Sunday, March 18, 2012

Brad Sullivan
4th Lent, Year B
Sunday, March 18th, 2012
Emmanuel, Houston
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21     

            Back in college, I had some friends, who wore these t-shirts which read, “John 3:16...He did it!”  I didn’t know what John 3:16 was.  I knew it was something Bibley and Jesusy, but I didn’t know what it said.  So, my friends quoted the passage to me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            After finding out what John 3:16 was, I thought, “really, ‘he did it!’  That’s your commentary on John 3:16,” but I found out that John 3:16 is something of a quentesential Christian passage.  If you know John 3:6, then you’re Jesusy enough for anyone.  It’s everywhere, on billboards, sports stadiums, Tim Teebo’s cheecks.  John 3:16 is a favorite passage to sum up Christianity to let everyone know about the love of God.
            Why in the world, then, are we hearing about this in the middle of Lent?  Perhaps because just after John 3:16 we have John 3:17-20, which deals with God’s judgment of those who love darkness more than light.  That sounds more like the Lent we’re all used to.  Enough of this love stuff, let’s hear about God’s judgment, but God’s love involves judgment.  God’s love is expressed in judgment and mercy. 
            In our reading from Numbers today, we have a story in which Israel sinned against God.  So, God punished them, sending serpents to attack them.  Then, God gave them a way out, a simple way out.  Moses made a bronze serpent, and if ever a serpent bit someone, all that person had to do was look at the bronze serpent, and that person would live.  There is no physical reason why that would work.  It was a matter of faith, of remembering God and trusting in God, which was what the people were having a hard time with in the first place.  God showed judged and mercy. 
            In Ephesians, we read that they / we were dead through our trespasses.  Paul did not say, “you were doing just fine with some slight chastisement through your trespasses.”  No.  “You were dead through [your] trespasses and sins...”, and yet “by grace you have been saved.”  Judgment and mercy are mingled together.   
            In the Gospel reading then too, we hear also of God’s judgment and mercy.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  John 3:16.  Mercy.  Then, just a couple verses later, we have, “and this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”  Judgment.
            My wife has been leading a study of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” for the last several weeks, and she reminded me of one particular scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which a young boy, Eustace, is turned into a dragon.  Now, Eustace had been behaving rather terribly to everyone in the book up to this point.  Then, Aslan, the Lion, the Jesus figure in these books, de-Dragons Eustace, turning him back into a boy.  To do this, Aslan claws away at the dragon skin, a painful process, piercing down even to Eustace’s heart.  Afterwards, C.S. Lewis writes,
It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy”.  To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy.  He had relapses.  There were still many days when he could be very tiresome.  But most of those I shall not notice.  The cure had begun.
            This would be a fairly accurate statement for all followers of Jesus.  God has forgiven our sins.  We’ve been washed clean, brought from darkness to light.  We have relapses.  The cure has begun.  We all have light and darkness in us.  We’re never without the darkness, and we often, if not always sink back into the darkness, and love overcomes the darkness.
            Our reading from John today puts darkness and light into fairly stark, black and white terms.  There are those who love the darkness, and there are those who love the light.  His stark contrast made me think of political campaigns.  Candidates paint their opponents as wholly evil, all that is wrong with America.  Then, they describe themselves as the perfect cure for all that ails America.  In reality, of course, none of the candidates are perfect or wholly evil.  All of the candidates have some good points and some bad points. 
            When describing opposites, we tend to think in stark, black and white terms.  We have to call evil out for what it is, we should also be aware that there is some good even in evil people and that all of us have some evil within us. 
            Even as followers of Christ, none of us loves light completely.  None of us love darkness completely.  We all love varying degrees of both darkness and light.  As followers of Jesus, few of us are silly enough to think there is no darkness within us, and when we’re totally honest with ourselves, we know that we even relish some of the darkness within us. 
            Does this mean, then, that if we have some darkness within us and that if we love some of the darkness within us, that we “love darkness rather than light because [our] deeds are evil”?  No.  The fact that we have some darkness within us and that we love some of the darkness within us means, “the cure has begun, and we have relapses.”
            Our challenge, even with darkness within us, is to love the light, and to come to the light so that our deeds may be exposed.  Our evil deeds would be exposed right along with our good deeds.  Now that sounds more like Lent.
            That sounds like a rather frightening proposition, having our evil deeds exposed.  Like Eustace being de-dragoned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, having our evil deeds exposed by the light of Christ is painful.  It is, however, a good kind of pain, a cleansing pain, and one which should not be avoided. 
             Fear of God due to our evil deeds need not keep us from the light because we know that we are not wholly evil.  While there is darkness in us, there is also a lot of light in us.  We also need not fear coming into the light because of God’s love for us.  As we have seen in today’s readings, God’s love involved judgment, but it is judgment mixed with mercy. 
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:17, 16)


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