John 3: 14-21
Good Morning. Fourth Sunday in Lent, with the traditional name Laetare to connect to the first words in the old Latin Mass Introit for this day, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah. Laetare ierusalem. In some Anglo-Catholic parishes the paraments change from purple to Rose, or as a Facebook Friend wrote the other day, a “hot pink” Sunday in the middle of Lent. A day when we are allowed and even encouraged to relax our Lenten disciplines. (I mean, not to go crazy—but if you’ve been off chocolate for Lent, feel free to have a Thin Mint or two at Coffee Hour this morning!) The Latin Laetare an imperative usually translated “rejoice.” Echoing choirs singing over the centuries, to lift the hearts of God’s Chosen People as they stand up straight and begin to recover as the heavy weight of their exile begins to be lifted from their shoulders: Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . . The Lenten journey toward Good Friday would seem to be a “way of sorrow.” But something like the assurance of the 23rd Psalm for Christian people never goes away. We are never truly far from Easter. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. At the end of the Burial Office we say, “even at the grave we make our song.” So on this 4th Sunday-- even in exile, even at the grave--in deepest Lent we make our song, Rejoice, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem the Golden. The earthly city, above which our Lord and Savior is about to be lifted up and glorified, the heavenly city where he rules, in which there is no pain or grief, but life eternal.
Just right as background music for our readings this morning. The heavenly choir singing in the distance—Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Something like that. See what the Lord has done for me, for us. And the purpose I think of these three readings from John’s gospel in the three middle weeks of Lent to prepare us for Good Friday and Easter. To refresh in us, to help us see and know and feel again just what it means, that Jesus has saved us on the Cross—the Atonement--to understand how that empty tomb is a sign of his victory for us, that he has defeated our enemy, the Last Enemy.
Last week we read in John 2--Jesus in his death and resurrection establishing with his New Body a new Temple and a perfect sacrifice. Next week in John 12 we will hear Jesus as he turns to the last leg of his journey to old Jerusalem share a vision of his own death and resurrection as the foundation again in his Resurrection Body of the Heavenly City, New Jerusalem. And today on the Mid-Lent Sunday we are invited to lift our eyes up from all the busyness and distractions of our lives and to look at him, really to look at him, as he is lifted up on the Cross, the One who is the only Medicine and perfect cure for the poison of sin that would sicken us and lead us down into an eternal death. Jesus on the Cross: in every way the author and the only author of our healing.
At the beginning of Chapter 3 just before our reading today Nicodemus is very curious about this Jesus—so much so that he isn’t content simply to read reports or to hear what others are saying about him. He needs to find out for himself, in person. Nicodemus comes in the dark of night and asks, “what kind of program are you selling, Jesus? What are you really about? What are you trying to accomplish? And Jesus replies, “well, Nicodemus, it’s actually pretty straightforward: I’m talking about a total and thoroughgoing transformation of who you are, of your identity, your character, your person. It’s all about you becoming a new creation. About you being reborn completely in and through God’s Holy Spirit.” Nicodemus is taken aback. “I’m too old for that. How can a man be born again? A new religious reform program, maybe I could get behind that. A new political party, a revised social agenda—no problem. But a whole new identity? Comprehensive, head-to-toe personal transformation? That’s just over the top, too much for an old man like me. My life is too settled, I have too much invested in things as they are.
But Jesus says, “don’t worry, Nicodemus. The Spirit is going to take care of all this for you, God’s got this all worked out, and you won’t have to lift a finger. This is a hint of what Christians will come to know as the doctrine of grace. God so loved the world that while we were entirely and irrevocably lost in our sin, while we were unable to do anything at all, he gave his only Son.
And that gets us into our reading this morning as we might picture Nicodemus just stuck there on overload, trying to take it all in. And then Jesus reminds him of this story from the Book of Numbers. A defining episode in the sacred account, when terror and death had entered the Hebrew camp out there in the Wilderness in the form of all those poisonous snakes. (When I preached on the text from Numbers a few years ago at the Church of the Redeemer during the Lenten midweek series I brought in a handful of plastic snakes that I had picked up at a toy store, and I talked about a movie that had just been released. Maybe you remember, “Snakes on a Plane.” A feeble attempt to come into the reading sidewise with a smile, but at the same time we know that these snakes are no laughing matter, no joke. Each one of directly descended from the Serpent in the Garden, the one who sank his fangs into Adam and Eve so long ago and hasn’t let go yet-- infecting them and their descendants with the dark poison of sin and death.) So the people out in the desert of the Sinai are dying everywhere , and everybody turns to Moses. With agitation, frustration, fear, anger. What are you going to do about this, Moses? You led us out here. You’re in charge. Fix it! Fix us! Make it right! Find some antidote, some potion, some herbal cure or surgical intervention. Do Something! But Moses is helpless. Sort of like how Nicodemus felt, I guess. They are all helpless. We are all of us helpless as this deadly venom courses through our veins. There is no antidote, no potion, no cure. No wellness program, surgery, fitness regime. But then God speaks to Moses and says-- you don’t need to solve this problem. The Serpent is my department, and I will take care of him. You lift up that bronze image of a dead and defeated Serpent, Moses, in obedience to me, lift it up high, as a sign of my presence, as a sign of my Victory, my promise first to your ancestors and now to you, exiles from the garden, descendants of the First Parents, the taste of that Apple still in your mouth, lift up that brazen serpent--and those who in turn will lift up their heads and look upon it—they, then, I will restore to health. To be saved not by their efforts, but by me. By Amazing Grace alone. Just let them know, look to me, and live. Talk about Old Testament foreshadowing. The Passion Gospel in the Wilderness.
The Old Testament story of course is familiar to Nicodemus. One of those parts of the Wilderness story that shaped the identity and self-understanding of God’s Chosen People. And the verse that opens our reading this morning and makes the connection to our Lenten journey and reflection on the Cross, as we see this powerful anticipation. Jesus to Nicodemus: “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.”
That’s where the poison of sin will be rendered powerless. That’s where new birth and new life begin. When we look up and see him there. Good Friday. And as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him—whoever believes in him--may have eternal life.” Healing. From death to life. From old creation to new creation.
If dying from a poisonous snake bite in the wilderness sounds like it might be a good metaphor for where we are in our lives this Lent of 2018. If we’ve finally drilled down deep enough until we’ve hit something that our money and retail therapy and education and political candidates and the latest technology and social skills and every other resource we know about to try to fix our problems can’t seem to help us with, the big questions, the biggest questions, the ones that don’t go away when we close our eyes and count to ten--then this word of Jesus to Nicodemus is for us. Not to be looking in the wrong places of the world for the answers and solutions and cures and promises that the world cannot give. But to look to him. Jesus on Good Friday. How the Easter hymn goes: Death is conquered, we are free, Christ has won the victory.
The Cross as the Medicine of the World, the healing of the Nations. And our healing. God so loved the world. Every snakebit one of us—the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve since the beginning of the world. Fourth Sunday in Lent. Look here, look to Jesus, put your faith in him, and be made well. Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be filled.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.