St. Simon’s on the Sound
March 11, 2014
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.”
In the last few years I have refrained from “giving up” something as a Lenten discipline – you know something like chocolate; chardonnay; carbohydrates, or any of those other delicious niceties of life that give us great pleasure and offer comfort in times of stress and challenge.
Rather than “give up” something during these brief 40 days I have committed myself to a discipline of identifying ways of thinking and ways of being that have led, or are leading me into darkness, away from light – away from God.
My Lenten discipline has been grounded in an intentional and continual reflective and prayerful examination of my life’s past and current events. A frequently painful journey of seeking God’s light to illuminate areas of darkness in my life. Darkness that creates a barrier between me and my God who so clearly wants to be my light – my way – my life.
Put simply, through prayer, reflection and spiritual guidance, I have asked God to shed light on ways of thinking and ways of being that either have carried or are carrying me down a road away from God. A road that leads into the pit filled with biting serpents. The pit so vividly described in today’s reading from Numbers.
In my conversations with God I have asked God to give me new lenses through which I can take a good look at myself.
This Lenten discipline of mine has always been a resounding challenge and most assuredly a transforming struggle. I am always astounded at what I uncover – or, perhaps I should say what God helps me to uncover. It never fails, I always discover that, quite literally, I was completely in the dark about many aspects of my life.
Usually, God’s light does not immediately penetrate my darkness. I suppose that would be too simple, too easy. No, at first the light flickers on, and I most usually, turn it off – very quickly.
But that darn light is so persistent – crafty and persistent. Gradually, the light seeps through the cracks of my darkness. Soon the darkness is not so dark; there seems to be no clear boundary between the darkness and the light. And then, suddenly there is no darkness at all. The light shines continually and my new lenses are polished and working. My interactions, reactions, my ways of being are clearly illuminated in a new way – a way that is far more congruent with a true relationship with God.
Seen through new lenses my life is illuminated in a new, frightening and yet incredibly exciting way. Perhaps most important of all, my new way of being infuses me anew with the depth, the strength, the power of God’s love. My new way of being allows me to offer that love to others; allows me to bring the gift of God’s love to others – those who are still in darkness.
Then, of course, comes the struggle of staying in the light – of not returning to the darkness – the pit.
This week’s Lectionary readings are one of the few occasions in which all of the appointed passages from Scripture, including the psalm, come together to form a powerful, painful, and yet love-filled message for those of us engaged in a Lenten journey of reflection and repentance – one that leads us out of darkness and into the light.
First, we heard an Old Testament story filled with vivid and frightening imagery of poisonous serpents biting people – killing people. Punishing people for their complaining and whining – for their looking away from God to find an easier, more convenient way to live their lives. And then, unexpectedly, this terrifying account of writhing, venom spitting serpents ends by becoming not a story of pain, suffering and death, but a story filled with the hope of salvation.
In today’s passage from Numbers, God sent poisonous serpents into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people complaining against Moses and God. Through this frightening siege of venomous serpents, the Israelites recognized that they were being punished for falling away from God; the God who had promised them salvation from slavery and suffering. In haste, they went to Moses and repented saying, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.”
As they began their cry of repentance, God commanded Moses to make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and to lift it up on a pole – high up - so that anyone bitten by one of the serpents could look up at it and live. The Israelites grateful for this life-saving serpent lifted on high said that it was not the sight of the bronze serpent that saved them, but that looking up to it, they looked up to God as the Lord who would heal them. They renewed their promise to follow God.
Psalm 107 opens with the powerful verse, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever.” A hymn extolling God’s mercy to those who, “were fools and took rebellious ways,” but who also “cried to the Lord in their trouble.” God “sent forth his word and healed them and saved them from the grave.”
Yet another version of people lost in darkness crying out to God for light, for salvation. And, as always, God there – right there. Ever present, ever loving.
Fast forwarding to today’s gospel reading from John, Jesus almost 500 years later tells his disciples and the surrounding crowd, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
The term translated “lift up” (hypsoo) can also mean “exalt,” and John uses that double meaning to communicate the theological paradox of this story in which Jesus is both physically lifted up onto the cross as punishment, and at the same time lifted up on the cross in exaltation by God.
For anyone in first century Palestine, Jesus included, being nailed to a cross and then lifted up for public display was a moment of profound humiliation and defeat. But John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as collapsed into a single measure of divine action: Jesus crucified by taking on man’s sins; Jesus exalted by God as our savior.
Just as the Israelites were required to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life – the bronze asp lifted on high by Moses, so we are asked to look upon Jesus lifted up on the cross in humiliating crucifixion in order to understand the concept of Jesus taking on man’s sins in order to offer salvation to those who follow him. Follow him to the cross and beyond; always looking up – always looking for the Light of Christ.
In John’s passage Jesus continues, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Beautiful and comforting words. But, in this context of serpents and crucifixion crosses how are we to interpret them? How does a loving God act out of such anger and cause so much pain? If God loves us so much why should we struggle, why should we suffer?
If we listen carefully we hear Jesus say, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
God’s grace has no meaning in isolation from God’s judgment. If we believe that we have no sin, we have no need for forgiveness. If there is no judgment, we require no grace.
The question for all of us is very clear. During our Lenten journey do we have the courage, the discipline, the insight to look up and allow the light of Christ to shine on the darkness in our lives and in the world around us?
Do we dare to have a look at our own lives – our own ways of thinking and our own behaviors, so frequently less than admirable. Our own thoughts and behaviors that with regularity are in direct conflict the great commandments that we affirm each Sunday during Lent”
“Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Do we have the courage to change our ways of being; our behaviors. To cease thoughts and actions that trigger the arrival in our lives of venomous serpents and to look up to Christ lifted up high on the cross for a better way; a way filled with the Light of Christ? Do we have the courage to Repent and Return? Can we find the humility and bravery necessary to repair relationships gone awry and deeds left undone out of fear or apathy?
Are we daring enough to face the difficult truths of a world darkened by the astounding challenges of complex political and social justice issues” Are we brave enough to face everything from personal transgressions, however, small or large, to mass shootings and other acts of violence and hatred; and to do something about these things?
Are we courageous enough to act as Christ’s disciples and seek justice and peace in our own lives and in the lives of those who live in darkness throughout our community and the world?
Perhaps most importantly, can we stand firm in the light? Or, once we see the light do we scuttle off, creeping back into the comfortable darkness of denial? Experiencing the salvific power of the light and seeing clearly that we have fallen away from God, do we look upwards – on high – asking forgiveness and seeking ways to keep the light shining, as a guide, as an advocate, as our Savior- however painful the ensuing steps we must take might be?
Our message today is that God is indeed the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. But that, that same God is also a God who places on our shoulders the expectation of actively seeking the light, actively seeking His salvific gift – His Son, Jesus – and following that light, not the darkness of a deeply troubled world, but in the way of the cross – a way strewn with love, encompassed by grace; and based on faith.
The face of God in today’s readings is of a God who is ever present -ever ready to forgive. But, it is also a face of God to whom a turn must be made. A God of demand always ready to be a God of grace. Grace and demand, the way all serious relationships work.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him when he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have
mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.