God of Creation. John writes, “He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.” We love to preach the message that our God is a God of Love, but we would rather not go on to the rest of the passage. It doesn’t make sense that God would allow people to suffer.

I'd much rather see John 3:17 posted on that sign in the end zone. “For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves. He who was without sin was raised so that the world would be saved from that selfishness and pettiness that destroys.

Sad to say, but we continue to be selfish and petty even when we’ve seen the light of Christ and believe in Him. Christ came for all people, not just for one nation or chosen people. He was raised on the pole so that all might see and believe. The gathering of Christians is therefore a very diverse community.

Christianity in Paul’s day was the bringing together of two very distinct ‘families.’ The Jews had a number of expectations of their people, rules to live by and things to do. Those rules limited their gathering with people like themselves. They were not allowed to eat with Gentiles or purchase certain things. Their rules kept them separated from others, not because of their nationality but because of their actions. The Gentiles did things that made them ‘unclean’ according to those Jewish laws. They ate food that was unclean. They worked on the Sabbath. They followed other deities and practiced unacceptable religious traditions.

So, when Christ came and died for all men, those early Christians had to deal with the marriage of two very distinct cultures. They had to find a way to live together, to work together, and to worship God together. It was hard for them, and it is still hard for us. Despite two thousand years of trying to work out these issues, we still have many Christians who find it difficult to get along. ‘We’ look at ‘them’ and do not understand their culture or religious practices. Some argue against creeds, others think creeds are the way we define our belief. Some like liturgical settings of worship; others feel crowded by the routine. Some use the word “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer, others use “debts.” These may seem minor to those on the outside, but they can be major stumbling blocks for those of us trying to deal with this incredible marriage between cultures. We are, in many ways, still like poor Nicodemus who understood the flesh but did not quite understand the spirit.

So, in today’s epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes about that which we have in common. We were all sinners in need of a Savior and we all have faith in that same Savior, Jesus Christ. God loves us all. It isn’t by our traditions and practices that we are saved. It isn’t the way we say the Lord’s Prayer or the form of our worship that brings us salvation. We are saved by grace and are made alive together in Christ Jesus. We may not meet together because of those cultural or geographic issues, but we love one another because we have that common love of Christ. We may, sometimes, be able to find the courage and humility to gather together for His sake, despite our differences. Whatever happens in the family of Christ, we are who we are because of what God has done, and as we remember this we will look at our ‘in-laws’ with a whole new perspective, through ‘Jesus-colored glasses,’ so to speak. And we can set aside our selfishness and pettiness to work together to do God’s will in this world.

When we are in trouble God does hear our cry, but His answer is not always the answer we are looking to receive. Sometimes the best healing is the worst thing we can imagine: death. Sometimes God gives the redemption that will be eternal instead of a temporary return to whatever we think is normal. Those in faith who face death have not been forgotten by their God, but have been given the greatest healing possible: eternal life. And so, when we experience the healing hand of God, whether it is when we get over the flu or when someone we love breathes their last, we are called to join together with all people who believe in the One who was raised on the pole, to praise God for His enduring love that lasts forever. He redeems His people, in so many ways, and for this we give thanks.

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