March 18th, 2012 – Changed by Love

Today’s sermon is going to be a bit different, in several ways. First of all, I plan to start almost in the same way as a rabbi would, with some actual teaching, rather than preaching. This is appropriate because, after all, my title in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, in addition to being a minister of word and sacraments, is TEACHING elder. Secondly, I will be focusing mostly on the Old Testament – both the confusing reading from the Book of Numbers, and on the Psalm. Of course I will also reference the Gospel, but the main thrust of today’s sermon will not be from the New Testament.
Let’s start with some interesting facts. Many people know that the first five books of the Old Testament – often referred to these days as the Hebrew Scripture – are called the Pentateuch. But not as many people know that the Psalms are also divided into five parts. The psalm we used today is the beginning of the fifth book, which is a collection of psalms of praise and thanksgiving. And on this Sunday, which I earlier mentioned used to be called Laetare Sunday, this psalm is a particularly good choice for our responsive reading. You see, Lent has, for years, been regarded as a solemn time in the church, and we, as Christians, are caught by the contrast between what we know to be coming – the communion of the Last Supper, followed by betrayal; then the suffering and death on the cross followed by the resurrection. We are not sure what we should feel – eager anticipation or dread.
Suffering may be an inevitable part of the human condition, something we cannot avoid. However, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it stoically. I remember being told, as a child, that when something bad was happening to me, to “offer it up”. Fortunately, we have moved far beyond that, and no longer believe that suffering, even though it does happen, is a required part of human existence. One thing we need to know – and admit – is that, often, suffering is our own fault. Suffering is caused by something we did, by some choice we made. But whatever the cause of suffering, we know, as did the Israelites, that God can relieve it.
It is unfortunate that we only read part of the Psalm this week, as the entire thing relates no less than four stories – four times when the Israelites were in trouble and cried out to God to help. And each time, according to the Psalmist, he saved them, after which they thanked him. Over and over again, the psalmist wrote: Let them give thanks for the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. The psalm itself begins with the words “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” What an appropriate way to being this Psalm, and even this section of psalms. Gratitude for God’s love permeates this psalm, just as God’s love itself permeates our Gospel reading. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes, but for now, let’s focus on suffering.
Many times, it seems to us that suffering is a mystery. Who knows why a tsunami happens? But, in this modern age, there are many professionals who can analyze suffering – explaining its cause, and pointing to ways to relieve it. We know that society’s emphasis on success doesn’t bring happiness nearly as often as we have been led to think. We know that THINGS don’t bring happiness, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to get more and more. Even though we live in the most scientifically advanced age of all time, we still don’t know how to be happy. Most of us work too much; in North America we eat too much; some of us drink too much, or turn to other drugs for satisfaction. We are familiar with the term shopaholic, which describes someone who shops in an attempt to find happiness, and not out of necessity, which is pretty well the only reason I go to stores. Many people spend too much time gazing at what my father used to call “the idiot box”, while others are constantly plugged into their iPods or other such devices. But what many don’t realize is that, because of these searches for happiness, we end up damaging, if not destroying relationships; we weaken our experience of intimacy; and even our own health is often destroyed. This leads to our personal sufferings being magnified and reflected in the world, which we can see every evening on the news or read about in the daily paper.
Like the Israelites of old, we are sick because of our sinful ways, and because our iniquities endured affliction; we loathe any kind of food, and we are drawing near to the gates of death. It is easy for us to look at others, and to say: Well, it’s their own fault. If people don’t eat properly; if people insist on smoking; if people refuse to exercise, then, we say: It’s their own fault. But we should rather say: There but for the grace of God, go I. Because, again like the Israelites of old, we cry out to the Lord to help us. There are some people who do not feel as though they have that option. But we know that we do. We know because of John 3: 16 – God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believe in him might not perish, but have everlasting live. We are loved, and that’s what today is all about.
Love is why we rejoice on this day, in the middle of Lent. Love is why we are able to bear the betrayal on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday. Love is what leads us to the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
So now we move from the Psalm to Lent, to a time for us to begin again. Looking back to the past again, Lent was once seen as a time for repentance, and, while that is still one aspect of this season, it is not the only one, nor, in my opinion, the most important one. How many times have we seen God’s people repent? How many times have we seen them again turn their backs on God? To me, this often means that repentance is hollow, almost meaningless. But, if we look at Lent as a time for a fresh start, then our whole attitude will change. Rather than looking back on all the wrong things we have done, we will look forward to the person we will become, because of God’s love. The Israelites spent 40 years, wandering in the desert, looking for the Promised Land; Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry; maybe we need to spend 40 days in a wilderness, even though it may not be a literal one. Our wilderness can be in our own homes. The point of it is to get away from our overloaded culture, away from the gadgets which take us away from God, away from everything which interferes with our relationship with our Creator. We need to take this time, a time of quiet prayer and reflection, to focus our thoughts and to recognize God at work in our lives.
And we also need time together, as God’s faithful people. One of the reasons we do the Psalms responsively is to show that they are representative of all God’s people, our joys and sorrows, our cries of lament and praise and thanksgiving. And a psalm is, above all, a poem. Poetry, no matter when it is written, or for whom or by whom it is written, contains a message for all time. Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian theologian, is well known among scholars for her book: The Cloister Walk, one chapter of which deals with praying the psalms. In this chapter, she wrote: “The psalms are poetry, and poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.” During this Lenten season, which began with the transfiguration, we also hope to be somehow transfigured, to be transformed, and one way to achieve this is to do as Norris did – to pray the psalms regularly, daily even. In this way, we can open ourselves to receive the gifts of God. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in this church, immediately before the distribution of the bread and wine, I say: The gifts of the God for the people of God. The gifts of God for the people off God. We are the people of God, and his gifts are all around us.
In the same way, God’s gifts were around his people during their trek through the wilderness, whether or not they saw the signs. In many ways, the wandering Israelites remind me of cranky children who are going on a trip with their parents. There is a story about a three year-old who is being taken on a road trip by her parents. Well, first she wanted juice; then she wanted a cookie; and of course, after that, she needed a bathroom break. After the first hour of the trip the actual whining began. She wanted to know how much longer the trip would take; she wanted to know when she would go back to her friends at school. She needed to go to the bathroom yet again, and then she simply had to have the toys she dropped on the floor of the car. At her wits’ end, her mother looked out the window and exclaimed, “Look, sweetie! Do you see what that sign says?” The little girl excitedly looked at a sign that probably said something like “McDonald’s Drive Thru, Exit 45,” and demanded, “Tell me what it says! What does it say?” Her creative mother said, “It says ‘No Whining!’ ” The child believed her mother and immediately ceased nagging her parents. For the remainder of the trip, and for many trips thereafter, she would point to signs on the side of the road and say, “That sign says ‘No Whining!’”
In our Old Testament reading today, the Israelites are whining. In fact, in much of this book, the Israelites are whining. Despite the many time God has saved them during their wandering, they still think that they are going to die in the wilderness, and I suppose that is a good reason to whine a little. But where was their faith? Instead of realizing that every step was taking them a little closer to the Promised Land, all they could see what that they weren’t there yet – not unlike the little girl in our story.
Now, while they were in the wilderness, they must surely have encountered other snakes, so I wonder what made these so special? Maybe it was their reaction to the snakes, because they went to Moses and said: We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.
And what did Moses do? Well, this is the part with which I have the most difficulty. Moses, following God’s instructions, fashioned a snake out of bronze, and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Now, to me, this almost smacks of making false idols. But the point of it was to show how the power of healing can overcome both the grip of physical suffering and, more importantly, the sense of being lost in the wilderness, wandering hopelessly and aimlessly. And the serpent was to help focus the Israelites at the time. One of the purposes of Lent is to help us focus, to help us recognize the consequences of our sins, upon ourselves and others. During this time, we can examine the wilderness behind and before us, and see how God can bring us through it. But we need to be focused to see this. Interestingly, years later, when Hezekiah was called upon to purify the temple, one of the things which was destroyed was the bronze serpent. This shows me how reform has to be a part of any organized religion, for, without it, we will stagnate and die.
But we are not about to stagnate and die. And it is because of Jesus Christ that this will not happen. I referred earlier to John 3: 16, which was read as part of today’s Gospel. I have that verse framed and hung in my study, because I think that it is one of the most important ones in all of Scripture, and I was able to find an interesting story about that verse to share with you today.
I am sure that most of you have heard about football player, Tim Tebow, and his in-your-face Christianity. Well, three years ago (2009), he wrote John 3:16 on his eye black while playing in a college championship game. Eye black is grease paint that athletes smear under their eyes to reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights. Sometimes athletes write a short message across their eye black. There isn’t much room there, but Tebow wrote “John” under his right eye and “3:16” under his left eye. Seeing him on camera, you would see “John 3:16” written across his eye black. Tebow’s idea, of course, was to use his “bully pulpit” to broadcast the message of God’s love. When Tebow wrote “John 3:16” on his eye black, within 24 hours, 90 million people did a Google search on “John 3:16.” In fact, for that 24 hour period, “John 3:16” was Google’s highest-ranked search term. Whatever you think of Tim Tebow, he is making a powerful witness.
The following year (2010), the NCAA, which regulates college football, created a new rule banning messages on eye paint. The NFL already had that sort of rule in place when Tebow moved from college to pro football––so he isn’t supposed to wear messages in his eye black. However, the message still gets through. When Tebow’s team––the Denver Broncos–– defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, Tebow threw 316 yards––and his passes averaged 31.6 yards per completion. Those 3’s and 16’s in Tebow’s yardage set commentators to commentating. Was that the hand of God? Tebow, of course, didn’t have any doubt! And he publicly shared and shares his faith. But we have millions of Christians who are content to hide their light under a basket. We have no shortage of invisible Christians. In fact, most of us are just that – invisible, hiding our light under a basket of a bush. During Lent, maybe it is time to become more visible, to proclaim to the world that we are Christians. Let them see the signs that we already see. Confident of God’s love, we can return to him and start anew. Like the people of ancient Israel, we can rebuild our lives and renew our church. Let us work towards a world and a church based on co-operation rather than competition, on respect rather than discrimination. We can do it, with God’s love. God so loved the world. Thanks be to God.

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