Scripture: John 3:14-21
It seems that every culture has fear of some kind of the dark. As we grew up we just knew that there were monsters in our closets or under our beds. These monsters only came out at night. The legends of werewolves and vampires all revolve around darkness. Our dreams have us running through the woods tripping over roots and falling…at night when it is dark. It seems that if anything terrible happens, it will happen at night. There is something about the darkness that attracts the deviant elements of our humanity. We believe that if it is hard to see that maybe we can get away with something, or maybe someone else can get away.
If we even consider the beginnings of our nation, the Tea party protest that many of us consider to be the beginnings of the revolution happened at night and in disguise. The planning of schemes happen in the dark corners of taverns instead of in a brightly lit park at midday. Darkness is a cloak we clothe ourselves in to hide from trouble.
Night is a time of vandals, robberies, and various crimes. Our civic governments try to keep crime at a minimum so they install lights along the streets. Businesses try to detour crime by installing security lighting. Light dispels the darkness; as a result the fears in dark flee as well.
Light and dark concepts are found in nearly every religious teaching. Light is always seen as the bearer of godliness where the darkness is the instrument of evil. Jesus’ teaching of light and dark are not necessarily a unique concept needing an understanding of Hebrew cultural history to understand, it crosses the cultural barriers and speaks volumes to those in every nation. There are some understandings in the symbolism that may differ across the cultures though. In the Hebrew culture light symbolizes the presence of God. The greatest and most well known symbol of the Jewish faith is a candelabra with seven branches known as a menorah. We tend to only think of this symbol around the festival of light or Chanukah, but this candle stand was used every day it was burned every day in the holiest areas of the temple as a sign that God was present. To the Hebrew people the light represented God, and the wisdom of God. When there was darkness it was seen as a curse or the possibility of the adversary to enter into the home or sacred spaces.
This is why John the gospel writer begins his Gospel using terms like light, and word to describe Jesus. To him and to those that follow the ways of Christ, Jesus was and still is the presence of God among us and the knowledge of God in our midst.
This passage begins in a different way. It speaks about a specific moment in the history of Israel. Early in the Exodus of Israel from captivity in Egypt when they wondered through the desert the people began to complain about the journey. They went to Moses accusing him of bringing them out into the desert to starve them to death. They also turned from God, they took their eyes off of the one that took them out of bondage, who parted the sea so they could cross and escape the pursuing army, and they complained. They turned from God who led them across the desert in a pillar of fire at night and a cloud shading them from the harsh desert sun during the day. Claiming that God did not care for them. They rejected God and God allowed them to part from Him. As a result snakes came from all around, snakes whose bites were full of venom, and people began to die from the poison. The desert is full of poisonous creatures especially the desert they were crossing. There are deadly snakes all around, as well as some of the deadliest scorpions. They rejected God and as a result of them pulling away from Him they walked away from His protection.
When people began to die they had something else to complain about. They began to ask Moses where is God why is He not protecting us from these snakes. So God told Moses to fashion a likeness of a snake and lift it up on a pole so when the people turned their eyes on it they the affects of the venom would not harm them. The venom still entered their bodies but when they turned back to God they had redemption.
Jesus uses this story to begin his teaching of his own purpose. The gospel, the good news, is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I speak of this often because it is still the good news. The kingdom of, or the influence of, God is all around us. We wonder about this when we hear news reports of parents beating up coaches when they discipline their children for poor behavior, we wonder where is God when we hear pretty much any news program involving crimes of many types. And your pastor says God’s influence is all around us. It is present everywhere.
Where is this influence? Where is God when the snakes of life are slithering around us and striking at our heels? Where was He when the children of Israel were wondering in the desert? It is not a question about where God is but where we are. God was with the wondering Israelites, and He is with us. Jesus said for the tribes to find hope in the snake pit all they had to do was look up to the raised serpent lifted there by Moses. He was there on the pole in the wilderness. His ministry his purpose of life was to provide redemption for all of creation. And he was telling these people that to do this He must be lifted up on a pole so that when we turn our eyes on to Him we will have life.
The hardest questions that I have ever been asked is why someone had to endure abuse as a child. They have asked me where was God when my parents did these things? The answer is that he was right there with them in their pain. This doesn’t give much comfort to those that have these wounds; in fact I want to punch myself for even wanting to say these things to someone who has such deep wounds. I can say it with full knowledge that I am right but my rightness doesn’t take away their pain. Where was God when people were dying from snakebites, where was God when tornadoes were blowing across places like Branson? He was there with them.
This brings us back to light and dark, and where we are. Jesus says, “God so loved the world that He sent his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” He continues to say, that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but those that refuse to believe are condemned already because they love the darkness instead of light for their deeds are evil.
Where is God? He is lifted up on the Cross raised up on the pole for us to turn to have redemption. He was put there by human hands, killed by evil and for evil, so that he could conquer evil with love and grace. Where is God when we are struggling with the wounds and bites of life? He is hanging on a tree providing relief from those bites. These are still empty words to the wounded heart, to the one that was injured by those supposed to love them yet endured trauma. Those that cause pain are people living in darkness. Their deeds are evil they are under the influence of evil. They reject the light of God because they know in some way that they are wrong but they don’t want to admit it. Our pain is caused not by God but because those around us refuse to come to the light.
We have an opportunity to change. Our pains, our wounds, the bites from the snakes of life do not have to suck life from us. We can live. God can ease our pains, he can heal the wounds, and He can suck the venom from the bites if we turn to Him. This is why the resurrection has such power. Evil and darkness put Jesus on the cross; he was hung there not by Jews but by all mankind. Evil thought that if they could only suck the life out of Jesus then maybe God would leave them alone and they could live as they wanted free from judgment. But that is not the case. Immediately after the crucifixion they started on a new mission, a mission to assure themselves that the body stayed right where they put it, dead and buried. They put armed guards at the tomb. They sealed it with an official seal, which was bound by the threat of death. Why would they go to so much trouble for a dead man? Because Jesus said that the light had come to the world that the light would reveal the evil deeds done in the darkness. Evil put him on the cross evil caused the snakes to enter the camp of the Israelites; evil causes much of the pain we struggle with every day. Darkness however can’t overtake light. When light enters a room the darkness leaves. Those caught in the evil of the cross were afraid that the story wasn’t over. Death could not hold him. He rose from the grave, showed himself to over 500 people and empowered those that follow him with the very spirit of God that has that same power.
We may be wounded people, but the power that raised Jesus from the grave can be present in our lives to heal our wounds and release us from bondage. We may be infected with deadly venoms of sin but the Risen Christ can suck that poison from our bodies and create in us a new creation. He came not to bring in death and judgment, but life and power. He came to free us from the bondage of sin and death, so that we can have life eternally. We may struggle with our pasts; we may struggle in areas of our lives. Areas that we may like to keep hidden in the dark places. All this is doing is keeping us from the true freedom in the Kingdom of God.
Turn to the light. Look up to the cross where your savior died, remember what it was in your own life that put him there, remember that he endured the pain with you and for you. In Him you can have something new if you only believe, and in Him we can walk in light and carry His influence and presence to the lives of other.
Let us now enter into a time of Holy expectancy, a time where we can commune with God our Creator, Savior, and ever-present Teacher. Let us remember where he has helped us and acknowledge where we still need His help. And if we feel lead to share please do so that we all can be encouraged by how the Light of God has been working in you.
Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
While we we dead in sin, an enemy of God, under the rule or influence of the adversary God gave us the greatest gift, life.
Have you ever really thought about this? Today I was driving home from work and the pear trees were in full bloom. This drives my allergies crazy, but I love to see the beauty of the coming spring. God caused that tree in some way to bring me pleasure. I did nothing for this to happen, and to be honest I have probably done more to prevent it from happening than encourging its growth, and yet the tree blooms. For no other reason than to bring pleasure to those that can enjoy it.
True there are scientific reasons for the blooming of nature. I know most of these since I have an agricultural degree, but if you boil it all down all the blooming and growing is to bring pleasure. Various creatures eat the fruit and from that eating the have pleasure. If the various fruits avoid consumption then they reproduce according to their kind and again they bring pleasure as a home for a rabbit or shade for our children as they play in our lawns.
Why does our world have a natural beauty that seems to take our breath away when we slow our lives down to enjoy it? It is God’s grace, it is His gift. All of the world is there for our pleasure and our needs. He gave it to us and often we do not even take the time to thank Him for this. To be honest we even fail to acknowledge that He even has a place in this universe.
This failure is our sinfulness, this is what causes death, mainly spiritual death. If we fail to see the beauty of the blooming trees, we die a little spiritually. If this continues our lives slowly and consistantly drop into a shadowed gloom, which can lead into lifestyles that tend to promote death instead of life. Often religion deepens this gloom. When we get into a system that devotes itself to rules, our minds tend to get distracted from the abundant life around us, life that grows and blooms all around us. This is why Jesus came to live among humankind, to teach us how to live. To really live as a free human being. He would often teach using illistrations like sparrows or lillies, these are natural things that bring pleasure. Yet in those teachings we learn something amazing, that God will take care of us even though we do not deserve it, it also comes with a contrasting lesson that he will not stop us from making a mess of everything either. Jesus also came to redeem the world, so that through Him we could have a restored life with God, our families, our society, and even with our enviroment. He came to save the entire world from a deadness of spirit that was setting a course for distruction. He overcame this by dying and then raising from the grave so that those that turn toward him may have a fulfilling and hopeful life.
Most of you will read this on the 17th of March, which is a day to honor St. Patrick of Ireland. Though I am not fully Irish or Catholic I love this day. I love this day because Patrick loved life and loved life with God. He went to a culture that worshipped nature, and he realized that that was not totally wrong. He knew that if God created nature and used nature to illistrate His love and grace, that these “pagan” Celts could understand and love God the creator. Patrick used nature himself to speak to these people. He taught from a common shared passion, and through his approach the Celtic people embraced God through Christ. They embraced life and grace and spread that message across Europe in a time when the rest of the world was sinking into a shadowy gloom. They brought light and life. We too can bring light and life in Christ.
Today as you pray I encourage you to pray out of doors. Pray with God in world he created out of love and grace. While you pray remember that while we we in a state of spiritual deadness God took it upon Himself to redeem you and everything around you!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!