March 18, 2012

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

It’s always interesting to hear your responses to my sermons. Whether you were inspired, confused, challenged, or blessed… whether you agreed wholeheartedly with what I said, or you want to tell me about an alternate perspective. It was a couple of months ago, I think, and I had preached a sermon that proclaimed the inherent goodness that God has planted within each human being.

I don’t think I was denying the reality that human beings are sinful creatures. It is true: Every single one of us falls short of the glory of God and needs the mercy and grace of the God who loves us despite our failings. But I also believe that we are made to be good. We are gifted with the ability to love and forgive, to be faithful and kind to one another. God made us in God’s very own image, and that image is good, and that’s what I was talking about in that particular sermon.

One of the things that I heard after church that Sunday was the gentlest of criticisms, or perhaps just a reminder about the other side of the coin. The comment was something like this: “Sometimes I think we need to preach about sin also.” Yes, I agreed. Sometimes we do need to preach about sin.

 “Don’t you worry” I could have responded, “Lent is coming, and I’ll be sure to preach plenty about sin during Lent!” And Lent has indeed arrived – we’re more than half way through it – and today’s readings made me think that today might be the day to preach about sin.

I remember someone else telling me that I should preach about sin. It was a fellow from the congregation where I grew up, the father of some of my friends from church school days. When I was getting ready to go back to school and study to be a preacher, he told me what he thought a preacher should be like. He should preach with authority and power. He shouldn’t be afraid to raise his voice or to bang on the pulpit a little bit. He should tell the people what’s what so that they will know right from wrong. And he should definitely preach about sin on a regular basis – convict the people and convince them to turn back to God.

It’s a good thing that wasn’t my only model for preaching back then, because I don’t think I would have even given preaching a try if it had been. That just isn’t my style.

But even if I’m not going to yell at you this morning, and rant about all the bad things that you continue to do, and the good things that you fail to accomplish, I still need to speak about sin and evil because these things are a very real part of our lives and the world that we live in. We cannot let our worship or our faith become a place where we only talk about the God who loves us completely and unconditionally. (Not that it isn’t true…) But we cannot allow our faith to ignore the painful realities of our lives and our world – to adopt a kind of “Barney the dinosaur” theology that only says “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family.”

This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures is strange, don’t you think? In the midst of their long journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land, the Hebrew people sin. They become impatient, and they speak against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” That’s not the strange part. That sounds like a pretty reasonable complaint in a difficult situation. The strange part comes next.

Instead of reassuring the people, or feeding the people, or encouraging the people to hang on just a little bit longer, God sends poisonous serpents among them. Many people are bitten, and they die.

And suddenly their attitude changes – the ones who are still alive, anyway. They immediately repent, they admit their bad attitudes and their snarky comments, and they ask Moses to ask God to help them. Moses does, and they receive these very strange instructions: “Make a poisonous serpent out of bronze, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Weird, huh? God doesn’t get rid of the poisonous serpents. And God doesn’t inoculate the people against the effects of the poison. And God doesn’t provide them with medicine to take when they get a snake bite. No, God tells them to make a bronze snake, and set it on a pole. And everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Just look at the snake.

The reality is that when we sin people get hurt. When we are unkind or unfaithful to our loved ones, the people we love are injured. When we perpetuate stereotypes or make racist comments, our neighbours are wounded.

When we fail to provide loving care for those who are sick or dying, or when we fail to provide for the poorest members of our society, or when we do not stand up for justice for all people throughout the world, people are hurt and damaged by our action or our inaction.

And God, no matter how much God loves us, does not wave a hand and wipe away the effects of our sin. No matter how much we may implore God to fix it, God does not snap his fingers and take away the hurt that we have caused by our sin. Just as God did not simply remove those poisonous serpents from the wilderness where the Hebrews were living.

Instead of taking away the snakes, God told the people to make a statue of one and put it on a pole. Don’t forget that there are poisonous snakes that may come out! This is what they look like! It was like a warning sign of sorts. When the people looked up at the snake on the pole, they remembered the effects of their sin. And maybe, when they looked at it, they changed their ways.

The text from John’s Gospel today makes reference to the first story. It begins, “And 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.”

It’s only the fourth Sunday in Lent, but this reading is pointing us towards what we will pause to ponder on Good Friday. The author of John’s Gospel is talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. He’s telling us that the Son of Man – Jesus – had to be lifted up on a cross just like the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole. And those who see him and believe, just like those who looked up at the snake, will live.

It’s the kind of statement that can sound pretty strange, especially to those who haven’t been hanging out in church circles for years and gotten used to the language and the ideas…. You just look up at a bronze serpent and you live? You just believe in Jesus and you are saved? You live forever just because of that? How odd, and how seemingly arbitrary!

But it’s not arbitrary. Really, it’s not. What is happening in the looking is that the people are being transformed.

Whether it’s the Hebrews looking at the devastating effect of their complaining and speaking against God, or any of us looking at the terrible, horrible impact of our human sin on the very Son of God, we come face to face with the results of our hatred, our neglect, our jealousy, our impatience, our selfishness, our laziness, our bitterness, and our pride.

Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of the evil and injustice that is caused by our human sin, and he’s lifted up so that we can’t avoid looking at him, so that we can’t deny the things that we’ve done or failed to do. And eventually, if we are willing to look, so that we will be transformed.

When we were choosing the music for this morning’s service, we picked up the wonderful theme of “light” that is found in the Gospel text. Christ is the light that “has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

You see, it is Christ who shines light into darkness. Jesus’ life and ministry reveal the goodness of God, and his death on the cross reveals the sinfulness of human beings. In what Jesus does and in what is done to him, both good and evil are revealed and we cannot help but see them.

As some of you know, I’ve been attending quite a few meetings lately – representing the Presbyterian Church in Canada, along with the Rev. Sandy Scott from Prince Albert – as plans are made for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national event here in Saskatoon at the end of June. And as I reflected on these scripture texts this week, I couldn’t help but think of the TRC hearing process taking place across the country.

The whole point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to make space for the truth about the Residential School system in Canada to be told and heard publicly. It’s not just about providing financial compensation for the students who attended the schools and were physically, sexually, or culturally abused. And it’s not just about government and churches making apologies to them either, although that is an important thing for us to do. But I think that more than anything, it’s about speaking the truth. It’s about survivors telling their stories and Canadians taking the time to listen and seek to understand.

Of course, looking at the effects of our sin is not easy. It’s not easy to look at the image of Christ bleeding and dying on a cross on Good Friday, and it’s not easy to sit and listen to the stories of those who were taken from their families as young children, made to live in the Residential Schools, and often physically and sexually abused.

If you go to one of the TRC hearings, you’ll notice little paper bags scattered throughout the room and marked with the word “tears.” There are many tears shed in those hearing rooms – by those who are telling their stories, by those who are sharing their pain, and by those who are coming face to face with their sin and the sin of the institutions to which we belong.

And when the people cry, they dry their eyes on tissues, and they put the tissues in those bags marked “tears.” When the national event happens in June, those tissues and the tears that they contain will go into the sacred fire and they will be burned. The tears of pain, and sharing pain, and telling the truth, and hearing the truth will be gathered together and burned.

And when the survivors, and their families, and others who will stand with them in solidarity stand around that sacred fire, I am sure that there will be healing taking place. It will be the kind of healing that cannot happen when our sins are hidden in dark places, when our failures are down-played, or ignored. It will be the kind of healing that only takes place when the lights are turned on, and the truth is spoken, and the sin is acknowledged.

The poisonous snake is lifted up on a pole. Our crucified Lord is lifted up on the cross. The truth about the Residential School system is told and heard and acknowledged.

But we must remember… as we journey towards Good Friday, as we prepare ourselves for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as we open our eyes to see any sin within our own particular lives… We must remember that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“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.”

We give thanks for God’s mercy. We give thanks for God’s grace. We give thanks for God’s power to raise the dead, to redeem the world, to transform our lives and our relationships, and to bring healing and peace. Amen.