March 11, 2018

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen.

We just sang this lovely refrain: “We are turning, Lord, to hear you; you are merciful and kind – slow to anger, rich in blessings, and with love to us inclined.”

Why is it so hard to trust that God loves us? I don’t know if there is any message more central to the biblical text than this one, “For God so loves the world that God comes to be with us, that we might have abundant and everlasting life through divine goodness.” People hold up signs proclaiming John 3:16 from the middle of football fields. We carve it into our wall hangings and paint it on our mugs. It’s probably the best known verse of the Christian texts.

And yet, no matter how many times we hear it, we still have questions. We still wonder whether we can trust that it means what it says. We still worry that perhaps God’s love is not really meant for us.

We read that next phrase of the text, “so that everyone who believes in him,” and allow it to trip us up. That’s probably the problem, we think. We have to believe in him. I’m not sure I can do that. I don’t know what that means, but I think it probably means God’s not for me.

It’s not a new dilemma.  It’s as old as God’s people, and we’ve been dealing with these doubts for as long as we’ve been recording our stories. Way back in the wilderness, God’s people wondered. The People of Israel were newly experiencing life on their own. After generations of enslavement and misery in Egypt, Moses had led them through unspeakable horrors into the freedom God had promised them. No longer slaves, no longer in bondage, no longer suffering in a distant land they were on the way to their future.

And yet, in spite of God having just brought them out of their misery, they began to doubt that God was for them. “Yes, we are free; we’ve been rescued. We are being led to a new life…. but we have no food! And the food we do have is horrible. And there are snakes! The snakes are making our lives miserable. This is no good, this living in freedom on the way to new life. It must mean that God hates us. God must be punishing us. God is making our lives unbearable.”

God hears their complaints and their worries, and gives them another sign of love. God instructs Moses to raise up a sign of life, a healing symbol of the very snakes that caused them pain, to show the people that God was still on their side.

Notice that they don’t seem to need to believe anything. It didn’t matter if you believed God could help you or not. You just looked to the bronze staff, and you would be healed. In spite of the snakes that bit, and the food that didn’t satisfy, God was with the people. Their futures were safe. God was still with them, bringing them to a new home, a new place where they would know God’s love for them.

It is of this story that Jesus is reminding Nicodemus in our gospel text. Our gospel lesson catches them mid-conversation. Nicodemus is a religious leader who comes to visit Jesus in the middle of the night. He comes to ask questions and to gain understanding. He seems to believe that Jesus is bringing a message of hope and love, but he isn’t sure he can trust it. Jesus starts by talking mysteriously of being born again, of being born of water and wind, of Spirit and of light.

We pick up their conversation midstream in our text today, as Jesus reminds Nicodemus of Moses and the bronze serpent. Jesus is harkening to the ways God brought healing and life and hope to God’s people way back in the wilderness, and prompting Nicodemus to recognize the ways God is continuing the message of love.

Jesus uses the image of darkness and light in his conversation, of shadows and clarity, things hidden, and things brought into view. Living in the shadows is like looking down at the snakes as they bite us, and worrying about all of the damage and destruction they will cause. Allowing ourselves to be exposed to the light is to look up at the source of our healing, and to allow God to lead us into the hope of a new day. Rather than hiding our fears and insecurities in the doubts of our despair, Jesus invites Nicodemus to look up into the light of God’s never-ending love and claim new life there.

The ancient symbol of healing was a bronze serpent, a graphic depiction of the very source of pain, now bringing life. For those of us who have heard the end of the story, we sense Jesus describing that even though he too will endure pain, God’s love will never be conquered. The symbol of his pain and destruction will be transformed into a healing symbol of our abundant life.

We still aren’t sure we can believe that God is for us. How do we experience that healing in our lives, when the snakes still seem to be biting us?

The Children of Israel were out in a literal wilderness, being pestered not only by doubts and frustrations, but by real perils and hazards, snakes and famine, disease and misfortune.

We might not have all of those troubles, but we still can feel bitten by the trials in our lives. Maybe it’s the disappointments of our childhood, having been loved insufficiently or been punished unnecessarily. Maybe it’s the pain of a broken society, dividing us from others and leaving us feeling vulnerable or at risk. Maybe it’s the strain of work or school, of not knowing how to catch up with all the demands on us. Maybe it’s job frustrations, or illnesses, or losses, or the hopeless worry that we just aren’t actually loveable. Sometimes the pain feels like it has the upper hand with us. How can God’s love become apparent for us when life is so hard?

This Sunday again, as we normally do every month on the second Sunday of the month, our prayer teams will be present during communion to join with those who would like someone to pray with them. Whether a person requests a prayer for him or herself, or for a loved one, or for the healing of the world, one of our praying partners will join them to ask for God’s healing, God’s compassion and mercy. If desired, the prayer team member will lay hands on the one requesting it, and anoint them with oil – a sign of God’s comforting presence for anyone desiring it.

From the outside, it must look somewhat strange, superstitious even. Is anyone actually cured because of these prayers? Would God actually wait until we pray for healing, or could healing come without the ritual? And if it comes without our saying a prayer aloud with others, what’s the point of this? Maybe it looks as strange as holding up a bronze serpent and looking to it for healing.

From what I’ve seen, people who request another to join them in praying aren’t sure of the ways it helps, either. They’re not always sure that they believe it will change their lives. They don’t ask why, and they don’t know how, they just come with an expectation that if they name their pain or struggles aloud with someone else, the sorrow or worry they are holding will lessen and become more tolerable. I doubt anyone expects total healing, but those who request healing prayers hope for some sense of solidarity or connection, and for whatever reason, they find comfort in the touch and words of another person with them.

Perhaps the snakes are still nipping at our heels, but when we pray together, we’re able to raise our heads up and find signs of hope and promise in the faces of our brothers and sisters. Without knowing what exactly happens, we trust that God can bring renewal and encouragement.

What if we don’t ever actually make a decision whether to live in the darkness or the light? What if we are simply invited to experience that when we allow the darkness to define our existence –the power of fear, and doubt, and brokenness seem to take over. But when we look to the power of love and hope and healing, it’s like walking into the clear hope of a new dawn. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Nothing is more apparent to Jesus than that God’s love is for him, and because it is, it is for the whole world. God’s love is for us, not because we believe something enough intellectually, but because God who brings light and hope and healing to us loves us with all the love of the universe, and wants nothing more than that we know that love in our lives.

God is for us. God is for this whole world. God’s love will never stop being for every one of us.

The day started a little earlier, a little darker this morning. But by day’s end, the sunlight will have gained the upper hand. The hope of longer days will offer us greater chances to enjoy the coming spring. Who knows, perhaps this living in freedom on the way to new life has some promise to it after all. The love of God is as sure as the gaining light. Jesus longs for you to share it. Now and always.

Thanks be to God.