God So Loved the World – March 18, 2018
In the name our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.
I can identify with the Israelites we just heard about. They’re stuck in the wilderness, they feel lost and directionless, they’ve left Egypt and seem not to know where they’re going. It seems forever ago that they left Egypt. Suddenly the life they left behind seems rosy and comfy. Mind you, they were slaves, and hated it when they were there. And they complain that there’s “no food and no water,” and yet in the next sentence they acknowledge that they just don’t like the food they have. Just like when I say I have nothing to wear, but am looking at a closet full of clothes!
Life in the wilderness was hard; it was dangerous and uncertain. Not unlike our lives. We too know fear and anxiety. Gun violence, racism and white nationalism, Russian spying, an unpredictable president, are part of our daily intake. Or personal difficulties. There are times when we too feel out of control.
The Israelites whine and complain and form a “Let’s go back to Egypt” committee. “Slavery in Egypt was bad, but it was better than freedom. With freedom come too many choices,” they cry.
Eventually God has enough of their whining and sends a pack of poisonous serpents into their midst. Many in their number die before the “Let’s go back to Egypt” committee convinces Moses to change God’s mind. We have heard this story of a serpent besting God’s people before, back in the Garden of Eden. No wonder the Israelites were terrified.
Then God provides redemption, a bronze snake on a pole. Snakes are both the suffering and the deliverance. It’s an odd way for God to show God’s love and mercy to his people, granting healing through pain, by lifting high an image of ugliness and death to bring about new life. The deadly serpent becomes the symbol of healing just as the cross—the instrument of Christ’s death—becomes a sign of salvation. A paradox.
This passage always raises questions for me. I know that so much of life is paradoxical, that there are no easy answers. And yet I want answers. Does God inflict pain – in this case biting snakes – to get humankind’s attention, to get us to repent? Certainly the author of this passage thought so.
I know that’s not the case. I believe wholeheartedly that God loves and wants health and wholeness for all of God’s children. I don’t think God inflicts illness or tragedy or snakes – of any sort – on us. And yet they are part of life. As the proverbial goes,” s___ happens.” Snakes/illness/tragedies are part of our brokenness. And sometimes we contribute to them. As did the Israelites. Sometimes suffering is the only path to redemption, and often the road to healing and light runs through darkness and pain.
Last week we read the Ten Commandments, in which we heard the prohibition against making idols. I sometimes think we make God in our own image – in essence, an idol – by expecting God to respond to us the way we want. We want God to give us a snake-free life, and when our lives are not problem free, snake free, we wonder if God is asleep on the job. We wonder if God cares. We complain, like the Israelites, we rant and rail, we try and understand, and cannot.
Like the Israelites, we want a God that we can predict, that we can comprehend, and the God we have is beyond comprehension, beyond explanation, beyond definition. Our God is a God of paradox, a God of mystery.
We are half way through our Lenten journey. Today is known as Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday. Note the lovely pink vestments, and the flowers. The practical meaning of this is that for those of you who have given up things for Lent, this is your day!
The Gospel lesson tells the story of God’s love for us. It’s a story about how God gives God’s heart to the whole world in Jesus and how he should be received by those who believe. It’s a story of God’s extravagant and profligate love for all of God’s creation, the whole world. Luther called John 3:16 the “gospel in miniature.” Our text underscores that God loves the world that God has created. That God has not abandoned the world but wants to redeem it through his son.
For God so loved the world … This is the bottom line, the ultimate truth of Scripture, from the Creation to the Jesus’ coming again: this is God’s love story for the world. Remember that it was Love that stirred God’s heart at the pleading of the slaves in Egypt, and Love that offered them both the guidance of the law and the security of the Promised Land. Thereafter, whenever inequality or injustice threatened the welfare of the poor and the powerless (and therefore the whole people), God’s love raised up prophets who declared God’s desire for compassion—shown not just to insiders, but also to sojourners and foreigners among them.
It was divine love, stronger than the judgment they deserved that carried Israel during the time of Exile, and brought them home again to sing the love of God in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. It was God’s love that sent Jesus, God’s Son, to be incarnate in the world, where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us, but also for our enemies and those who persecute us. It was Love that stirred the first-century church to open the doors of welcome and inclusion not only to Jews but also to Gentiles, not only to those deemed worthy but also those whose very existence was troubling: the ill, maimed, the blind, the disabled.
Our text not only tells us that God loves us, and the whole world, but also that God doesn’t condemn. In a world where condemnation is a regular part of human discourse, from our offices to our homes to the public arena, we hear that God does not condemn us. Period. God came to save us, to show us love and acceptance and how God wants us to live with one another. Remember that Jesus didn’t condemn Peter for denying him. He didn’t lecture the disciples for abandoning him.
On Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples fled. Jesus had not turned out to be the Messiah they expected. Jesus had not overturned the occupying Roman authorities and reinstated Jewish rule. He had not established the disciples as leaders of a new Israel.
Oftentimes we don’t find the God we expected. We are hoping for a God who will make our problems, our snakes, go away, and instead we get a God who accompanies us through our troubles, who walks with us through our crises. We get a God who says to us, as God said to the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, “all will be well, every manner of thing shall be well.” In other words, “I love you and I am with you.”
Years ago, in the months after my ordination as deacon and as I was preparing to be ordained a priest, while learning two new jobs, my father was dying. I was in NJ and my father was in MI. It was a very hard time, being away from him, trying to learn my new life, trying to support him, my mother, my sisters, pay attention to the students and the congregation where I was serving, and of course, paying attention to my family. And then my husband became seriously ill. It was crazy-making!
During this time, a wise friend said to me, “One day you’ll be grateful for this time. One day when you’re pastoring someone whose loved one is dying, you’ll look back and be thankful for this time, for this experience.” I thought David was crazy. That he was totally nuts. How could I ever be grateful for all this pain, upheaval, all this distress in my life while trying to take care of others?
Truth be told, I have been more than once. Out of the pain of my father’s death and husband’s illness, I grew and learned. Out of that tumultuous time I matured. Out of those snakes in my life, I learned to see God’s presence and promise, I learned to empathize and be with persons who were suffering such losses. Of that experience I learned to trust God’s love for me and for everyone.
I learned again that the path to redemption is coated in suffering. The cure for a snake is a snake. The cure for human life is one man’s life. The cure for death is death. The cure for love is love. For God so loved the world…
1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 4274-4318)