Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lent 4B

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

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.  I know just how they feel.  The Israelites had no way of knowing, of course, that their 40-year sojourn through the wilderness was nearly done.  For generations they had been wandering, winding a weary way through seas, over mountains, and across deserts, and it must have seemed to them by now that they had gotten nowhere.  Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they complained bitterly to Moses, and through Moses, to God.  Why?

I know just how they feel.  Not because I have ever been so desperately lost or hungry or thirsty or tired of wandering out in the wilderness.  But I know how it feels to grow impatient because it seems, no matter how much winding this way and that, no matter how long the journey, that I am getting nowhere.

I knit and knit and knit, and the blanket simply isn’t growing.  Nor is the skein of yarn shrinking.  Surely I should have finished by now.  Why did I even start this project in the first place, I complain bitterly to whoever is unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby as I wearily knit on.  Why?    

Maybe that’s not exactly how the Israelites felt.  Getting lost in a stitch pattern, now matter how wild and strange the pattern is, is nothing like getting lost in a wild and strange land.  I can put my knitting down and do something else, but there was nothing else for the Israelites to do except wander and wonder when the wandering would end.


Perhaps as wanderers through the season of Lent we can say we know just how they feel.  Nearly four weeks ago, now, we entered a spiritual wilderness of ashes and penitence and prayer.  Over and again, in our readings from scripture, in the language of our prayers, in the absence of whatever we might have given up, in the presence of whatever we might have taken on, we are reminded of how quickly we become impatient, how bitterly we complain when things don’t go as we have planned, how often we forget to let God be God.  We are reminded of our sinfulness, our willfulness, our brokenness.  

But this fourth Sunday of Lent is different than the others.  An ancient liturgy of the church contained as a response said by the people the Latin word Laetare, which means “rejoice”.  This Sunday came to be known as Laetare Sunday, when the readings and the prayers turn in a more Easter-ly direction.  The sinfulness and willfulness and brokenness are still there - even snakes and darkness and death - but there is also hope and light and life.  In the part of our Eucharistic prayer that comes right before the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we have been urged for three weeks to triumph over evil and to live no longer for ourselves; today that prayer bids us prepare with joy for the Paschal feast at which we will receive fullness of grace.    

That’s not how the Israelites felt at all, for whom manna had ceased to be a feast.  We know that Easter is coming, and soon.  They didn’t know when they would arrive in the land promised to them so many miles and years before.  And while the effect of sin on our spirits is every bit as poisonous as a snake bite to the body, the Lenten wilderness does not frighten us nearly as much as a wilderness of rock and brush and beasts.  If we are impatient on this fourth Sunday of the season of Lent, it is likely that we are simply tired of going without chocolate, or getting up an hour earlier to exercise, or forgetting to leave out the alleluia (shhhh!) when we pray.

One look at the day’s headlines, through, and I think we can say that we do know just how the Israelites felt - the impatience, the uncertainty, the fear, the anger, the bitterness, the futility, the wilderness that seems to go on and on and on.  The crisis of the world’s economy grows more desperate each day as more and more people lose homes and jobs.  Violence threatens both nations and neighborhoods.  Disease devours lives of women, men and children.  And even if we ourselves are sheltered from these concerns (which is increasingly unlikely), we worry about friends and loved ones who are navigating some wilderness or another.  Why bother with Easter at all, why bother with saving us, if sin and suffering and sadness are still going to consume us in the end?  Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, we complain bitterly to God.  Why?  How can we rejoice, even on this Laetare Sunday?

We can rejoice because of the words Jesus speaks to us this day, words that even Episcopalians can quote with chapter and verse.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  The words are beautiful and compelling, and have comforted many on the long and winding way through life.  Others hear the words and despair, or glare at them across a ballfield or painted on an overpass, filled with sorrow or rage that they feel they are still perishing, despite all that Jesus did.  

There is more, though, to John 3:16, which Martin Luther once called “the gospel in miniature.”  As John tells the story, Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish council who had come to Jesus under cover of night.  We know that you are a teacher who has come from God, Nicodemus said in hushed tones, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.  His world became a wilderness, though, as Jesus began to describe the work of God in making things new - even making life new.  How can these things be, Nicodemus asked, and we do not know if his question was a bitter complaint or wonder-filled.  We do know that in broad daylight on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus would again come forward and ask in bold tones for the body of the one who was not apart from the presence of God.  

But back to the middle of the night... Although he didn’t understand Jesus’ words about new life, Nicodemus would have recognized immediately Jesus’ reference to the serpent in the wilderness, the bronze image of a snake which God gave Moses as the means for saving the lives of those who would gaze upon it.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  

Nicodemus would have known well the story we heard about the Israelites, impatient, unhappy, and bitterly complaining that neither Moses nor God cared about them, having apparently led them into the wilderness to die.  At least life in Egypt had been predictable.  Out here, there were no guarantees, and they were beginning to believe they would have been better off without God.  They had lost sight of the power of God to save, so focused in upon themselves that they could not see how God had over and again saved them, body and spirit.

The consequence for their sin of short-sightedness was a plague of poisonous, death-dealing snakes, immediately provoking their penitence and prayer that God would remove the snakes from them.  God didn’t.  But before we bitterly complain, listen to what God did do: Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.  God did not remove the snakes; God removed death as a consequence of sin.  Everyone who looked upon that which God had given, everyone who looked upon God’s desire to save, everyone who looked upon God’s offer of healing grace, would live even though by all rights their sin should have done them in.  It was a most unpredictable thing, God’s grace.  And it was more reliable than the rising of the sun with each new day.

So it is with me, Jesus wanted Nicodemus and all of us who walk in darkness to know.  You are so focused on yourselves, your fears, your doubts, your impatience, your anger, your pain, your despair.  You are short-sighted.  You do not see me.  Look at me, and live.  Scholars and theologians teach us that Jesus is comparing the lifting up of the bronze serpent to his own being lifted up on the cross and ultimately being lifted up in resurrection.  But all throughout John’s gospel, Jesus says to those he encounters, come and see, inviting them to watch how he lives each day, how he loves each day, how he heals and how he saves each and every day.  

Here and now, in the wilderness, in our short-sightedness, in our sin, in our darkness, here and now is where precisely where God so loves us that God sent Jesus to walk here and now with us.  This is why we can rejoice.  

The course of this world, Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the course of this world turns us inward upon ourselves, teaches us that we can make life predictable, that if we follow the desires of our flesh and senses, we can make our own way through the wilderness.  In this concave posture, though, it is nearly impossible to see God standing by to save.  For God, Paul writes, God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love has loved us even though we are dead through our sins, our short-sightedness, and God makes us alive together with Christ.  By grace we have been saved.

What, though, of the snakes?  What of the sin that so clearly remains?  What of the darkness that still hovers round?  What of the impatience we still feel?  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals us, but perhaps in a way we hadn’t predicted.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, our ability to see Christ here and now, saving us moment by moment, step by step through whatever wilderness it is that we travel.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, so that even as our eyes behold the sin and suffering that continue to sink their poison into our own lives, the lives of loved ones, and the life of the world all around us, we glimpse also the grace by which we are saved from believing that sin and suffering are the only way to live, the only way to survive.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, allowing us to focus on God, whose rich mercy and great love and immeasurable kindness and saving grace await not just at the end of the journey but around every turn and in the most unpredictable places.

Let us pray as we continue on our way through Lent and in every wilderness where we walk, a prayer written by my seminary class as we wandered through the wilderness of our senior year...Let us pray.  Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  Amen.

Artwork: "Red Sea High Tide", by Ingrid Nickelson; "Study for Moses and the Brazen Serpent", by Augustus John.

1 comment:

knitnanabana said...

"Wandering and the space between places" This reminds me of the comment that God opens a new door, but it is hell in the hallways!!!
I'm working on a Lenten prayer shawl, and I believe the skein of yarn refills itself each night while I'm asleep!
"Wandering and the space between places." I rejoice that I have a shepherd to guide me waking and guard me sleeping. Thanks, Jennifer, for reminding me.