Fourth Sunday in Lent

An older tradition calls this Sunday in the middle of Lent “rejoice” Sunday. It is meant to interrupt the mood of Lent with the invitation to be joyful, to be content.


At first glance, this theme does not exactly seem congruent with our first lesson. The people of Israel are anything but joyful and content. On the contrary, they are chafed and frustrated. We have seen this before. After freeing them from their bondage to their Egyptian oppressors, God led the people into the desert. He promised to bring them to a broad and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, where he would give them rest. They had only to trust God and listen to his servant Moses. But this is the very thing the people refused to do. Instead of trust and obedience, the people responded with unbelief and repeated acts of rebellion. All this culminated in their refusal to enter into the land God had promised them.


For this refusal, God then marched them back into the desert, in which he sentenced them to wander another 38 years, until every last one of that rebellious generation died. In our lesson the children of that generation have come up, and they are once again close to their destination. To be more precise, they are on the third stage of the journey, the final leg from Kadesh to the plains of Moab. But they do not enter into the land by a direct route. Instead, they travel from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. It is yet another detour in a seemingly endless–and endlessly frustrating—journey. This proves too much for them. They cannot stand it any longer. They lose their patience.


When our load becomes too heavy to bear, when our stress becomes too great, when the difficulties we face continue to mount, and there is no end in sight, we too grow impatient. We reach our breaking point. But at that point we have to be careful or we will do something we will regret later. Often, we wrongly find in someone the cause for our misery. We lash out at the one closest to us and say that it is his fault that our life has gone so terribly wrong.


This is what the people of Israel did. They blame God and his servant Moses. To God they say: “You brought us out here to die in the desert!” But God rescued them from the Egyptians and promised to give them a land of their own. “There is no food and water!” But God faithfully provided for their daily needs, even giving them manna, which he spread out like a blanket on the desert floor each morning. Referring to the manna, the people complained: “we detest this miserable food!”


When we are going through hard times, we tend to curse our cruel fate. That is to say, we blame God. “God, why have you done this to me? Why have you made my life miserable?” But God is not against the people; he is for them. He does not want to harm them, but to bless them, to give them a future and a hope.


The people suffer the consequences of their distrust and rebellion. Fiery serpents appear among the people and begin to bite them. One Bible student explains that the term “fiery” refers to how the bite from a venomous snake feels. That is to say, the snakes that bite the people are poisonous.


Parenthetically, counselors and therapists tell us that we are to avoid toxic people. Toxic, defined in the dictionary, means poisonous. Poisonous people tend to spread their poison. When we allow them into our lives, their toxic behavior can poison us. We understand the wisdom in this counsel; we should certainly learn to recognize those people who can harm us, and limit, where we can, their influence in our lives.


But are we not all toxic, to a lesser or greater degree? The world around us tells us to look out only for ourselves. But our selfish impulses, our fears, our patterns of avoidance—there are so many ways we can harm others and break down community. It is good to identify toxic behavior in others and in ourselves. But it is even better to know the one who can draw out the poison and heal us, and then to help others to know this one, so they too can find hope for their own healing.


But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. A few moments ago, we asked why tradition has called this Sunday “rejoice” Sunday. Certainly, there has been nothing to rejoice over so far. But author Mary McGlone tells us that we remember Israel’s past only because God continually refuses to let it define our future. There is nothing that God’s people can do—that we can do—to spurn God’s love once and for all. God responds to our rejection of him with a counter offer of his love.


The people turn to Moses and ask him to pray for them. Have they come to a critical self-awareness of their tendency to rebel against God? Have they finally begun to learn from their past? Can we see in their action a sign of spiritual maturity? When we rebel against God, when we withdraw our trust in him, the best thing we can do is to turn again to him in prayer—or, if we cannot for ourselves, to ask another person we trust to pray for us. God responds graciously to Moses’ prayer for the people. He instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and place it on top of a pole. Those people who got bit by a serpent may look up at it and live.


In our gospel lesson, Jesus refers to this story when he speaks about his own crucifixion. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus says about himself, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. This is the first of three times he spoke of being lifted up in John’s Gospel (3:14, 8:28, 12:32). Here Jesus compares himself with a bronze snake from a strange story—a story about curing people who had been bitten by poisonous snakes. Let’s consider this parallel more closely.


It is significant that the very image of that which is poisoning the people provides the antidote. In the words of author Scott Hoezee, “God used a symbol of the very problem to be solved as the solution to the problem—snakebite victims had to stare at the image of a snake.” Here we are in the world of homeopathic medicine. Anti-venom is made by taking a small dose of a poisonous snake’s venom and injecting it in an animal. That animal then creates the anti-venom, which is drawn from it and administered to the person who has been bitten by the poisonous snake. If it is received in time, the person is cured. Just as our rebellion against God resulted in the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross, so also does our gazing at him there in obedience to God’s word result in our cure. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The word “saved” in the original language appears in first-century medical discourse. To save means to heal, to sew up a wound, to perform a surgery, to vaccinate against a contagious disease. So salvation is God’s act of giving up his only Son for us to heal us from the consequences of sin, to restore us to health after the harm we have done to ourselves and the harm done to us. 


We need this healing. People everywhere around us need this healing. Pain, abuse and other forms of violence are in the stories they tell about their past. Some turn to substances because of trauma and despair. Addictions to substances and compulsive behaviors can be attempts at self-medicating, at soothing the painful emotions. They do not understand that there is one who is willing and able to draw out the poison and heal them. Others suffer from a distorted self-image. They have a sense of low self-worth, which invariably drives their behavior along self-destructive paths. They do not understand that God takes great delight in them, loves them deeply, and paid a very great price for them in giving up his only Son. In this and this alone is the true measure of their self-worth. In this and this alone is found their deepest healing.  


Nowhere in the Bible is God’s love expressed so directly as in our lesson: 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 (John 3:16). The verse has been called the distillation of the gospel message. Not without reason, then, does one find it in dozens of the major languages of the world printed on the inside cover pages of the Gideon Bibles that one used to find in the drawer of the nightstands in hotel rooms across the country. When we look at the verse more closely, we note that God is the subject. That is to say, it does not tell us about what we have done, but about God, about what God has done. God loves, and because he loves, he gives, he sends.       


In this connection, author Vincent Brummer makes a helpful distinction in his book The Model of Love. He writes that love is not merely an attitude, but an action. I can have a loving attitude towards someone, but if I have not demonstrated my love through my actions, then I cannot say that my love for him or her is true. People say: “God loves you.” But this is a saying that is without content if it refers only to a supposed attitude God may have towards us. But God has acted. God has given for us what is most precious to him, the gift of his only Son. This is how much God loved the world: God has sent into the world his only Son that the world might be healed through him.


God loves us beyond all understanding. He treasures us so much that he wants us to be with him. The proof of this is that through his Son he heals us and makes us to share in his very life.


The light of this gospel shines in a dark world. John likes the play of contrasts. He is also fond of irony. The cross is an instrument of pain, torture and death. The gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus was crucified, darkness came over the land at noon and lasted three hours. But in the cross, we see God’s light overcoming darkness and anything that seeks our destruction. The cross is the sign of defeat. But in the cross we see the triumph of God’s love over the consequences of sin. Nonetheless, wherever and whenever this gospel is proclaimed, it issues in judgment (John 3:19). Actually, this word is somewhat misleading. Although our version reads “judgment” the word is better translated as “crisis.” Those who are brought to a crisis have come to a point at which they have to make a decision. If they make the decision to stay in the darkness, and refuse to come into the light of the gospel, it is they who bring themselves into judgment, not God. They are self-condemned. It was a dark world then, and it is a dark world now. We are not naïve. Evil will shun the light, and those who practice it will not come into the light so that they can keep their behavior secret.


All this is true. But the gospel to be proclaimed and lived in every time and place is one of life and light and truth. It is not the job of those who believe in it to condemn those who do not accept it, but rather to be so confident of its power that they believe that the darkness will not in the end overcome it.


Now we are at place where we can understand why tradition has called this Sunday in the middle of Lent “rejoice” Sunday. The good news about God’s Son who was lifted up on a cross to die that we may have eternal life—this good news that we have to proclaim and teach and live is the source of our joy and contentment. Amen.


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