FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I can well understand why, as our gospel lesson tells us, people prefer darkness to light. I don’t expect that the individuals on the Ferguson police force whose racist emails recently made the news were happy about the light shining into their private lives. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect they all presented a very tolerant and progressive face in public. I would not be surprised to learn that they were always friendly and respectful toward their African American associates and acquaintances. I strongly suspect that they had every intention of keeping their racist humor within the limited circle of their friends “who understand.” These were jokes for buddies with a sense of humor, guys not caught up in all that political correctness crap. They never expected that their private jokes would ever become public and probably never gave a thought to what might happen if they ever did.
I expect that the same assumption prevailed among the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers from the University of Oklahoma chanting their racist slurs while riding a charter bus. They were all just a crowd of good old boys letting their hair down and having a little fun. They would never have spoken the same words in the college cafeteria or the campus commons. They knew better than that. Who would have thought that someone might capture this moment of private revelry on video? Who would have imagined the whole affair unfolding to the public over social media? To its credit, the national leadership of Sigma Alpha Epsilon immediately shut down the offending chapter and is in the process of expelling all who took part in this tawdry little incident. But one cannot help but wonder whether the protests of “this is not who we are!” are not more accurately characterized as “this is not how we want to be seen.” I wonder whether the wrath visited on the offending brothers was less outrage over their conduct than anger over their stupidity in allowing it to go public. If you are going to be a racist, at least be discrete about it!
We should not be too hard on the folks from Ferguson or the frat brothers, however, unless we are prepared to be put under the same scrutiny. I’m not ready for that. Of course I don’t think I’m a racist and I hope I am right about that. I don’t think of myself as particularly powerful or privileged either, but I am certainly that. It starts with the fact that I am a “man.” Moreover, I am a “white” man. Further, I am a “straight” white man. These factors alone give me a huge leg up over everyone who lacks them. There is no question in my mind that the opportunities I have had over the years would not have come to me-or at least not come to me as easily-if I had been either a woman or a person of color or the uncloseted member of a sexual minority. Thanks to my parents and the power they enjoyed, I received a college education and more. That, too, has given me a head start in life. I am not saying that I didn’t work hard to arrive at where I am or to obtain what I own. Chances are, though, that without my gender, race, sexual orientation and educational advantages I would have a good deal less to show for all my hard work.
While none of the above makes me racist, it does place me in a position of advantage and domination in a society that clearly is. Standing in the light Jesus sheds upon me, I cannot deny that I have benefited from the privileges afforded white males or that these privileges come at the expense of others. That is something I would rather not have known. I would have much preferred to remain in the dark about these realities and go on pretending that I am a self-made man who has nothing he didn’t earn by the sweat of his brow. But the events in places like Ferguson and in Sigma Alpha Epsilon remind me that, for all the progress we sometimes seem to have made, racism lies very close beneath the thin venire of civility we try so hard to maintain. I am reminded that I am not competing on a level playing field and that I was born with points already on the scoreboard.
“This is the judgment,” says Jesus, “that the light has come into the world.” We cannot “unsee” what we have seen. We can no longer hide behind the pretext of ignorance. We can no longer use the excuse that we didn’t know. The truth is clear-painfully clear. Now that we see it, what are we going to do about it?
I dealt with this text at length in my post of Sunday, September 14, 2014, which I invite you to revisit. This time around I was struck by a couple of things. First, the frustration of the people. I have no first-hand experience at being lost in the wilderness. In this day of cell phones, GPS, Google Earth and NSA watching our every move, I am guessing that getting lost in the wilderness would require some serious effort. Not only would you have to find a patch of wilderness big enough to get lost in, but you would have to rid yourself of all the gizmos that hitch you to the grid. These days that could include your watch, phone, car keys and wallet. You would also need to avoid detection by satellites and passing drones. With all the ways we have of tracking each other these days, it amazes me that some hikers, climbers and explorers still manage to get themselves lost.
Nevertheless, I surely have been lost, though not in the wilderness. I remember well the time I drove home with my family from Interlochen, Michigan to Ridgewood New Jersey in one overnight haul. The worst stretch was through Pennsylvania on Route 80. It was pitch black in the dead of night. All I could see was the road in front of me. I was exhausted and far too tired to be driving. Worst of all, though, was the lack of signage indicating how far along I was on the freeway and how much further I had to go. What drove me nuts was element of “not knowing.” That is, not knowing how much longer this hell was going to last or how to respond to my children when they asked me that question. I can well understand how the people of Israel finally lost it when it seemed Moses was leading them on yet another detour. “What the hell? Moses, do you have any idea where you are going? Have you got a plan? How much longer is this trip going to last?”
I have often sensed this frustration in the congregations I have led. They see the challenges facing their church such as declining membership, loss of support and they turn to me for guidance, for assurance, for some plan or strategy to get us out of this wilderness of danger and uncertainty. In some measure, I feel the same frustration as I look to my denominational leaders and find little in the way of guidance, assurance and direction. I forget that they are just as lost as I am; just as lost as my congregation. We are all lost, but at least we are lost together. That would give us much comfort if only we could find the courage to admit to each other that we are lost, that none of us knows the way out and that none of us has a plan. It is at just such times that the Spirit of God often finds an opening to work in our hard, headstrong and determined hearts.
The other noteworthy thing is the prayer of the people. Upon realizing their sin, the Israelites beg Moses to pray God to rid them of the serpents. But God does not rid Israel of serpents. Instead, God provides a remedy for the bite. The serpents remain and people presumably continue getting bit. How much longer this went on the text does not tell us.
This answer to prayer is at once less and more than Israel requested. Obviously, the people would have preferred removal of the serpents to a cure for the bite. That would have restored them to the status quo ante. But there is no going back to what was before. The rebellion of the people and God’s judgment upon them are a settled fact of history. Once a marriage is scared by infidelity or a friendship broken by betrayal, a mere apology is not sufficient to repair the breach. Grace consists not in pretending the breach never happened, but rather in the determination to continue the covenant relationship despite the breach. Israel’s rebellion has damaged the covenant, but not fatally so. It is still possible for Israel to live under the shelter of that covenant, albeit painfully so.
Perhaps there is an analogy here to life under our baptismal covenant. On the one hand, the covenant is sure. God guarantees it. Yet it is also true that in so many ways we violate that covenant, giving God just cause to annul it. God does not turn a blind eye to our infidelities, but neither does God exercise the option to vacate our baptismal covenant. Through confession and absolution, repentance and forgiveness on a daily basis, the sting of the serpent is healed. It becomes possible for sinners to live under the covenant of baptism as God’s saints.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.
In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.
God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.
“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.
I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in a city like Ferguson, Missouri. A police department that is overwhelmingly made up of white officers whose homes are far removed from the largely African American community it serves looks a lot more like an occupation force than a public servant. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his.
What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.
Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. Perhaps the timing of this lectionary text in close proximity to the fiftieth anniversary of the march at Selma is no accident. There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of what it means to “walk” in the good works to which disciples of Jesus are called.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, see last year’s post from Sunday, March 16th. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.
As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.
“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.
It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.
“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.
The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.
Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.
Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.
One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.