I don’t know about this Daylight Savings time change. It seems that “people love light more than darkness.” For myself, I love a full night of sleep rather than the loss of an hour! But I’m grateful to be here this morning and grateful that you are here as well.
Of course when Jesus talks about darkness, he is not talking literally but metaphorically. He’s talking about what is hidden, denied, kept in secret. He’s talking about our fears and shame. Jesus knows the countless ways that we individually and collectively become trapped in patterns of behavior that shut us off from the light of God, damage our relationships and are self-destructive.
You are probably familiar with the cycle. There is the thought or action that brings a rush of shame, fear or disgust. It’s quickly followed by judgement either of self or another. Then comes anger and blame followed by condemnation. Condemnation leads to despair and brokenness. Then it begins all over again.
Because it’s Lent, and like me, you may be a little more aware of the unhealthy patterns and habits that you have, this may sound familiar to you personally. It’s certainly a universal symptom of our human condition. The traditional Christian term for this is sin. It’s like being in a room without an exit. It’s like going down a road and finding out it’s a dead end. It’s the experience of seeing your world narrowed and constrained and your freedom circumscribed. It’s trying to negotiate the world when you can’t see clearly.
And we all go there. We all find ourselves stuck, trapped, bound by this destructive cycle.
So here’s the truly radical aspect of what Jesus says in John 3:16 and 17. First of all, this world in which we all experience the effects of shame, fear, judgement, condemnation, despair and death is a world which God loves. God loves us, even in our brokenness, God loves us so much that God has no desire to condemn. God wants to break the pattern that leads to death and to bring us to fullness of life that can only be described as eternal, not just life after physical death, but the life that comes when we are no longer bound by the power of death.
And for that purpose God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the one through whom this life becomes most real and present. The Greek word for save is so much more than a simple rescue from death. It literally means to bring out into an open space. God opens a door in a room with no exit so that we might escape. God creates a new way where there was once a dead end. God opens up new possibilities, fresh horizons, a new beginning. God shines the light so that we may see more clearly.
But how? How does God deliver us? What does it mean to be saved? It’s clear when you look around that we human beings keep getting stuck. The self-help genre of books, tapes, speakers and workshops are ever increasing. There is no end of treatments for the conditions we face. Scientists are constantly looking for ways to ease human pain, suffering and alienation. We have been trying to help and save ourselves for centuries. We have tried willpower, increased knowledge, expert assistance, and countless ways to numb our pain and despair. And it’s not working.
On a daily basis I interact with people who are trapped by addiction. They have lost housing, family, jobs, health and freedom. As one person facing jail time put it, “I have already been in prison with this for the past 5 years, no cell can be worse.” Another asked me to pray for him and when I asked what I could pray for, he asked that I pray for him to die.
This is a cycle of shame, blame, despair and death. We can’t judge or punish our way out of it. Moral or legal condemnation makes very little difference. Last week I watched the 5-part documentary, The Trade, about the heroin crisis. It’s clear that everyone from the poppy growers in Mexico, the dealers in the States, the users, their loved ones, even the police and government officials are trapped in a crisis that is far beyond their control. It’s certainly beyond my control.
How can Jesus save in this situation? How do those trapped in this cycle break free?
John’s gospel uses a very strange analogy from the Old Testament to point us towards the way that God acts in Jesus. The story is from Numbers. Moses and the people are in the wilderness and they’ve gotten stuck in a pattern of complaint and futility. They are tired of wandering around lost and eating the limited diet of quail and manna that has been provided. In fact, they seem willing to go back to Egypt where they were trapped in a cycle of forced labor and oppression rather than continue in their current situation. They are ready to put themselves back into slavery, to return to what was familiar, to lose their freedom.
But then a crisis comes. God gets their attention. They suddenly find themselves attacked by venomous serpents. They are desperate for Moses to call upon God to save them. And God provides a remedy. The very thing that has caused suffering and death is also the object of their healing and restored life. Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it high so that any who look up to it will be spared.
How can the very thing that brings death, also bestow life? If I was an Israelite, I’ve got to tell you I would find it very difficult to take my eyes off the snakes I was trying to dodge and believe that just looking at the bronze serpent would somehow protect me. I’d be more likely to try to find another solution like working together with others to corral the snakes or outrunning them or starting a fire or learning what kind of snakes they were and getting them something to eat they liked better.
But what God asks of them is to look up and to trust. The word that we read as belief is really much more about trust. It’s not about agreeing to a proposition or saying you believe. It’s not about making an idol of the snake or believing in magic. It’s much more about putting your trust in God. It’s about recognizing that your own abilities, skills and willpower can only take you so far. You can’t prevent death. You can’t avoid failure. You will get trapped and stuck in cycles that lead to shame, judgement and despair.
But God wants to bring you to an open space. God invites you to lift up your eyes and to trust. And here’s what God offers when we finally stop and raise our eyes: What we see is Jesus, who himself is lifted up. We see him first upon the cross. The very instrument of suffering and death is one which he has chosen freely as his fate. He walks into the heart of judgement, condemnation, shame, fear, despair and death. He does so as a free, human being, not constrained by sin or trapped by the self-destructive patterns we all experience.
When we raise our eyes and see Christ on the cross, we see the one truly free and whole being who loves us and offers himself for us. As we continue to look at Jesus, we see him raised up. The tomb is empty. Death has been conquered. The very worst the world could dish out could not hold him down. Death doesn’t get the final word. There is life that can never be taken away, that nothing, not even the worst we experience can steal from us. God has placed us in Christ where we are ultimately alive.
Finally we see Christ ascended in glory. His presence fills the whole world by the power of God’s Spirit. What is truly true and really real is so much more than we can think or imagine or even hope for. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus open up the entire cosmos to life and we are drawn up into that dance, that eternal love between God, Jesus and the Spirit.
We’re not asked to believe impossible propositions. We’re not required to be good enough, strong enough or faithful enough. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or judge everyone else who doesn’t conform to our expectations. We’re just asked to raise our eyes to Jesus, to see that he is looking back at us with love and not with condemnation. He is inviting us to freedom and life. The very things that have caused pain and suffering in our lives can be an open door, even a wound where the light can get in.
Some of the folks who know this most profoundly are the folks who are truly in recovery. They don’t give any weight to shame and judgement. No one will ever be saved by that. They hold onto hope for the hopeless. They look at addicts with love and compassion because they’ve been there themselves. They are willing to be the kind of friends who tell the truth.
The church is the home for all saints and sinners. Each one of us is both. When the light shines in and through us, the love, grace and mercy of God spreads to the whole world.
4th Sunday in Lent