Read and Hear the March 18, 2012 Sermon Preached by our Visiting Seminarian, Sheila Seekins
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March 18, 2012
St Margaret’s, Belfast
A curious image starts this passage from John’s gospel for today. A snake lifted up on a pole? — What are we to do with this snake on a pole? Let’s go back to the Old Testament reading from which this image is taken.
In our reading from the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were still wandering through wilderness, after their amazing departure from slavery in Egypt. Led by Moses and Miriam and Aaron, they were looking for promised land. Half way through our disciplines of Lent, we might be able to identify with the grumblings of the Israelites, who were tired of wandering. They complained that they do not have any food or any water; in fact God provided them with adequate food and water so far on their journey. Their complaint was deeper; they distrusted the promise of life abundant. At least back in Egypt they had regularity, knew what to expect each day. Was God really going to supply what they needed, to get them through the wilderness? They complained against God and Against Moses: and received abundance – but not a happy abundance: but the abundance came in the form of snakes: snakes with deadly bites, and some died of the bites. As you can imagine, the Wanderers in the wilderness cried again, and recanted their earlier complaint, and asked for relief from death and threat of death.
Moses followed God’s instructions to make a metal snake and lift it up on a pole, and tell the people who were bitten to look up at the snake and that they would then be cured of the deadly bite. And so it happened, the bitten people looked and were cured.
The people looked into the face of their sickness and their fear were healed. They were restored to life, they were reconciled with their community and with God.
They would have recognized the ambiguous symbol of the snake: it is a symbol of death and of emergence to new life, of deception and of wisdom and truth. The snake might offer a symbol of human ambivalence about looking into our own broken and wounded places. In looking into the face of the snake that was lifted up by Moses, the Israelites looked into the face of their own woundedness, fear, brokenness, death. They sought fullness of life in the wrong ways. In the ambiguity of the symbol of the snake, they came to see this. They put their trust back to their God who set them free from slavery in Egypt, and who set them free again.
In John’s gospel, Jesus teaches that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must he be lifted up, so that everyone who believes might have eternal life. This must be important, because the following verse repeats and expands: “God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One: that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.” God so loved the world; God loved the world this much…and God loved the world in this manner: that the Chosen One would be lifted up: a reference to crucifixion, and at the same time, for being raised up into the very glory of God.
This sending in this way of Jesus is not for condemnation of the world, of the cosmos: it is so that the world might be saved. Healed. Cured, of divisions, of turning away, of unbelief. That whoever believes may not die, but have life, that is be lively ones, in and with the world. “Believe” here, is not about assent to certain statements of belief. Here it means entering life with Jesus the raised up One, who entered the full Glory of God. Those who enter life with Jesus the Christ enter into the Glory of God. Enter into the light, the connections, the undividedness of the whole cosmos.
Again: God loves the world this way: through lifting up into glory; not to condemn the world, but to save, to restore the world into right relationship, right glory.
To say this another way: people love darkness, because in darkness people can do deeds that cut off connections, that make living attuned to and abiding in and with the Holy One difficult or impossible. Light is another reference to Jesus: those who hate the light, avoid it, are avoiding Jesus, who is the light, those who live by truth come out into the light into life in Jesus, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God.
This is the way God loves the world: through Jesus, the Chosen One, who was lifted up that the cosmos may see and be restored to life, to light, to fullness in God. We do not have to earn this restoration, this life. It is given for the believing, for the entering.
Lenten disciplines and practices are about shaping our lives – individually and together in community with the whole cosmos – to receive and enter the light, to live in the light that is already given.
Abide in this light, look, and see and believe. Be raised up with the Holy One.
In the words of today’s Psalm, 107:
Give thanks for YHWH’s goodness;
God’s love endures forever