The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
The Fourth Sunday in Lent is theological treasure trove, where the preacher can discover some of the best and worst of Jewish and Christian images of God. All in all, the passages from today’s readings, even those surrounding the hallmark of Christian evangelism, John 3:16, present ambiguous and problematic as well as hopeful and inspiring portrayals of divine intentionality and activity in relationship to human life.
The passages beg the questions: Is God so petty as to send deadly snakes in response to the Israelites’ impatience? Can we truly love or trust a god who gives us an antidote to an intentionally-caused divine disease and still leaves the threat in our midst? For all the wonder of John 3:16, what is the criteria for belief and unbelief, or trust and mistrust, in God’s only begotten son? Does the passage exclude non-Christians, however spiritual and ethical they may be, and people who as a result of childhood issues or experiences of sickness and evil, have “trust issues” in relationship to God and others?
If the congregation is to hear morally and theologically ambiguous passages read in church, the pastor has an obligation to interpret these challenging passages in ways that are life-transforming and theologically meaningful. Homiletical thoroughness, even when it appears to diverge from the main point of the pastor’s sermon, requires that we spend at least a portion of our sermons dealing with such problematic passages. Theology and preaching must take seriously the Hippocratic Oath – “first, do no harm” – as well as providing affirmative theological guidance, pastoral care, and missional challenge.
If you include Exodus 21:4-9 in the readings of the day, you must explicitly ask the questions, Does God kill people? Does God send crises to you in response to complaining? This is a curious and unresolved passage about a death-dealing god. Israelite impatience is punished by death; complaining about food is also punished by death. If we followed this practice in human life, few children would survive toddlerhood and virtually none their teenage years! The punishment meted out by this brittle, easily offended god, far outweighs the crime. Of course, there are Christians who still believe that any questioning of God or religious authorities is a capital offense, but such theological imperialism and violence is more detrimental than helpful to the message of Jesus. As Charles Hartshorne once noted, some people excuse behaviors in God that would lead to imprisonment if performed by human parents.
Further, while the people can take solace in God’s antidote – a snake on a staff – the passage notes that God does not withdraw the snakes. As scripture says, “whenever a snake bit someone…” Such a god can be implicated in cancer, auto accidents, AIDS, and other life-threatening events. There is the threat that God will send plague and poison. As a matter of fact, God is always threatening us: complain and you will be rewarded by a snake bite! Even if God provides an antidote, this is still a horrible – and legally indictable – form of parenting.
Ephesians 2 presents Pauline and later Lutheran vision of grace: we are lost, children of wrath, spiritually dead, but God in Christ resurrects our spirits and restores to spiritual health. It is all grace. Now grace doesn’t mean passivity, or accepting forgiveness without repentance. While God’s grace is global and does not require our efforts, the shape of God’s grace is conditioned by our responses. This is where faith comes in: faith is the creative response to God’s grace, enabling us to be companions in sharing the gospel. Grace grows exponentially with human responsiveness. Faith opens us not only to trust God but to experience and respond to God’s presence universally and intimately. Grace calls us to be graceful – we are blessed to be a blessing, little Christs who mediate the grace we have received to others, thus expanding the circles of grace and enabling the shapes of grace to unfold in more effective and energetic ways.
I believe that a relational, rather than unilateral reading of this passage, suggests that we are not passive, nor does God want to hold onto all the power in the processes of salvation and healing. Our openness to faith creates a life-transforming synergy for ourselves and the planet. Today, receiving grace involves a commitment to greater and more intentional care for our families in their complexities, involvement in the politics of our communities and the nation, and in Earth-keeping.
Psalm 107 continues the lectionary’s portrayal of divine ambivalence. God has done great things, gathering people from all nations. Yet, some have become sick because of their sinful ways. The Psalmist leaves it an open question: Is their sickness divine punishment or withdrawal? Is their sickness caused by their behaviors which lead to disease – for example diet, lifestyle, substance abuse, spiritual bankruptcy? At the very least, this passage invites us to meditate upon the relationship, if any, of sin and sickness. Surely, we all know many “sinners” who die in their sleep after a long and affluent life, and “saints” who die painful deaths, leaving spouse and children, at a young age.
No words have been more provocative in Christian missions than John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God is on our side and provides a way to healing and salvation. We are, once again, not passive in this graceful process, we are challenged to “believe in” Christ – belief here can hardly be identified with doctrinal orthodoxy (there were virtually no doctrines at the time) nor can it be primarily volitional or intellectual. Belief must involve our whole being and orientation toward God. Connected with God – like the vine – we bear fruit and experience wholeness and peace, eternity, amid the changing seasons of life. As a matter of fact, John’s words point to the wisdom of the Epistle of James – faith involves works; those who believe in Christ “do what is true” and reveal God’s light by their deeds. Conversely, those who walk in darkness do evil deeds.
God is on our side. God does not went to condemn, But, those who don’t believe are condemned already. They turn to darkness and evil, and away from God’s saving light. This passage raises the question: Is condemnation this-worldly or does it reach into eternal life? Turning away from the light is not always a matter of choice or volition – it can result from childhood trauma, political and economic upheaval, violence and abuse by Christian parents. While we have a responsibility to seek healing for our wounds, much of the evil that is done comes from deep in the psyche and requires more than human effort to attain healing or even the ability to keep our “demons” under control. We need a community of light to experience salvation and believe in the Christ.
Those who turn from the light and do evil – and it is easier to identify and punish pedophiles, abusers, and murders rather than stock traders, CEOs , politicians, whose damage is global not just interpersonal – surely turn from God’s vision for their lives and place a barrier that limits what God can do. Nevertheless, John is clear that darkness never defeats light; there is a glimmer of light even in the deepest darkness. Healing is possible for Hitler, unscrupulous “religious” business people, and abusers alike. But, in the case of those who choose darkness and condemn others to poverty, marginalization, and trauma, the light must travel a long way to attain this healing, and it requires remedial work in the afterlife if not “truth and reconciliation” in this lifetime.
There are snakes aplenty, but are they God sent? Our calling is to live by grace and create graceful environments that enable people of all ages to discover and walk in the light that warms, heals, and guides; the light of God that illumines cells as well as souls.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.