In case you forgot it’s Lent, today’s readings of death and doom would remind you.
This past week I spent several hours with a woman and her family. The woman is dying. So the Psalm really hit me because it described so well her situation: “Some of you were sick because you’d lived a bad life, your bodies feeling the effects of your sin; you couldn’t stand the sight of food, so miserable you thought you’d be better off dead. Then you called out to God in your desperate condition; he got you out in the nick of time. He spoke the word that healed you, that pulled you back from the brink of death. So thank God for his marvelous love, for his miracle mercy to the children he loves; offer thanksgiving sacrifices, tell the world what he’s done-sing it out!” [Psalm 107, The Message/Remix Eugene H. Peterson]. The thing is this woman had died a few months ago and had been brought back and she was mad because she had gone somewhere without pain and it was beautiful like those green pastures in Psalm 23. No one is going to bring her back this time when she dies but it is a struggle for her whether to go or to hope that God will save her in the nick of time and cure her disease.
And, this is what today’s readings are about-Lent and how it reminds us that we can sit and stew about what we have done and what others have done that is wrong and be debilitated or, we can look up and reconnect with God and figure out how to go on from here. We can thank God for his marvelous love, for his miracle mercy. God really doesn’t care what we have done. The One is interested in what we are doing here and now.
The Israelites spent a lot of time complaining about food and living conditions. They questioned Moses’ leadership and whether God really had spoken to him or not. What about that pillar of fire at night? Oh well, things could be worse, they could be inundated with poisonous snakes and they could die. So, a copper snake on a pole-an odd choice for a god who didn’t like graven images. This whole story is odd. But, it is another illustration of people blaming someone else for their situation. God wanted them to realize they needed to trust Moses that God was directing his decisions. The people needed to understand that if life was hard living in the desert that it would be worse without God’s love and mercy. The people repented and they prayed and they apologized to Moses and to God. When they were bitten, they looked up to the snake on the pole and the venom was neutralized.
So, when Nicodemus asked Jesus what he meant by being born from above Jesus referred back to the brazen serpent on the pole. “Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up-and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.” [John 3, The Message, E. Peterson] Both the serpent on the pole and the risen Christ triumphant are symbols for us-something to see and believe. Then Jesus says to Nicodemus the famous line that we used to be reminded of at football games until the sports arena evangelist went to his reward: John 3:16. But, I always like to include the follow-up verse, too. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [NRSV]
Death and doom overcome by love, mercy and light. When I read The Message version of verses 19-21[John 3], it echoed through our current world situation. These are still Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
I talked to a group of priests last Monday and one of them commented that some of his parishioners are ashamed of themselves that they put their trust in accumulating money and focused so much time and energy into getting and then caring for things and financial security. Now that they no longer feel financially secure and the things they worked so hard to get seem to be a burden; they are ashamed for placing their relationship with God on the back burner or removing it from the stovetop entirely. They ran from the God-light to the darkness. And the darkness is this: relying on oneself for everything. When we think we can do things entirely on our own we sit in the dark-everyone else becomes the other, the competitor for goods, the enemy. Life is lived in scarcity: how much can I accumulate so I can be safe and secure? We are reminded once again as we have been reminded many times in the past, that this life is not secure. Death and doom. It’s Lent.
Maybe the whole world has entered a Lenten season of our own making-we ran from the God-light to the darkness. We saw a bright future and lovely things in that future and now we realize we were really sitting in darkness-a darkness of our own making. Because though we were striving for abundance, we were operating from scarcity. I need to accumulate so I am secure. And who was left out with nothing while we accumulated?
In the God-light we can see that there is abundance for all. We can see one another and understand that there is no other, no enemy. If the Israelites had looked under the God-light at their situation, they would have seen how great they had it. No Egyptian overlords telling them where to live and work, plenty of food for sustenance, fresh air, and living within God’s presence and will. But, they ran for the darkness-they complained that they weren’t wearing Gucci, that they weren’t drinking Perrier, and there was no sunscreen and no happy hour. But they were alive and they were free!
Nicodemus had questions about Jesus and what he stood for. He came in the dark of night to protect his status with the Sanhedrin. If Jesus really was a seditious rabble-rouser, Nicodemus was also protecting his very life. Nicodemus came at night-was he running from the God-light or was he running toward it? Jesus told him the internal life was what was important but the world was in crisis because people were running from God to darkness. The Spirit of God could form a person into a living spirit from within if only that person would stop running away from the God-light. The Son of Man would be lifted up like that old serpent so people could see and have something to believe in.
So what do I say to the woman who lies dying? In her pain she sometimes rambles from one thought to another. She said she had done a terrible thing and I told her God could forgive her for that. She said, “Yes, I know he forgives me.” “Do you want me to pray with you or for you?” “No,” she responds. I could tell her not to run from the light. She wants the pain to stop but she is afraid to die. I think each of us here can understand that-I have grandchildren. I still have things I want to do.
She is not alone and yet none of us who sit with her can go with her. Yet, I truly believe she is not alone there either. In her lovely green valley that she visited briefly last year, there was a woman-tall and blond whom she did not know and I believe she was there to greet her. My hope is that she can see this God-light and run toward it rather than continue to stay in the darkness where she is in pain.
I can do this: I can stroke her forehead which she likes and I can speak softly of God’s love for her and I can be there for her family. Yes, it is Lent but there is joy on the horizon-joy of the triumphant Christ. The joy of living in a new world where the grass is green and there are no other-only dear friends. AMEN.