Sermon for Lent 4, Sunday, March 15 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Num 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Eph 2:1-10; Jn 3:14-21
“You cannot conceive, my child—and neither can I, or anyone—the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
That’s a line from near the end of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, one of his half-lost priests telling the half-truth, without knowing quite what he’s saying. Which I have to admit is a bit the way I’ve been feeling in trying to tackle today’s Gospel.
It includes one of the most often quoted, most centrally important, and most frequently misapplied lines in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son … God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved.” This, more than almost anything else, is a core truth of our faith, that God loves the world of God’s creation, loves us, so deeply and so personally, that the almighty Uncreated will freely offer _everything, _will offer God’s own self, to bring us back home.
But before those sentences, the reading also contains one of the strangest passages in John, this weird cryptic reference to the Son of Man being lifted up like a snake in the wilderness. Obviously, John is drawing here that other strange story which we heard a few minutes ago, in which the children of Israel are bitten by fiery monster-snakes in the desert, and then cured by looking at a bronze snake held up on a pole in front of them. This bronze snake on a pole, apparently, was displayed in Solomon’s Temple, and was probably actually an artifact made earlier than the story which later claimed to explain it; part of the mysterious imagery of worship, uncanny, healing and poison twined together.
And John’s gospel tells us that this has in it some part of the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection, that Christ on the cross is somehow like that bronze snake, and that it is in the seeing of this that we see light. We lift in front of our own eyes a human being tortured, God in flesh dying, and say that we find in this our love and healing. It is strange, terribly strange. But perhaps it really is the nature of mercy to confuse us.
The snake in Genesis, who was also a creature of God, is the one who forces us, in the language of the story, out of a paradise of innocence and into a knowledge of good and evil that we would rather not have. The fiery monster-snakes in the desert are even more complicated—the story presents them as God’s punishment for complaint—and I have to say that, annoying though the children of Israel may be (especially when they start saying that there isn’t any food and they hate the food), I cannot be entirely without sympathy for them. They are, after all, lost and wandering in a desert waste, genuinely hungry and thirsty, genuinely at risk of death, displaced people with nothing to hold onto; and now driven by these attacking snakes into even greater danger, an even greater sense of abandonment and betrayal. And yet in the very things that hurt them, the things they have believed to be punishment, they find the possibility of health.
The cross says this, that the world is broken and we are broken, and because of this we break others, we hurt and exploit and torture others, we choose to kill; or, more often, we choose to let others kill for us, and pretend that we don’t know. And often enough we attribute all this to God, we displace our own anger and hurt and the pain we inflict upon others onto an imaginary punshing deity. But the cross that is lifted up says that the damage is our own, not something God inflicts on us but which we, in fact, inflict upon the body of God; God in Christ, God in all his vulnerable children. As the children of Israel looked at the image of the deadly snake, we are compelled to look at this image of our own violence, our own exclusions and refusals, our own deadly sickness. And only in this looking can we begin to be healed.
This is a knowledge of our own good and evil that we would rather not have. We would rather be innocent. But that is no longer allowed. Because of love, we cannot be ignorant or innocent. We are intimately known, and must come to know ourselves.
Love on a human level is bad enough that way, has more in it of knowing and being known, in all our inadequacy and weakness, than we are really comfortable with, and even from this we may pull away. But God_’ _’so loved the world as to set in front of us the whole knowledge of our illness. In our sickness — in our state of living death, Paul says — God loves us and pulls us back into real life, God makes us awake, aware, alive. And that may not feel like light or mercy. God’s mercy is what makes us look at the things—in the world, in our own selves—that we would rather not see. We don’t want to see a man tortured to death on a tree. We don’t want to see a man lying under a pile of cardboard on a heating vent in the middle of winter, we don’t want to know that we are responsible for that man.
And I don’t want to see all the harm that I do in my weakness, in the challenges I cannot meet, the people I cannot love enough, in those I refuse and reject, in my selfish smallness and the bad choices of my crooked heart. Love tells us this. Love breaks us like a wheel, sometimes, and puts us in a light that we would try to run from. Love lifts before our eyes that awful tree.
But we must also remember that for John, the cross and the resurrection are never separated. It is one single movement, the lifting up of the Son of God, the Son of Man. At the very moment when Jesus is being lifted up to die, he is being lifted up to glory and life; in fact, when Jesus speaks of his crucifixion, in John, he is most likely to speak of it as the moment of his glorification. And, more than that, we are all raised with him, all invited into a superabundance of life and light that we can scarcely imagine.
For as much as we are in the middle of Lent right now, this is also the Sunday called Laetare, the Sunday called “rejoice.” And before the development of the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading in many churches on this Sunday was the feeding of the five thousand, that reminder that when we hold up empty hands in the dangerous wilderness, we will be fed. We may not quite understand how, and it may still feel like hunger. But if we look, with real awareness, on this world’s suffering, on the body of Christ crucified in this world, we may see also its beauty, we may see also the glory of God in his self-offering.
I have said before, to some of you, that the great privilege I have had, in my work in conflict zones, is that although I have seen some of the worst things of which people are capable, I have also seen some of the best—the islands of humanity, the people who have refused to participate in violence even at the cost of their lives, people who have defended the voiceless, the stigmatized, the other, who have gone on loving their enemies no matter what. But it need not be that dramatic, what we see when we look intently at this broken world. We see the stubborn milkweed springing up, and the human hands which strive to preserve and tend the earth. We see moments of recognition between human faces, human hearts. We see the persistence of creativity, of art and music. Small moments of change and healing. We see our strange determination still to speak to each other, to bind ourselves to each other in word and gesture, and we see in this some mysterious fragment of resurrection, of eternal life.
The crosses we may wear around our necks speak of it all, as the bronze snake spoke some part of it in the Temple. For the Lord has been lifted up by our hands, and lifts us up with him, and we have, all unmeaning, made out of our great failure the means of our healing.