The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer
Slideshow image

Based on Numbers 21: 4-9 “A bronze serpent heals the people” and

   John 3: 14-21 “We are not saved by our own doing, but by grace

Opening Prayer: Dear God, may we know the healing balm of your steadfast love as we reflect together on what it means to follow Jesus in a world where the smug seduction of our self-satisfaction swallows itself in greed and the perpetual avoidance of pain.  Help us find ways of opening our hearts to the meaning behind the stories of God’s self-emptying love in our Lenten stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.  Amen.

We begin with a quote from noted American biblical scholar, preacher, and theologian, Fred Craddock who recently passed away.  Fred’s comment that he is “grateful for work more important than how he (or any preacher for that matter) feels about it on any given day” gives me hope.  It seems, from reading preparation from Marcus Borg to John Shelby Spong to Fred Buechner to Barbara Brown Taylor that even the ‘best of the best’ of preachers struggle with examining the meaning and purpose behind that oft quoted verse from the third chapter of John’s gospel we heard this morning: 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Fred also had this word of caution related to this particular text: “Preach like you know they almost didn’t come!” 

In other words, do we really have to go there? 

The short answer for today is that ‘yes’.  

Here at the midway point in our Lenten journey, we are called, with Jesus to turn our face to the meaning and symbolism of the cross and to begin the earnest work of probing what the text might mean for us personally, for us as a congregation, and for us as people called into being the light of Christ in a dark and often gloomy and foreboding world close on to some 2000 years after the gospel of John was first compiled.

Along with our reading from John’s gospel this morning, we also have that strange and wonderful story from the Book of Numbers.  In that story, God instructs Moses to lift up a bronze serpent to remind God’s exceedingly forgetful people that complaining, backbiting, and pushing back on God’s providential love has consequences.    This might seem quite strange to our listening ear, given that last week we heard God present Moses with the Ten Commandments, which included no worshipping false idols.  

 

Between the two readings, then, there seems to be absolute plethora of food for thought for our reflection this morning as we wonder just what it is that God is up to in the two stories.

Coming back to the text from John’s gospel, I am reminded of the power and the magnitude of that old real estate term:  “Location, location, location!”  Only in this case, I am speaking about location as the biblical context of this morning’s reading. 

The third chapter of John picks up more or less from where our readings left off last week after what seemed like something of a temper tantrum on Jesus’ part as he and his disciples came into the Temple at Jerusalem. 

On that occasion, Jesus, described as one “consumed with zeal” overturned the moneychangers’ tables as people gathered for the Passover Festival. 

And, in anything but meek and mild terms, Jesus tells all who have gathered what they are doing is a sacrilege and, in a nutshell, provides a foreshadowing of his own impending death on the cross. 

Thinking back on that story, there can be little doubt that Jesus’ tone would have been observed by all present as harsh and judgmental and his actions as confrontational. 

Is it any wonder then that the third chapter of John’s gospel opens with the story of Nicodemus, the well regarded religious leader seeking out Jesus by the dark of night? 

But seeing as we were plunked down into the middle of the chapter at verse 14 this morning, it behooves us to backtrack a bit.

 One of my favourite stories in scripture is this very one.  For me, it seems that Nicodemus who has entered into the conversation from a perspective of being a knowledgeable, well regarded, a mature religious leader.  Though probably in his senior years, here Nicodemus becomes a keen learner.   As he is drawn deeper conversation with Jesus about the need to think about God in new ways, to let go of all that entraps, and choose to stay open and curious to understanding God in new ways, I am reminded of that Buddhist proverb, ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. 

I also like Jesus’ references to the wind of the Spirit blowing where it will and it being Nicodemus’ job to be aware that it’s the Spirit’s energy that leads not his.

At this point in the story, Nicodemus appears to fade into the background as the listeners are offered a parallel between the lifting up of the serpent in the Book of Numbers with the lifting up of the Son of Man.   

 

We hear little more of Nicodemus in the unfolding gospel of John other than his appearance in chapter seven at a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  Later in the conclusion of the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel Nicodemus also assists Joseph of Arimathea come to the cross to dress Jesus’ body for burial.  Was his life changed by this encounter?  Impossible to know but then, they do say actions speak louder than words.

All of this is offered to set the context of the words from verse 16 as we are reminded of the depth and breadth of God’s self-emptying and passionate love for the world’s healing and wholeness made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ as we hear once again:  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’

At a first glance, we might be tempted to understand these words as a vaccine of a sort that might protect us from pain, suffering, and death.  Just as Moses, through God, instructed his followers to keep their eye on the bronze serpent as a kind of a reminder or a tool for avoiding falling into old habits and patterns, we, too, might fall into the trap of assuming that the ransom of sin has been paid for through Jesus’ death on the cross.    But, then, we know better. 

We know that God’s dream for a new and different reality, God’s vision of shalom where love will trump fear, death, and injustice continues to elude us. 

The good news for today?   God continues to need us to be our most authentic and fruitful selves as followers in the way of Jesus, committed to saying ‘yes’ to being the hands and feet of Christ in an ailing and broken world.  To speak truth to power whenever possible.  To recognize that we are all caught in the web of the world’s sin as we continue to be inclined to creep round the edges of the cross, thinking it easily avoidable. 

Whatever our pain avoidance strategy, I am aware that pain makes theologians of us all and I agree with Barbara Brown Taylor who describes the value of pain, be it physical, spiritual, or emotional in her book “An Altar in the World” this way: 

“Pain” she says, “Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no frills encounter with the Holy” (P.158)                                           

For most of us, learning to function faithfully in a culture of privilege that so completely emphasizes our individual needs and rights at the peril of all of Creation is a huge challenge.

And yet, here we gather weekly to sing and pray and ponder God’s call. 

Here we gather regularly in our various small ministry groups to do what we can, to feed the hungry as best we can, to grow and learn together through prayer and seasonal study groups, and to be the body of Christ in this time and in this place. 

 

Here we find nourishment for the journey. 

Here we can sometimes be the rainbow in someone’s cloud.

Here we can find courage for the ministry of shining the light and walking the walk with a friend stuck in the deep dark of night, and here we gather to name that eternal life can and does happen in the midst of pain and loss and here we remind one another that though there is nothing in the world worth killing, there are things worth standing up for.

Here as Christians journeying together through the season of Lent we are invited to continue to re-think our understanding of the cross and Jesus and God. 

While we recognize that other religious might rely on other symbols to lift up their faith, we rely on the cross remembering with grace and thanksgiving these words offered by Fred Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC:  “What emerged from Jesus’ death (on the cross) was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last 2000 years of human history would be even more tragic than they are.” (p. 21)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.”

May our awareness of the context of these words embedded in an invitation to Nicodemus to think in new ways about religion and about God inform our own understanding of what it means to be religious leaders and representatives in the sifting sands of our own denomination  in this time and in this place.  May our story from the Book of Numbers help us find what symbols we would hold up to remind us when we are inclined to stray, to miss the mark, and to be reminded that no matter the circumstance, no matter the sin, our God loves us more than we might ever ask or imagine.

May it be so.  Amen.