Sylvania United Church of Christ
Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples
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The sermon for week March 18, 2012

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Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3: 14-21

It started out as a personal conversation. It became the most public. Nicodemus, one of the Temple leaders, came to Jesus at night. He was curious.

“I have heard rumors about you,” he began, “things are being said, things I long to believe with all my heart.” We listen closely to Jesus’ response because we also want to believe. We too have seen signs that arouse our curiosity. We have the facts. What we want is the answer.

For all our cultural sophistication our daily lives are tarnished with disappointment with the ways things are. None of our cherished theories is able to explain the fatal flaw in the human condition. Every tragedy deepens the level of the questions we ask. Each day the world seems to spin a little more out of control. Violence flares up in an instant. Financial markets tumble. The environment sours. Homelessness is on the rise. And with each foreclosure and each job lost comes the realization that we are in the midst of a tsunami of change. Life as we know it is being threatened and it is unlikely we will understand the extent of the damage until the storm has passed. So we look for signs. We follow the numbers: the averages on the Dow, the prices at the pump, the unemployment figures, the polls.

Most of us are just looking for answers. Others are looking for someone to blame. When the children of Israel became frustrated with their prolonged ordeal in the wilderness they spoke out against God and complained to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die? Give us something decent to eat! We detest this miserable food!”

And just when they thought things couldn’t get worse. They did.

Suddenly the people were afflicted with the stings of poisonous serpents. They believed it was a sign from God. The complaining stopped; and the people repented. They begged Moses to pray to God on their behalf. So Moses prayed for the people and God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. And somehow when the people gazed upon this image of the cause of the community’s distress and death, the bitten sufferers were healed.

We recognize Israel’s trial in the wilderness as a metaphor for our own. Public trust in our leaders and institutions has eroded over the years. We have eliminated some of the snakes in the system, only to have them return in greater numbers or in some new venomous form.

Yet week after week a peculiar people gather together in worship with the hope that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, God still cares about us. Again and again we will declare things we cannot prove about a God we cannot see. We will cry out against the darkness that threatens us: “God is still speaking!” to anyone willing to listen. And just as the children of Israel gazed upon the symbol of their death and destruction and were saved; we will gaze upon the most familiar symbol of violence and death the world has ever known and wonder how our own salvation will take shape.

This is worship. And this is how we identify ourselves in community. It is how we learn how we fit into whatever God is doing on earth, for heaven’s sake. This is how we locate ourselves between the past and the future, between our hopes and our fears, between the earth and the stars. This is how we learn who we are and what we are supposed to be doing; by coming together each week to sing and pray, and to peer hopefully into the darkness together and share what we see.

Our unbelieving friends may be baffled by our behavior; but somehow we know that in spite of what the media tells us about the day’s events, if there is Good News to be proclaimed, we will hear it right here. We will stand together and sing a doxology of praise, because we believe that no matter how dark it gets, or how long the wait, the Light will come.

John’s gospel has a peculiar take on where the Light is coming from and how long we may need to wait for it. Theologians call it realized eschatology. What it means is that the Light has already come. Nicodemus had been looking for the Light; but failed to recognize it when it came. Yet the Temple leader confessed to Jesus he had seen the signs, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus had seen the signs, but he failed to get the message.

Today’s reading from John’s gospel puts us right in the middle of a conversation familiar to Christians the world over. It features the most familiar verse in scripture. John 3:16 has become an iconic reference to God’s love. Hand-painted on a sign and held up in an end-zone, the sign is read by millions of TV viewers on any given Sunday.

In the context of a football game such signs deliver a mixed message. Public displays of affection seem out of place in an atmosphere of mutual punishment. The problem with such signs is they have no power to affect what they proclaim. A sign that reads: John 3:16 has never affected a coin toss, resolved a contested play, or determined the outcome of the game. I doubt those signs have ever converted anyone. The signs we see all the time, like the messages we hear repeatedly, are the signs we no longer see, the messages we no longer hear.

Yet we remain hopeful of a sign. Not the kind that is held up from the stands in a football stadium only to disappear when the game is over. We yearn to see something marvelous, something exceptional to distract us from the familiar, the routine, the chronic or corrosive.

To those who seek a sign Jesus reminds us of God’s long-suffering providence and grace in today’s scripture reading: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he tells us, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It’s not the sign we were looking for; but it is a sign we can believe in.

Our Lenten journey inevitably leads us closer to the cross. The cross is the ultimate sign of God’s love and the perfect antidote for the sins of the whole world. John spells it out for us. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

These words are so familiar we may dismiss them with no more than a shrug of recognition. In a dark corner of our hearts we may believe that intimacy with God is not possible, or possible only to a select few. Our brokenness may embarrass us. Or we may turn away from God’s love out of our fear of such intimacy. Jesus met a similar reluctance in Jerusalem and he cried, “How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.”

These may be among the saddest words in scripture; but they need not apply to us. We may feel unworthy of God’s love, yet most of us are here because we sense a deeper experience of God’s presence is possible.

The power of the Gospel to heal and to save is directly related to our willingness to believe and receive. When Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Nicodemus recognized immediately that this new birth was something he could not affect for himself. Like Nicodemus we may find ourselves wondering, “How can these things be?”

When Jesus responds his words measure the distance between what we can know and what we can only believe, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

These words apply, not only to one anxious man standing in the shadows in Jerusalem, but to all those who walk in darkness, then and now.

“God so loved the world” that God took the most fearful sign of suffering and shame and turned it into the most powerful sign of his love. The Cross reminds us that God does not wait to greet us on the other side of life’s pain and tragedy; but shares it, draining each and every bitter drop from the cup of the worst that can happen to us, and by his sharing, he redeems us.

The new birth Jesus refers to is not a “starting over”; but a new creation. It is not about earning our credentials for entering God’s kingdom; but shedding them. It’s about claiming our inheritance in the Kingdom which comes when we claim our true identity as children of God and we take our place as collaborators with God in the creation of the world.

Jesus finished his work on earth on the Cross. But the Light of the World has not been extinguished. Now it’s our turn to shine. Jesus told his disciples, “The works that I do you shall do also.” Our work is to hold up the Light of God’s love to a broken and desperate world. God calls us to become practitioners of the love that saves us.

Like Nicodemus we may ask ourselves, “How can these things be?”

Last week I believe I found the answer on a bumper sticker that read, “Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Save the World.” But it takes more than a bumper sticker to save the world. It takes a sign. The Church is the sign that God has not abandoned the world God “so loved.”

A Church that is willing to speak God’s words, the words that have the power to heal us: “Weep no more. Be not afraid. Your sins are forgiven. Stand up and walk. I love you. You are welcome here.” They are just words and prescribing them to an ailing world seems as futile as putting a bandage on a broken bone or an aspirin in the hand of someone who is dying.

But when the Church proclaims these words as Gospel, we say more. For these are words that belong to Someone, and every time we speak them, that Someone is present, speaking them with us, speaking them through us, so that we never speak them alone, and they never come back empty.

They effect what they proclaim: they dry tears, quench fears, forgive sins, heal souls, and make true the good news of God in Christ every time we speak them. And each time we do, we take our places in the ancient relay of faith, passing on the glad tidings we ourselves have heard. And the Kingdom comes, as we pray each week that it will, when we hold up these signs of God’s life among us.

God has empowered us through the gift of the Holy Spirit to become a sign of God’s redemptive and healing love. The world is ours to love with the love with which God loves us!

Becoming a sign may take a bit of getting used to; but sharing God’s love is not just another option for us. God has called us “the hope of the world.” And so we are!

Thanks be to God.

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