If we will look

File:Staff at Sunset.jpgWatching for the Morning of March 11, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Bitter, poisonous talk leads to venomous serpents in the first reading on Sunday. Israel is in the wilderness, having failed to trust God to give them the land of Canaan (when the spies came back saying giants inhabited the land and the people lost confidence in God’s ability to fulfill God’s promise). Now they are marching back they way they’ve come toward Egypt in order to travel up the inland road. They have been condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years. Bitterness breaks out, and the consequence of their venomous talk is venomous snakes. But God provides a way to be healed – by turning their eyes to a bronze image of a serpent impaled(?) on a pole. It will become an image of Christ impaled on the cross, and the promise that in looking to him we will be healed.

We are learning something of the consequences of venomous talk in our country. Bitter unrest abounds. Hateful speech. Unfriendly news is called “fake.” Lies abound. Facts are denied, ignored and invented. Goodness and life seem far away. Where is the sign from God to which we may turn our hearts and find healing?

The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance: “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” “They cried to the LORD in their trouble,” and God “sent out his word and healed them.”

The author of Ephesians will say we were dead through the trespasses and sins,” living “in the passions of our flesh.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

And then we will hear Jesus speaking to Nicodemus that “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.” Those who look to the crucified one, who put their trust in and show fidelity to Christ Jesus, will possess even now the life of the age to come.

There is healing for us. If we will turn and look. If we will put our trust not in power and might, but in sacrificial love. It is there to see on the cross. If we will look.

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the sermons so far in the series.

The Prayer for March 11, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Merciful,
source of all healing and life,
in love you sent your Son into the world,
not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Draw us to the light of your Son, Jesus,
that we may ever be found in you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 11, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStaff_at_Sunset.jpg By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Haunted

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“Christ and Nicodemus”

Saturday

John 3:1-17

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

The skeptical can look at the reported wonders wrought by Jesus and dismiss them easily enough. It is not possible to walk on water. The dead girl was just in a coma. The generosity of the boy with five loaves and two fish made all the rest of the crowd bring out their hidden lunch. It is possible to dismiss them all. But these reported deeds of Jesus are haunting. Here is a man who, for whatever reason, brings healing. Here is a man where sinners are forgiven, outcasts gathered in, the sick restored to their families, the human community restored. Here is a man untouched by the storms of life – who drives out those storms from the troubled. Here is a man who is reported to have forgiven even the foreign soldiers who tortured him to death. The stories haunt us. Even the most skeptical must admit that there was something there or such stories would never have been told.

The stories haunt Nicodemus, too. There is something of the presence of God in this Jesus or he could not do such signs. But this Jesus is so different than anything Nicodemus would have expected of a man of God. He is haunted by Jesus. Drawn to him, but confused. He hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t understand them.

Nicodemus is a moth to the flame. This Jesus is dangerous to him. He excites his imagination, but threatens his understanding of the order of the world. Nicodemus is a member of the ruling council. He is charged with a tradition about sacrifice and purity. He guards the temple, as it were. But here before him is this wondrous loose cannon who talks of a birth from above and a world reborn, who talks of the wind of the Spirit, of a new and better wine, of living water and a bread of life – who talks of the life of the age to come as if it were a present reality.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” Jesus haunts him. So Nicodemus will find himself trying to defend this Jesus when the plot is afoot to wipe him from the face of the earth. And Nicodemus will find himself carrying spices fit a king to give this Jesus an honorable burial.

Jesus haunts him. And he should haunt us, too, for there is something wondrous at work here, something that proclaims a profound and imperishable grace and truth and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%22Christ_and_Nicodemus%22_-_NARA_-_559136.jpg By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The promised blessing

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Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Majesty and Mystery

Watching for the Morning of May 31, 2015

Year B

Holy Trinity

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Hildegard of Bingen, Miniature of the Holy Trinity

We come this Sunday to the day known as Holy Trinity, and every pastor thinks he or she must try to explain the doctrine of the trinity and will likely use some frail and heretical illustration like ice, steam and liquid water, or the person who is a Father, a son, and a husband. The trinity is a doctrine over which the church fought for hundreds of years and is fighting still, but Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine – it is about the God who has revealed himself by the name, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” declares the risen Lord, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Among all the gods of the ancient world – and all the gods of the modern world – only one is known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and that is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and Sinai, the God of justice and mercy, the God of David and the prophets, the God of the exile and return, the God of creation and new creation, the God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth, the God who suffered and died and rose, the God who is present in and among us by his Holy Spirit, the sign and seal of the age to come.

“Father, Son and Holy Spirit” identifies the God of whom we speak as this God – not a god of prosperity, not a God of power, not the rain god Ba’al, or any of the gods and goddesses of fertility, not the gods of power and conquest, but the one God, the true God, the God of the cross and resurrection, the God of reconciliation and New Life.

The doctrine of the Trinity is important. Very important. But it is important only because it protects the identity of the God of whom we speak and to whom we pray as this God no other.

So Sunday we come together in awe and wonder and fear and praise to sing of this God and to hear the word of this God, the one we acclaim and confess as earth’s true Lord.

The Prayer for May 31, 2015

One God, Holy and Eternal,
before whom all heaven sings,
and to whom belong the praises of all the earth;
you have made yourself known by the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let your Word shake the wilderness,
bringing new birth to all creation
and gathering all things into your eternal song;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 31, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” – When an earthquake shakes the temple, Isaiah (a priest) has a vision of God on his throne and is called to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”
– The psalmist uses the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm arising off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing over the Lebanese mountains to describe the majestic power of God’s voice/word.

Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-13 (added by our parish to worship this Sunday)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Following the stunning showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, the queen is unimpressed and vows to slay Elijah. He flees to Sinai where God encounters him, not in the power of wind, earthquake or fire, but in a silent stillness.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17
“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”
– In this climactic chapter of Paul’s letter laying out his preaching and teaching we come to the central proclamation that we are no longer bound to our humanity in its fallenness, but bound to the Spirit of God, adopted as sons and daughters, heirs of all the gifts and bounty of God – heirs of the dawning reign of God.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night trying to understand this strange yet wondrous prophet. Jesus speaks to him about being born ‘from above’, but Nicodemus misunderstands and cannot understand how it is possible to be born ‘again’.

 

Photocredit: By The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fullness of joy

Sunday Evening

John 17:6-19

File:Flickr - don macauley - Happy woman.jpg13I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.

This phrase about joy being fulfilled also occurs towards the beginning of John’s Gospel, when some of the disciples of John the Baptist come with a question about Jesus. “The one who was with you,” they said, was now baptizing and all are going to him.” John’s answer to this perceived rival is, He who has the bride is the bridegroom.” Jesus is the bridegroom who has come claim his bride.

Then John adds: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.”

I love this phrase, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom.” It captures the relationship between Jesus and the world as a bridegroom claiming his bride with all the transcendent joy such occasions elicit. The moment a bride comes down the aisle is magical. She is radiant with beauty. The whole community is captivated. All the stress of the wedding, all the anxieties, all the family drama is forgotten.   In that moment the world seems perfect. All our dreams for a world wrapped in love seem realized.

We all know better, of course. Life is hard. People are complicated. Relationships are complicated. The magic escapes us. But for a moment the ideal becomes real. The perfect is present. Perfect love. Perfect joy. It renews hope. It renews our vision of what could be, what should be. Such a moment must go from prayer to song to feasting to dancing.

“He who has the bride is the bridegroom.”

John is not bothered in any way that the crowds have turned toward Jesus. God has come to claim his world. Perfect love, true union, the eternal feast, the song without end, is present. John is the friend of the bridegroom whose joy is fulfilled.

And now, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus speaks about joy fulfilled – only now it is the bridegroom’s joy made perfect. The bridegroom’s joy is fulfilled in his followers. In us.

In chapter 15, when Jesus spoke about the vine abiding in the branches, he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John uses the same Greek word in all of these places. Joy is fulfilled, as scripture is fulfilled, as the house was filled with the scent of the perfume when Mary anointed Jesus. Though their hearts are filled with sadness at the prospect of Jesus’ departure, they will be filled with joy. You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy… I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

Joy is fulfilled, made complete, brought to its true end, filled to the brim like water jars at a wedding turned to the finest wine – Joy is brought to fullness in the resurrection of Jesus, in the eternal relationship of abiding in God and God abiding in us.

So when Jesus says in this prayer, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves,” he is setting loose in the world his words, his teaching, his command to love, his deeds, his Spirit, his abundant and eternal life, his healing, his opening of eyes and hearts, his birthing from above, his resurrection – he is setting it all lose in the world that his joy and ours will come to complete fulfillment. He has come to claim his bride, to claim his world, to claim our hearts and lives, to bring to fulfillment his joy in us.

We can never let go of this fundamental truth. We must hold on to it as tenaciously as a dog to his bone. It is the essential heart of Christianity: the word and work of Jesus – he who is the embodiment of all God’s word since God first spoke light into the darkness – is to bring us and all things into the fullness of perfect joy.

 

Photo: By Donald Macauley (Flickr: IMG_8119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

God loved the world in this way

Saturday

John 3:7-21

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Interior of the Church of the Light, designed by Tadao Ando, in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture.

16 “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.

I can’t think of any other Biblical reference that is held up as a sign at a football game. It is recognized as a simple, concise summary of the Christian message. God, love, Jesus, eternal life – it’s all there. But something of the power and glory of this verse is lost when it gets separated from the rest of John’s Gospel.

First, we should note that there tends to be a grammatical misunderstanding in the way we hear this verse. It doesn’t say God loved the world ‘so much’, but God loved the world ‘in this way’. The manner in which God shows his fidelity to the world is in giving his Son.

But does the word ‘give’ mean offer him up on the cross as a redeeming sacrifice? or does it mean sending him from above to grant us new birth ‘from above’? These are not entirely separate ideas, but the accent is very different. A sacrificial lamb may carry off my sins, but it doesn’t abide in me and I in it. I am still very much a child of the earth not a child of the heavens. Water is not turned into wine. Eyes are not given new sight. I am not reborn as a citizen of heaven.

This Jesus is not a mere sacrifice that happens out there on Golgotha to change God’s attitude to me or the debt I owe; he is the light shining in the darkness that illumines and transforms the human heart, my heart.

God loved the world in this way: he brought us light and new birth. He brought us the breath of God. He brought us the imperishable life of God. In his Gospel, John piles up the metaphors for us: bread of life, living water, light of the world, gate of the sheep, the way, truth and life – all pointing not to an objective act of sacrifice on our behalf (with a promise of life after we die), but a new and transformed existence as members of heaven’s household now.

God loved the world in this way: he sent the incarnate word to abide in me and I in him.

And we haven’t yet come to the truly surprising element in this simple little verse: God did this for the world. We take this for granted, that God’s love is for everyone. ‘The world’ just means ‘everyone’ to our ears. But this word, ‘the world’, in John’s Gospel is not morally neutral. The world does not know this word from above (1:10). It hates him (7:7). Its deeds are evil (7:7). It doesn’t know the father (17:25). It cannot receive the Spirit of truth (14:17). It rejoices when Jesus is killed (16:20). And yet, it is for the sake of this world that Jesus comes and that the believers are sent.

God loves a hostile and rebellious world, God shows fidelity to this hostile and rebellious world, and shows it by sending Jesus as light into the darkness.

God shows fidelity to the Oklahoma SAE chanting racist chants by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the Syrian regime dropping barrel bombs on its people by sending his son. God shows fidelity to a world largely ignoring the Syrian refugees by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the drug gangs in Central America by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the privileged elite protecting their wealth by sending his son. God shows fidelity to every torn and tormented home by sending his son who is the voice of heaven and the light of Grace and the possibility of new birth. God shows his fidelity to every grieving heart by sending his son who is the life of the age to come. God shows his faithfulness, his allegiance to us, his passion for the world, his love, in this way – a man who is the embodiment of the face of God, who is the path to life, who is the resurrection.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like enough. But what if those students could have seen at the front of their bus an African American with arms outstretched, covered with the spittle of their hate, yet radiant with light and truth and love? Do we not, at some point, begin to regret the hammer and nails in our hands?  How many does it take on that bus, how many must begin to see, before the song loses its voice?

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life. But he is more. He is the good shepherd who calls us by name and leads us out to good pasture. He is the gate that leads us into life. He is the vine to us, the branches, who through us bears much fruit.

God loved the broken and rebellious world in this way: he sent a son to bring us birth from above and make us children of heaven, sons and daughters of God.

 

By taken by Bergmann (ja:Image:Ibaraki_Kasugaoka_Church_Light_Cross.JPG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

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Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For a world in rebellion

Watching for the Morning of March 15, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

File:Klu Klux Klan1922.jpgThe term ‘world’ is not morally neutral in John’s gospel. The world is the Judean society that has refused the invitation to be born from above. It is ‘the world’ that cannot see and denies what the blind man now sees. It is ‘the world’ that has decided that anyone who confesses Jesus is to be put out of the synagogue. It is ‘the world’ that ‘hates’, that shows no allegiance to, Jesus or to his followers. It is ‘the world’ that did not receive the Word made flesh, the true light that the darkness cannot extinguish. And yet, it is because God loved this rebellious world that he provided his only-begotten. Because of God’s steadfast love, his faithfulness to his promise, the Word came down from heaven that we might be born of heaven.

The author of Ephesians recognizes this. We were dead in our trespasses but have been made alive in Christ. We were following the powers of this age, we were driven by our passions, we were inheritors of wrath – but now, now God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ.

The people of Israel in the wilderness were in open rebellion from God – refusing to take the land (there are giants there!) and then, when they hear that message about forty years, they rebel again and try to take the land without God. Beaten down they are headed back towards the Red Sea, mouths full of bitter, poisonous words. And then there are poisonous snakes. But God in his mercy offers them healing – if they will trust and obey. God in his mercy delivers them, as he delivered the sick in our psalm.

Faithful to a world in rebellion. Merciful to a world without mercy. Light for a world in darkness. Love for a world enmeshed in hate and hardness of heart. Jesus didn’t come to judge – we are already in the realm of wrath. Jesus came to heal, to save, to grant us birth from above.

For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran church, and for sermons and other information on Lent see our Lent site.

Our theme this Lent is Renewal, and for Lent 4: Renewing Communities of Faith

 

The Prayer for March 15, 2015

In the lifting up of your Son, O God,
you revealed your glory
to bring your imperishable life to all.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our communities of faith
that, rooted in Christ, our trust in you may be deepened,
and we prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for March 15, 2015

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.

 

Photo: By National Photo Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not to condemn

Saturday

John 3

Ryssby Church outside Longmont, Colorado.  Photocredit: dkbonde

Ryssby Church outside Longmont, Colorado. Photocredit: dkbonde

17 “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There are plenty of words of judgment in the scriptures, and images such as the Son of Man sorting the nations like sheep from the goats. The visions of the Revelation to John are graphic – horrific if taken literally – and Jesus refers to the image of the Valley of Hinnom (transcribed into Greek from the Aramiac as Gehenna) where children were sacrificed in fire until desecrated by Josiah as a metaphor for the abode of the wicked.

Such words and images easily get us in trouble, especially if we transform the faith into a system of morality – then the good and law abiding inherit bliss and the lawbreakers inherit weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But Christian faith is not about a new system of morality; it is about the dawning of God’s reign, the healing of creation, the rebirth of the human heart.

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God’s purpose is not to rescue the good and punish the wicked. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It’s hard for us to fully understand, because we want to judge. We want there to be consequences for those who beat wives or husbands or children. We want there to be consequences for those who conceive of death camps and death marches. When we imagine setting things right, we think of making the wicked pay for their sins.

And we think there must be a limit to grace. Dante placed Judas, Cassius and Brutus in the center of hell. We would probably add Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden – since we have seen deeds far worse than betrayal. It is hard for us to truly consider the possibility that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

So we turn this idea that Christ has come to save into an entrance requirement – only the saved get saved. Or we change this into a divine possibility: everyone could be saved but not everyone will choose to be saved. But that’s not what the text says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Our problem is we keep thinking about each of us individually when God is thinking about all of us together. We wonder who has a ticket on the train to the next life when God is talking about healing this life, this world, this creation: swords beaten into plowshares, bread shared, sins forgiven, tears wiped away, lives made whole, a world made whole. The Biblical images are things like a feast on Mt. Zion, a city of joy, or a new and glorious city on earth.

On this strange and wondrous word we take our stand; in this message we trust and sing; and from this gospel we live our lives: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Around Edom

Wednesday

Numbers 21

https://i1.wp.com/www.asergeev.com/pictures/archives/2001/240/jpeg/06.jpg

View of Eilat and Edom Mountains. Photo by Alexey Sergeev

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

Most of us just skip over place names when reading in scripture. They do not ring any bells for us. They are just strange places far away. But this simple reference to Israel’s journey around Edom is poignant. Edom blocks their way into the land of Canaan. Edom, the land of Esau, the brother from whom Jacob stole the blessing. It occupies the region south and east of the Dead Sea and they will not let the descendants of Jacob pass through. The only way to go around is to go back toward the Red Sea and then far out into the desert.

There had been another choice, of course – to go straight up through the Negev into the southern hill country. But before venturing into the promised land, they sent in spies who came back with stories of giants – powerful enemies born of the gods. All the spies except Joshua said they would never be able to overcome them, and the people refused to go forward along the path God set before them.

So although they stand at the edge of the promised land, they must now go back – back towards the Red Sea – and start over. A longer journey. A journey in which the faithless generation must die off before a new generation rises up to take possession of God’s rich promises. Forty years in the wilderness.

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

They’ve been on the road a long time, and now they are headed back the way they came. And so comes the grumbling, the murmuring, the poisonous speech against God, blaming God for their troubles. Blaming Moses. Remembering as rich and abundant their lives in the land that had kept them in bondage and sought to destroy their sons. Faithless, bitter speech that corrodes a community. Toxic speech full of death and not life. The bread of heaven has become tasteless in their mouths: “we detest this miserable food.”

Their poisonous speech comes back upon them in the form of poisonous snakes.

And what shall save them? What shall save this people who did not trust that the God who defeated pharaoh’s army and parted the sea could fulfill his promise of the land?

Once more they are asked to trust a promise. They are asked to turn their eyes to an image of their bitter poison and see there the healing work of God. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

And so we are invited to turn our eyes to the bitter fruit of our human violence and see in the cross the healing work of God who bears upon himself the sins of the world. To see there a God who does not respond to violence with violence, who does not answer hate with hate. To see there the God who chooses forgiveness and suffering love. To see and to trust this God to make us whole.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.