Sunday, March 18, 2012

Preach One: Lent 4B

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

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.  Ahh, John 3:16.  Do you remember a time when you didn't know these words more or less by heart?  They are so familiar even Episcopalians can quote them, chapter and verse. For God so loved the world...

It has been called the gospel in miniature, summarizing in one sentence the good news of God in Christ.  "John 3:16 has been the standard bearer in explaining the Christian message," claimed CNN's online Belief Blog in reporting about a Texas gas station that offered $15 off for customers who could recite the well-known scripture.  For God so loved the world that he gave...a giant discount on an oil change?!?  John 3:16 is everywhere.  We've heard it preached from pulpits, learned about it in sunday School, seen it waved on posters and painted in eye-black at sporting events, watched it scroll across the sign outside the bank.  For God so loved the world that he gave...


The words weren't at all familiar to Nicodemus when Jesus spoke them to him.  A prominent leader among the Pharisees, Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness in hopes of being enlightened.  He groped blindly, though, at Jesus' insistence that he must be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit.  How can these things be, Nicodemus asked.  But Jesus went on about earthly things and heavenly things, about ascending and descending, about belief and understanding, before finally saying something that Nicodemus recognized, something he had heard before, something that made sense.

John 3:...14.  Let's recite it together: Jesus said to Nicodemus... You don't know that one?  It's not as familiar to us as the words that come two short verses later.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness...," and Nicodemus would have nodded, knowing to which story from their shared faith Jesus was referring.  We don't read it often ourselves, although perhaps, like me, you remember with a little shudder pictures of it from your children's bible.  Snakes slithering all over the ground, Moses holding high a serpent made of bronze, people sick with snake venom gazing up at it in hope...

In the book of Numbers, the Hebrew people are still making their way through the wilderness, now far from Egypt but also far from the Promised Land.  Why have you brought us out here to die, they asked, and not for the first time.  The wilderness didn't bring out the best in them.  Over and again they are certain they are dying, when over and again God has given them life - freedom from slaver, escape at the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock, a covenant at Sinai, a snake set upon a pole.  Whether their misfortunes have been perceived or real, a natural consequence of wilderness wandering or the result of unfaithfulness, God has over and again forgiven and rescued them, and not simply by a pronouncement of love and mercy but by saving actions that also invited action on the part of the people.  God parted the waters, but the people had to choose to walk across.  God provided manna, but the people had to gather it.  God offered water, but the people had to cup their hands to drink.  God promised to be faithful to them, but the people would also have to work at faithfulness and health and making the journey.  God would always love them, always save them, always make them alive.  Whether they...whether we...choose to live, choose to act, choose to see, choose to love...that's another whole story...


...Or perhaps the same one, or isn't the whole of scripture a story about learning to see just how God so loved the world?  In John's gospel, the word "world" tends to refer to those who are opposed to the good news of God in Christ, who prefer darkness to light, which only makes the love story all the more poignant and powerful.  From in the beginning, God has loved the world and everything and everyone in it, calling it good, giving it life.  In your infinite love you made us for yourself, we read in one of our Eucharistic prayers.  God made us.  God called us into covenant.  God set a bow in the clouds.  God freed us from oppression.  God spoke to us through prophets.  God returned us from exile.  God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes...

Nicodemus has faded into the background by the time Jesus gets to these words, the ones we know as John 3:16.  We don't see Nicodemus again until he is tenderly taking Jesus down from the cross on which Jesus had been raised up to death, and laying Jesus deep within a tomb from which he would be raised up to life.  I wonder if, on that darkest day, with the Light of the World in his hands, Nicodemus harbored a hope none of the others had.  I wonder if Nicodemus remembered how Jesus had said, "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."


I wonder if, because Nicodemus knew the story of Moses and the serpents so well, because he knew so well the great arc of the story of salvation...I wonder if the cover of darkness under which Nicodemus first came to see Jesus fluttered and he saw a glimmer of light.  The light of the first day of creation.  The light of Easter's dawn.  The light that shines in the darkness, that no darkness has ever overcome.  The light of the world that God so loved.  Maybe Nicodemus, who at first, like the Hebrew people in the wilderness, like us, appreciated the signs and wonders but not the work of being saved... Maybe Nicodemus was the first to look upon Jesus and see what salvation looks like - a life lived in faith, a life offered in love, a life acted out and given for those whom God loves, which is to say, the world, which is to say, for everything and everyone, even for those who seem to prefer the darkness.  Maybe Nicodemus was the first to look at Jesus and see the one who has always been at the center of the love story, from in the beginning to the end of the age, the one whose very name means, "God Saves."

By grace you have been saved, we read in the letter to the Ephesians, in the tradition of another leader among the Pharisees, Paul.  You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world.  So it has been ever since the garden first became a wilderness, since we first knew we had a choice of courses to follow, since we first tried to hide ourselves from God, to cover ourselves with darkness.

And so, for a second time in salvation history, first in the garden and finally in the wilderness of our sin, God came looking for us.  God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him.  This is how God so loves us, how God so loves the world, even as we remain in the dark, blinded by our own impatience or anger or prejudice or fear or addiction or shame or pride or...let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.  Even there, even in our darkness, even when we were dead, God so loves us as to make us alive, to make us alive together with Christ, who taught us how to live and how to love and how to save and how to act as, to be, the hands and feet and heartbeats of God's amazing grace and healing in this world.  For God so loved the world...


We are still making our way through the wilderness of Lent, far from Ash Wednesday but also far from Easter Morning.  Our sins are not far from us, though, nor are the ways we try to hide our sins from others, from ourselves, and from God.  We have been carefully uncovering them on our Lenten journeys, and while we do not hear the word repent in our readings this morning, we are invited to turn (which is what the word repent means)...to turn from the darkness toward the light that is the life of all people and to see in him what salvation looks like.  It looks like compassion.  It looks like non-judgment.  It looks like mercy.  It looks like kindness.  It looks like grace.  It looks like living in the wilderness and not dying there, like shining in the darkness and not succumbing to it, like loving the world so.  We are invited to turn and see, and seeing to believe, and believing to love the world as God does, to show the immeasurable riches of God's grace in kindness.

Then will the gospel in miniature become the gospel at large in this world, written not just on billboards or bumper stickers but emblazoned across our lives, our choices, and our actions, not just telling but showing the world that God loves it so.  Amen.

1 comment:

LaRue Owen said...

Thanks!