March 11, 2018: Lent 4B (bilingual service)
Lent 4B: Number 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
Zion Lutheran Church, March 11th, 2018
Pastor Anke Deibler
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The children of Israel are still in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. This journey has been going on for a long while now, and like all children on long journeys, they are getting tired of it and bored and impatient and cranky. The litany of complaints begins: There is no water, and there is no food, and we hate this manna, and we feel like we’re dying out here. God, you are killing us!
Teenagers often sound like this. (We all have been teenagers at some point, so I am not singling anyone out here.) Mom, you are killing me! Dad, you are killing me! How do they arrive at this opinion? From being focused on themselves and only seeing what is not there.
When I was a teenager, I complained about all kinds of things: not having a bigger allowance, not having nicer vacations, not having fancier clothes. It was all about me and what I did not have. With that perspective, I totally overlooked what I did have: a loving, healthy family; a comfortable home; a good mind; friends; a healthy body; a decent amount of leisure time; endless possibilities for the future.
In my teenage mind, I did not count all these incredible gifts, but constantly pointed out to my parents what all I didn’t have. My dissatisfaction often erupted into accusations and rudeness and an ungratefulness I am now embarrassed about.
Do you remember ever behaving like this as a teenager? Most of us probably did. It’s rather normal when you are a teenager. But when you are an adult, it is not. That’s where Israel gets into trouble.
The people of Israel see only the things that are not there: water, variety of food, a certain comfort level. God, you are killing us! The people do not acknowledge what is there: freedom, guidance, hope, promise, leadership, daily bread, and a closeness to God they never had before. Seeing only what’s missing, they people get cranky and lash out in ungrateful complaints against God.
This time God has had it with this unruly, selfish bunch. God sends poisonous snakes into their midst. People get bitten and die. God never says a word; he just sends the snakes. Interestingly enough, the people know exactly where these snakes are coming from and why. Immediately, they turn to Moses and admit: “We have sinned against the Lord.” They also realize that their only hope for rescue comes from God, as well: “Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
God relents and tells Moses how to create an antidote for the snakes’ poison. Moses is to craft a bronze replica of a snake and set it on a staff and lift it up; whoever would look at that snake, would live.
This is what caught my attention in this story: In order for the people to find healing, they have to look at the bronze snake; they have to look at the result of their sins; they have to face what their own sin brought upon them. If they want to live, they have to focus on their sin and repent. Then God’s loving mercy saves them.
The same is happening in the gospel reading for today. Jesus picks up on the serpent story and compares it to himself being lifted up on the cross. Whoever looks at the cross with believing eyes, will find eternal life. We have to look at the cross. We have to look at the place where our savior died. And why did he die?
Because too many people saw only what was not there in the person of Jesus. He was not the super rabbi who fell in line with the religious establishment. He was not the glorious messiah who rallied the troops and threw out the Romans. He was not the miracle worker, contend to walk around healing people right and left but otherwise leaving them alone.
Never mind all that was present in Jesus: his love and his kingdom of heaven and his healing touch and his uplifting sermons and his connection to the Father and his forgiveness of sins. People didn’t see that; they saw only what was missing, and they got mad, and they crucified him.
God then used this terrible death of his Son for good: The cross became the tool for our salvation. God took Jesus’ death in place of the death we deserve for our sins. Jesus died so we could live and receive forgiveness and eternal life.
In order to receive those gifts, we have to look at the cross. In order to find new life in Christ, we have to face the cross and the guilt and shame it stands for. In order to find wholeness and healing in Christ, we need to admit that our ungratefulness helped put Jesus on that cross. We have to face our sins and repent and look toward the cross of Christ for salvation and mercy.
This is such an enormous truth: We can only find healing and wholeness when we face our sin squarely and repent of it and ask for forgiveness. We have to look at the snake. We have to look at the cross. In those symbols, we see what our sin has done to us and our world and our relationship with God. In those same symbols we also see what God has done for us and our salvation and our peace with God and all creation.
We need to face our sins in order to be free: one area where this truth is lived out, is in the Twelve Step Program, a program that helps addicts overcome their addictions. Step five asks addicts to repent of all the things they have done wrong as a result of their addiction. And step nine asks them to face the people they have hurt and ask for their forgiveness and make amends. The addicts are asked to look the result of their sins square in the eye and repent.
This is really hard. It takes tremendous courage and strength and faith to do this. But it is also the only way to gain wholeness and new life. New life begins when we look at our sins honestly and repent, and at the same time look towards Christ’s cross in faith, trusting that in him we find forgiveness and salvation.
This quest for new life through repentance and faith is exactly what Lent is about. Lent asks us to look truthfully at our sins and at the result of our sins. Where have we gone astray? Whom have we hurt? What have we done to harm creation? Where have we been ungrateful?
I don’t know what your poisonous snakes are; I just know that every person is under their attack. I urge you to look at them, honestly, truthfully, faithfully. Repent of them and vow to try and do better from now on. Find the strength to do this hard work in the mercy and love of God, who sent his Son, so that all who believe in him may eternal life.
We would be amiss, however, if we stopped here. The Lenten journey does go further. It starts with us facing our sins. It goes on with finding grace through faith in the cross of Christ. And then it extends into the mission of Christ in the world.
We are pondering the cross today. Look at the shape of the cross. So far, we have talked about the vertical beam: our relationship with God. When we repent of our sins and trust in God’s forgiveness, then our relationship with God is restored to wholeness.
Once we are reconciled with God like that, we have the faith and love of Christ to also be reconciled with our neighbors. That would be the horizontal beam of the cross. We stretch out our arms in love and serve God’s people and God’s world. We live out of God’s grace and forgiveness. We made amends. We forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.
We live our life under the sign of the cross. In baptism, God adopts us as his children and blesses us with the Holy Spirit. He will do that for Julian today, and we rejoice to be witnesses to this awesome event. Like we all were, so Julian will be marked with the sign of the cross forever. From now on the two directions of the cross’ beams will shape his life: His connection to God, and his call to love his neighbor in word and deed.
For the purpose of the cross is not just our own salvation, but also the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God. It’s not just about us; that would be the teenagers’ mindset we need to outgrow. This is about God and all people and all creation. We are saved for a purpose: to bring Christ’s love into the world through our words and our actions. We are invited to participate in God’s work, the work of making the kingdom of heaven become real. That is awesome in the truest sense of the word: both frightening and empowering.
During this season of Lent, let us ponder the cross. It calls us to repent, and it promises us grace and salvation. It reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that all who believe in him will have eternal life. Thanks be to God.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.