Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Do you feel like rejoicing? There are plenty of reasons to rejoice, and plenty not to. Even though it’s Lent, today is a Sunday set apart for rejoicing. Sundays traditionally were known by the first words of their introits. Most of those names left common knowledge long ago, the name of Laetere, or Rejoice Sunday, is slightly better known, perhaps because we like to rejoice, and perhaps because this time of year, late in winter and in Lent, we could use some rejoicing.
We’re getting closer to Easter; the lessons focus on God’s love and grace toward us. As Christians we have a lot to celebrate, but the world isn’t giving us much help. This especially hard winter has darkened our moods and shortened our tempers, and exposed weaknesses in our infrastructure. Highways became impassable and public transportation suffered extraordinary disruptions. And a lot of people are angry and frustrated with the managers and politicians who were responsible. We seized on to an easy target for our blame and anger. Never mind that we elected those politicians and we ensured disinvestment in our own infrastructure by refusing to acknowledge, let alone pay, the true costs. We all share in the blame but no one wants to admit it. While much in the world has changed since Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, and finally to the promised land, human nature is just the same. As one keen observer noted, “When the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going – they turn against their leaders.”
It’s easy to create scapegoats out of powerful figures in a time of crisis. Much more difficult to own up to the underlying problem, even though it is always the same. Whenever we put our faith in things that are passing away, we will find ourselves disappointed. Whenever we invest in impermanence, we will lose everything. And, like so many snakes, the consequences of our decisions may spread out of our control, affecting people we never met in ways we never anticipated.
Note that in the story from Numbers, the snakes don’t seek out the people who were complaining the loudest or had the greatest doubt. They weren’t moral arbiters, they were just snakes. “They bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” The suffering was communal. When God gave Moses instructions to end the plague, it was not out of whimsy that God specified that the instrument of healing be made in the image of the instrument of death. It was not because God had suddenly decided to create a place in the world for sympathetic magic. Rather, it was because God wanted to provoke the people to a deeper understanding. The difference between the healing serpent and the deadly serpents, between health and suffering, between life and death, is not in material objects. The difference lies in God’s will. God’s will is the basis for all that exists, for the universe and all that exists therein, and God’s will is for grace, healing, and reconciliation.
Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel. He should have known the serpent story by heart and been able to express its point clearly. But at least he was on the right track. He came to Jesus under cover of darkness because he thought, perhaps, Jesus might be the long-awaited messiah. He had an inkling, a tiny shred of faith, but he followed it with determination, although ironically he did not realize that it led him to the source of all faith. As a result of acting on the faith that was within him, Nicodemus got to hear Jesus talking about what faith really means.
The teaching is hard, complex and nuanced. Sadly, it has been abused by many to claim the opposite of what it means. Again it comes down to faith. What is faith, and how does it relate to Jesus and his work of redemption? We usually understand the word “believe” to mean to hold an opinion, but Jesus starts talking about living in light versus darkness, doing good versus evil deeds. Jesus wants more than just our opinions, Jesus wants our whole selves, our souls and our bodies, our passions and our wills, no matter how tarnished we have allowed them to become.
For Jesus is the one true light, and the source of all the good in creation. Therefore, whenever we live in the light, whenever we act in harmony with the will of the Creator and the One through whom all things were made, we are living in the presence of Christ, even though, like Nicodemus, we may be in his presence and still fail to understand. And when we come up short, when we act wrongly and love darkness, we are indeed condemned, but not because God stops loving us; that never happens. Rather we suffer the consequences of moving counter to the moral current of Creation. We seal our own fate, guaranteeing our own downfall no less surely than a man who takes a step off a cliff.
But even when we fall, God is there. God may catch us, or God may heal our wounds after we’ve lain at the bottom for a while. Sometimes we don’t know why God chooses one way over the other. But we do know why God is active and caring. Our salvation is by God’s grace and not our own doing. We know God will do this because God has already established that our way will be God’s way, the way of eternal life. God accomplished this in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We didn’t get to choose this grace for ourselves. We don’t get to vote on or invest in God’s all-encompassing, all-powerful love for us. God’s love is God’s will, and all the darkness in the world cannot overcome it. So rejoice and be exceeding glad as you look upon the one who was lifted up for our eternal health and salvation. God is bringing to fulfillment the purpose God had for us in the beginning of Creation. God has given us life, and given it abundantly.