A homily preached at St. Francis House on the 4th Sunday in Lent, for which the following lessons are appointed in year B: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21.
Today's reading from Numbers - the Israelites grumbling in the desert - always reminds me of the old joke about the restaurant patron who asks to complain to the manager. "The food here is terrible!" he says, "and such small servings!"
That we read this story from Numbers at all reminds us that we Episcopalians are a people of the lectionary. ("Lectionary" being a fancy way to say, "you and I didn't pick these readings out.") I say, “a people of the Lectionary,” and not “the people of the Lectionary,” because other denominations and traditions use lectionaries, too. In fact, the lectionary we use on Sundays - called the Revised Common Lectionary - is shared by over 40 national churches across a range of traditions and denominations. Broad participation in the RCL means that you are I are reading these readings today with a lot of other Christians. Millions of others. The moral, as always, is that, as you live the life of faith, you are not alone. We are not alone.
One of the big gifts God has given us across the church is one another, both within this particular community, and also outside it. Right relationship with God is not a closed book test! You don’t have to write all of your notes on a 3 x 5 card, in microfiche. The Christian life is a living practice, in which all resources are available to you. Friends. Priests. Scripture. Sacraments. Even your enemies, so that you can have someone to practice loving where loving comes with greater difficulty. Some of you have asked me to hear your confessions this Lent. Praise God! This is use of the resources available to you for your flourishing. For, in the Christian life, no bonus points are awarded for going it alone.
All of this is the long way around to notice that, with millions of others today and for the second week in a row, we are reading from John’s gospel. That we are reading John’s gospel is significant, because the Revised Common Lectionary has three years: one for Matthew, a second for Mark (that’s this year), and a third for Luke. John doesn’t get his own year. Instead, he’s summoned from the bullpen every year, at especially important moments in the church’s life.
So today, as we read from John’s gospel alongside millions of others, we are reminded that this is an especially important moment in the life of the church. We are officially more than half-way through the season of Lent. We are more than half-way through our approach to the great feast of Easter.
It’s one of the funny and strange things about desert wanderings like Lent and other parts of life (semesters and the far of promise of graduation come to mind): that we are called to be present to each step, each moment, every day, still not to lose sight of the ultimate end. It’s the paradox the musician Iron and Wine calls Our Endless, Numbered Days, when it seems like we’ll never get there, but then, before we know it, we are there, on the edge of the end. For Christians, our days are numbered toward both the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Christ is our beginning and our end. Your end is new and unending life in him.
So our Lenten wanderings have begun to feel more strongly the pull and orbit of the great Easter feast and the tomb-cracking pascal shout. We are two weeks from Palm Sunday - also, Spring Break - cue the bullpen! Bring in John’s gospel.
And there are so many familiar images we might have been given today from John’s gospel - the good shepherd, Jesus the bread of life, Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We have beautiful hymns composed for each of these! But we are given none of these. Not today. Instead, a bizarre image: it’s Jesus the snake, on a pole. “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.’”
There are no catchy hymns about Jesus the serpent. At least none that I can find. Indeed, without the Old Testament reading today, this verse in John’s gospel would make no sense at all. But Numbers tells the story of the time, in their wandering, when the Israelites grumbled about the food and the water and the uncertainty of their situation and their growing sense that none of their searching was leading anywhere, and God sent snakes to bite their heels. The people repented, but they were still sick. So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and whoever looked to the serpent on the pole would live.
John says Jesus is the serpent on the pole.
As the joy of Easter nears, we are reminded that, having repented, the promise is not just that we will be made into good people - that is, into people capable of acknowledging that we have messed up or been ungrateful or whatever else, but the promise is that we will be made into God’s people; that we will be made more than capable of not doing bad things; we will be healed and made whole. No more duct tape self-applied, but healing from outside ourselves, at the hand of the One who first made you.
An author I deeply admire recently reported how a bishop once told him that 90% of the sermons the bishop had ever heard could be boiled down to 2 words: Try harder.” Try harder.
Not so, says this gospel. Not so! In your commitment to come near the cross this Lent, you are not left alone. Even we millions are not left alone. The word to you today is not try harder, but to look to the one there, on the cross, lifted up for us. Look on this one. His promise is healing, and even the death we cannot overcome by ourselves has been vanquished by the victory of his glorious resurrection.
As strange or obscure or bizarre as Jesus the serpent may feel to us, the image has a contemporary corollary with which we are all familiar: the twin snakes on the staff with the wings on the top, forming the logo of the American Medical Association and borrowed from ancient Greek mythology. John, today, would invite us to understand the Word made flesh, Jesus, as the true fountain of healing and life, the new and unending life we receive in the Sacrament. Christ comes for healing. Indeed, John will later write to his readers, in the book of Revelation, that the leaves on the tree of life, rooted on the banks of the river that runs through the city of God, are for the healing of nations.
We see how our nation, our city, and our world, ache for this healing. Precisely this healing is the purpose of God.
This healing is available to you: restoration, reconciliation, renewal. Physical. Emotional. Spiritual. Visible. Invisible. Relational. Love of God and love of neighbor. For all of creation! And you. Healing. For this Christ comes.
Silence, shared among friends in the presence of God, can be healing. Our prayers of the people and confession today, will be silence, for healing. During that time, I ask you to write down on slips of paper those things for which you would ask God to heal. You can be thinking about them now. In your life. In your love. In your relationship with God and others. In your future. In your uncertainties. In your hopes. In your fears. In our world. In this city. In our families. Across chasms of life and death. For forgiveness. In our churches. On this campus. In and on your heart.
As you ready your prayers, bring them here, and we will burn them. The incense is the fragrance of Christ, which meets us in our brokenness. Incense has been, from the earliest days of the church, a sign and symbol of the prayers we lift to God.
In the silence, if you would also like to receive prayers for healing with the anointing of oil, another tradition from the earliest days of the church, you may meet me at the side of the altar. You can tell me what you want prayers for, but you do not have to. God knows, and God heals. Let us look to God's Son, and be saved.