(B) Numbers 21: 4-9; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21
Grace and peace on this Midlent Sunday, half-way through the season, traditionally named “Laetare,” from what was the choral introit for this Sunday in the old Tridentine Mass ordinary, “Laetare Ierusalem,” the text from Isaiah 66: 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 . . .
Traditionally a day where some of the austerities of our Lenten disciplines would be relaxed. In some places the Lenten array on the altar replaced with Rose paraments.
Not anything like the full-blown celebration of Easter, of course, but something of a pause for refreshment, as we gather ourselves for the final distance in the weeks ahead. “Refreshment Sunday” another traditional name for the day, with the theme picked up and echoed in the collect that reflects the wonderful saying in John 6, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. In England an early spring Sunday when servants in Downtown Abbey great homes would be given the afternoon off to visit their families. "Mothering Sunday," the ancestor of our Mother's Day.
And so, a day we might say to enjoy that Girl Scout cookie at coffee hour with a smile!
A moment to come up for air in the midst of a long underwater swim, if we might think of Lent that way. To take a deep breath. To catch a glimpse of the far shore, the destination. A long swim still ahead, Passion and Holy Week, Good Friday and the Cross and the dark tomb. But a glimpse of Sunday morning and Easter. Already coming into view.
Jesus and Nicodemus, and the heart of their conversation. The old Jewish official sneaks out under the cover of night to meet the rabbi from the Galilee that everyone is talking about. And we remember the story. Nicodemus asks Jesus what he’s about, what his special teaching is. And Jesus says, “verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused and says “I don’t know how to do that. How to be born again.” And Jesus says, “That’s right. You don’t know how. You can’t do it. This is only something that God can do. Something only God can make happen. And most surprisingly, that God is doing right here and right now. Something happening before your very eyes.” And then as near as we can get to the whole gospel in one sentence.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
A few years ago in the Lenten Preaching Series I had the opportunity to preach on this text from Numbers on a Tuesday evening over at Redeemer Church. I picked up a few rubber/plastic snakes at the toy store for fun, and I remember I made a joke at the beginning about a movie that had just been released then. Samuel L. Jackson, I think. “Snakes on a Plane.” As I said then, you don’t need any more explanation. A plot summary is unnecessary. All you need to know. You’re on this plane. And there are snakes.
There is this primeval shiver. All the way back through our ancestral data base, deep in our DNA. The ancient curse in the Garden, Genesis chapter 2. The sickness in us from the beginning. Turns out that Snakes on a Plane is the story of our lives. Our darkness, our brokenness. The poison that infects us, that overpowers us, cripples us, kills us.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “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.”
This is a deep refreshment, that we are invited to share this morning. Light dispelling the darkness. Healing. Forgiveness. A fresh start. A new birth. From the Spirit of God, from above. The Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. True refreshment.
Which is the goal of our Lent. The long swim underwater. Fasting, self-denial, prayer, reading his Word. That in all this we would draw closer to him. Discovering and renewing our commitment to him. To hear him. To trust him. To receive the gift of love that he gives us at the Cross. To live with him and for him now and always.
So Paul in Ephesians opens this for us: “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 grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Who Jesus is, and the mystery of the Cross: the riches of his grace; his kindness toward us. Let us be refreshed in this, in him, this morning, as we come to the table and as we go out into the world. 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 . . . .