Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sermon for Year B Lent 4

For God so loved the world….

We have all seen the signs.
They are held up at baseball games,
at rock concerts,
even on street corners.

The signs simply say:
JOHN 3:16.

John 3:16.
That is part of our gospel reading this morning.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

For God so loved the world.
It is easy to forget how much God loves the world,
how much God loves each and every one of us.

We give it lip service.
We sing our childhood song—Jesus loves me this I KNOW.
But do we really and truly know that?
Do we live our lives reflecting the belief in that boundless love?

A friend sent me a story this week.
It is about a night long, long ago
when the stars began to fall from the sky.
The villagers were surprised to see the stars streaking across the sky.
They panicked.
They assumed the world was coming to an end.

They ran in circles weeping and crying,
“The sky is falling, the sky is falling. The world is ending.”

Then one of the villagers remembered the wise elders
who lived outside the village.

They hurried to the older couple for an answer to what was happening.
“Look!” they shouted, “the stars are falling into the earth.
What will happen to us?”

The wise ones had been observing the changing sky for some time.
They looked up and then paused a few moments
and asked the villagers to gaze up at the sky one more time.

“Look at the sky,” they whispered,
“Look at the stars that are falling.
But now,
Stop for a moment and look again.

This time look at all the stars that are not falling.
This time look at all the stars that remain shining in the heavens.”

Lent is such a time.
A time to look at the heavens.

We note the stars that are falling—
the things that shake our world and rock our souls
and scare us.
We think of the rough places in our lives we long to make smooth,
the obstacles we ourselves have placed in our paths,
our own blindness,
the stars that continue to fall from the sky.

But today, this midway point in Lent—
it is also good to look at the stars that remain in the heavens.
Shining. Always there.
The stars that help us find our way,
the stars that serve to help us navigate through our daily lives,
those stars that shine and light our path,
even when---especially when—the night is the darkest.

Those stars are seldom abstract concepts.
Those stars often have names—
the names of our friends, someone in our family,
someone who is not in our family
but feels more like family than family.

Those stars are held in the sky but the one who so loves the world.

In our reading from Numbers,
the Israelites are in an angry snit.
They are weary from their journey and
they have lost their way
and they are fed up.

They are at a point like the villagers in the story--,
running around, complaining, grumbling, freaking out,
speaking against God
because God is not following their script.
Life is hard and rough and they are tired of it.
All they can see are the stars that are falling.

Maybe God sends the snakes
as a way of reminding them
that there really is real suffering in the world—
but not having the food they want to eat for lunch--
is not real suffering.

God has been feeding them all along
just as God feeds us.
Remember, manna? Remember our daily bread?

But the Israelites are much like many of us—spoiled, demanding,
picky eaters. Picky about life in general.

The Israelites have forgotten
that God has already
(1) rescued them from slavery,
(2) brought them out of Egypt
(3) provided leader
and (4) is leading them to the land that has been promised.

Our memories are often short as well.
We spend a lot of time complaining about the trivial,
the few stars that are falling while forgetting
to look up at the stars that remain steady and bright—
always there,
in the night sky.

But those snakes!
Now those are not trivial.

A recent Harris poll on “What We Are Afraid Of”
reports that 36 % of all adults in the United States
list snakes as their number one fear.
Ophidiophobia is the official name for this fear.

Not only were the Israelites afraid of the snakes--
the snakes were biting them, killing them.

There is a message here.
When we only give out our own venom, our own poisonous thoughts--
our complaining, our ungratefulness, our self-centeredness—
that same poison will likely return to us—
and may just kill us.
And that in no way is God’s dream for us.

It is no accident that this reading from Numbers
is paired with Psalm 107 today:

Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
And he saved them from their distress;
He sent out his word
and delivered them from destruction

The Hebrew word for a poisonous serpent is seraph—
it literally means “fiery”.
And yes, there are times in our lives we are in so much pain—
physical, mental, emotional--
it feels as if we are walking through fire.

God never denies that there is real pain and suffering in the world.
Yet God always points the Israelites—and us-- to a way of healing.

Remember that the word seraph is also the root word for seraphim—
a type of angel that appears throughout scripture.—
and angel who brings good news and great joy
especially to those who are afraid.

A fiery angel that is sent to us
when our world seems all fire.

God’s love is that enormous.
For God so loved the world…

Jesus comes into the world
to show us what that immense love looks like
in human form.

It is not just a gift—
it is a call to us to take on that form,
to live in Christ and to let Christ live in us.

For God so loved the world…

The scripture does not say,
for God so loved the Israelites,
For God so loved the United States--
No, it says,
For God so loved the WORLD.

The whole world.
Every star in the sky
those falling and those holding steady.
And all of us standing here below.

God’s love is here.
From the beginning
to the end.

And all that is in between.
And all that is in between.

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