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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 22, 2009

God be with us expanding creative life into the distance; Christ be with us moving grace closer than we have ever dreamed; Holy Spirit warm the world with hope. Amen.

The scriptures this morning present images of two things I very much dislike: snakes and darkness. I have never understood someone’s proclivity for having a snake as a pet and I dread the possibility of a power outage after sundown, especially in the deep of winter.  Give me my two Chihuahuas and plenty of light and I’m happy. So these two texts are not the most conducive for my reflection or exposition as a preacher. That is probably why I need all the more to unpack them for you and for me.

The Old Testament passage from the Book of Numbers tells about the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It was a time of great discontent, during which the people complained about the lack of food and water, had conflicts over leadership, and were in general rebellion against God.  

The Hebrews wanted their freedom but on their own terms and were unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with it. As the story unfolds, God sends poisonous snakes to rattle their cages and remind them that they have been delivered from slavery at God’s hands. As a remedy for those who were dying, Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole with the understanding that everyone bitten by a snake that looked at it would be cured. It was not meant to be some kind of magic but rather their focus for their faith in God when their life was in danger. That faith saved them.

Jesus makes reference to this passage in the Gospel text we read today. No snakes here. Jesus gives us the good news that God did not send him into the world to condemn it, but to save it. God sent Jesus to do this work out of God’s enormous love for us.

If we stop at this verse and go no further into the passage, all is well and we can rejoice. There is, however, a fly in the ointment if we read on: the affinity we humans have for darkness over light. History bears witness to this phenomenon. The ancient world was filled with human sacrifice, conquests after conquest, ethnic bigotry, persecutions, tyrants, and class rule.

The Middle Ages brought revolutions, expansionism, the Crusades, warlords, religious persecution led by Christians, and wars fought for every reason known to humanity. The Enlightenment and modern world faired little better: the introduction of guns, slavery, the oppression of women, the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, two world wars, and the Atomic Bomb.

Just within a span of the last forty years we have seen two advocates for freedom and civil rights violently assassinated: Martin Luther King in Memphis and Harvey Milk in San Francisco. More recently, we have seen a young man horribly beaten and hung on a fence to die because he was gay and another tied to the back of a pickup truck, his body dragging along the road for miles because he was black; and let us not forget the evil of 9/11 and loss of innocent life.

Humankind has often loved darkness rather than light. Humankind has often chosen to live in the shadows. Let’s recognize that we moderns have not been particularly good at putting all that primitive sin of our ancient ancestors behind us. Like the Hebrews of old, we want free will on our own terms and are unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with it.

Noted author Scott Peck says that “The major threats to our survival no longer stem from nature without but from our own human nature within. It is our carelessness, our hostilities, our selfishness, and our pride that endanger the world.” And this week we sure got a glimpse of how true that is with news of the huge AIG executive bonuses—which as of this morning were fifty million more than previously reported.

G. K. Chesterton was asked by a British newspaper to contribute an essay on the subject, “What is Wrong with the World?” Chesterton sent back a two sentence essay: What is wrong with the world? Me.”  Unpopular a concept as it is today, sin is a reality that we must face—both the individual transgressions for which we are responsible, the things we do that hurt ourselves or others; and the broader, communal, even global wrongdoings and crimes that have and will continue to have huge consequences for the world.

Lent is like a big searchlight shining into our lives asking us to look at ourselves with careful self-examination and admit our part in the sin of the world that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken away. It is not an appealing exercise because it is not usually pretty and we don’t usually like what we find.

Frederick Buechner says it plainly: “If there is a terror about darkness because we cannot see, there is also a terror about light because we can see. There is a terror about light because much of what we see in the light about ourselves and our world we would rather not see, would rather not have be seen.”

Our weekly advert in yesterday’s Norwalk Hour posed a question and issued an invitation: “Looking for an escape from fear-based religion? Come, be our guest” If someone were to respond to that by coming here today, what would they make of the scriptures? What is the difference between fear-based religion and the kind of religion to which Jesus invites us?  Where will they find the good news here today? Where will you and I find it?

I believe that it is through the lens of the Gospel that we are given enough light to be able to see ourselves and our wrongdoings truthfully, but the consideration of our sinfulness always begins and is always bound to the One who comes to seek and to save, welcome us just as we are—warts and all— and to share meals with sinners. The new serpent in the wilderness with the power to save is Christ on the cross. When we gaze upon that icon, that new sign, we see the authentic face of God. The good news today is that God loves the world enormously and that God refuses to let our darkness overcome the light that shines through beams and rays of God’s abounding mercy and grace.

Theologian Paul Tillich preached a classic sermon that brings that truth to us in a rather profound way: “Grace strikes us,” said Tillich, “when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for any thing. Simply accept the fact that you…are…accepted!

In those blessed moments we experience grace—that gift given by a God who so very much loves the world and each of us. It may not make us better than we were before. It may not make us believe any more than before. But when it happens, we are somehow transformed, for we have been touched by a Love we cannot explain, or comprehend, or begin to rival.

Today, on this Refreshment Sunday, at the mid-point of Lent, we can take a deep breath and be assured that God sees us as we are, not as we ought to be; that we are loved in spite of everything we may hate about ourselves and in spite of the darkest of sins for which we have already been forgiven. That’s grace, otherwise known as God’s great “Nevertheless.”

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