Faith United Methodist Church

March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Rev. Krista Beth Atwood

Scripture: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, John 3:14-20

Prayer of Illumination:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our thoughts be acceptable in your sign, O God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

Sermon:  Shared Suffering

This morning’s Gospel lesson comes from one of my favorite passages in Scripture. In the portion we read today, Nicodemus is not named, but he is there in the background. The whole passage is addressed to him. You see, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher, sought out Jesus in the dark of night to have a pretty serious talk.   Nicodemus had questions, questions about baptism, questions about being born again, questions about the Spirit. He didn’t quite get it. And I can relate to Nicodemus because sometimes I don’t quite get it either. Sometimes I want to echo Nicodemus’ question, “How can this be?”

Where we pick up in the Scripture today Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus where Jesus’ own life would lead and the nature of God’s love. Some pretty heavy stuff! Jesus explained, “Just 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.” This was a reference to the Hebrew Scriptures and a time when the Israelites ~ wandering through the desert ~ were bitten by poisonous serpents. (Nicodemus, a Jewish teacher, would have known this story.) In it God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole. Those who were bitten by the poisonous serpents were to look upon the bronze serpent for healing. Jesus explained that he, too, would be lifted up and those who looked on him and believed would also be healed. A reference to the way Jesus would die ~ hung on a cross.

God loved the Israelites enough to save them from the poisonous serpents. God loved Nicodemus enough to give him Jesus to show him the way. And God doesn’t just love Nicodemus, but the whole world. As Jesus put it in perhaps the most quoted verse of the New Testament, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The next verse isn’t quoted as often, but is just as important, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God’s priority is not our harm, but our health, our wholeness, and our salvation. In short, God is on our side.

This is a helpful reminder for me on this Fourth Sunday of Lent.   Sometimes it is difficult to hold fast to God’s love when the pain of the world is so evident. Around the world we hear of war, terrorism, the murder and torture of innocent people and natural disasters that destroy lives.   At home we live with job loss, illness, grief and disappointments ~ big and small. Sometimes life is just plain hard. During Lent we are asked to look inside ourselves for those dark places of pain and doubt that separate us from God. In this season, especially, we are reminded of the tension between suffering and new life.

Our Psalm addresses this tension as well. Psalm 107 begins the final book of Psalms, the Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving. It begins, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” Those who wrote this Psalm had been through many hardships and endured much pain. They had been exiled and were forced to live away from their land. Their Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed. Yet God called them back from the east and the west, from the north and the south. Gathered together, they recalled their trials, they cried out to God, and they gave thanks for God’s steadfast love. Even in the face of their suffering, they came together to celebrate that God was on their side.

It strikes me that, to some degree, this is what we do every Sunday. We may not be coming back from exile, but we do come together from our various places in the world. Some of us come from challenging jobs and family obligations. Some of us come from experiences of illness or uncertainty. Some of us come struggling with difficult decisions. Some of us come filled with celebration for a joy realized. Some of us come bored with life and wondering what God might have to say to us. Like Nicodemus, some of us come with questions. We come from the east and the west, the north and the south. Williston, Burlington, Shelburne and Colchester. We come together because, for some reason, we feel God calls us here.

We see this most clearly when we share our prayers ~ our celebrations and concerns. I appreciate that our community values these prayers enough to set aside a portion of our worship for sharing. We are given the opportunity to voice what is most on our hearts. As Matthew Stith put it in his Lectionary Reflections, “The experience of God’s saving power is not a private matter, but rather is completed by sharing its good news in public.” Our prayers may not always be answered the way that we wish they would be. Yet even in the tough stuff, we share with each other and with God and can celebrate the ways we do experience God’s healing love.

God never promised us it would be easy. What God does promise is to be with us, even in the tough stuff. God shares in our suffering. The good news for us is that God does not shy away from the messy stuff of life. Poisonous serpents. Exile. Crucifixion. God’s been there and done that. Knowing that tells me that God can handle the stuff of my messy life. Thanks be to God! As our Seasons of the Spirit describes it, “Instead of a God who watches our behavior to zap us for wrong doing and reward us for good deeds, we are called to see God as sharing our suffering.” And, I would add, our joy. God is on our side.

On this fourth Sunday of Lent we continue the journey through the wilderness. The journey is ~ sometimes ~ difficult. At times we encounter rough terrain. Our prayers are not always answered just as we would like. And, like Nicodemus, we may have questions that come to us in the dark of night. Still, it is God’s steadfast love that carries us through our desert and wilderness wanderings. In the face of pain and challenge, we are people of hope. “For God so loved the world….” As Alan Brehm describes it, “We are the hungry and thirsty who have been fed. We are the sinners deserving death who have been given life. We are the fearful before the terrors of existence who have been given hope.” God is on our side loving us, sharing with us, saving us. Amen and Amen.