St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788

E-mail: office@stmarymags.ca


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

March 14th Lent 4, 2021     Tasha Carrothers


 Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21



John 3:15. 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.


This verse appears to say that God gives his Son to be killed. If we believe in him, then this somehow saves us from dying and gives us never ending life.


It seems that the worst thing that can happen to us is to die, so maybe it’s talking about avoiding endless torment in Hell. Never ending life must be talking about heaven, floating about with harps or better yet, endless cocktails and never a hangover or crushing shame.


So, all we need to do is “believe,” whatever that means. Like believing in Santa Claus? Or giving up the Easter Bunny in favour of Jesus?


*****


This is how I understand what is going on in the passage:


This passage is about God’s love, divine love, for the whole world. A love incomprehensibly unconditional and ever present. This love is for the whole world, not just the select few, not just us. It is for all of God’s creation.


Everything that follows needs to be understood as flowing from divine love.


God knows that we have grown apart, that God and humankind are not connected in the way that we could be, that we have diverted our attention so that the love is stretched, attenuated. As a result, we are suffering, are destroyed, are perishing. God loves us and wants to overcome the distance between us.


So the divine comes among us in the form of Jesus. Jesus, who is both God and human like us. Like shot silk, woven with two colours to make a shimmering fabric. “Both/and.”


And Jesus asks us to believe. What does this mean, to believe? A joke:

Question: Do you believe in same sex marriage?

Answer: Believe in it? My goodness, I’ve seen it!


No, this believe is more along the lines of trust. Do you trust Jesus? Do you have confidence in him, in what he says and does? He says that God is his father, that he is the Son of God. At the time, “Son of God” was also a description of several Roman emperors, both alive and dead. What makes Jesus different is that he says that he is the only son of God, that he has a unique relationship with the divine. It’s our call: he is either a charlatan or he is telling the truth. Can you trust him? Can you trust what he says about himself? Can you trust what he says about God, this message of divine love? It’s not easy.


Jesus says that he comes among us so that we might be rescued, be saved. Rescued from lovelessness, from being destroyed, from perishing. If we are able to trust, then we will experience God’s love, God love that is always there but that we have pulled away from. I imagine that this experience of love is like a trust fall, only bigger. If you did high school drama or went to camp, you may remember the feeling. In a trust fall, you stand with you back to another person, arms crossed in front of your chest. You close you eyes and let yourself fall backwards, trusting that the other person will catch you. There is this moment when you are falling, not knowing where the other person is, followed by a sense of being caught and held, embraced, safe.


In this passage, the alternative is not trusting, remaining in a state of lovelessness, lost, condemned. It is not that God or Jesus condemns us; rather, this is the state of being alienated from God’s love. We are condemned already.


The choice is not between heaven or hell but is between being able to enter into divine love versus clinging to lovelessness.


And here is a problem: The way the text is written, is sounds like it’s all or nothing. Either we trust completely and have eternal love, we live in the light; or, we do not trust, and we prefer the darkness so that our bad behaviour can’t be seen.


I find it easy to question whether I actually believe in, whether I actually trust, God’s love. I also know that I have moments, plenty of moments, when my actions reveal that I don’t.


What is the opposite of belief? Is it doubt? No, I think that one opposite of belief, of trust, is fear. We are afraid that Jesus might be a charlatan, that his life, death, resurrection and ascension might be a fairy tale. That, say, one year into the pandemic God doesn’t care about us. Under the fear might be anger, anger because God doesn’t seem to be showing God’s love in any way that we can discern—and we’re not stupid. Another opposite to trust might be indifference, distraction. We live as if God’s love doesn’t make any difference in our lives. We rely on our own initiative, our own problem-solving, our own creativity. We are like the rugged individual, or the toddler demanding to “do it myself!”


The more I look at it, the more I realize that it is not either/or but is—once again—both/and. I am not wholly trusting nor am I wholly afraid. I have clear moments of each, but I mostly live in a muddle. I long to trust more than I do, to enter into divine love, into the embrace of being caught. And yet I keep forgetting. , I carry on as if I can do it all myself.


I do not have any lived experience, either in myself or in the people around me, of anyone being wholly in the light or wholly in the dark. So I say let’s put that idea aside for now. The only way I can reconcile this either/or with God’s unconditional love is to acknowledge that I am both believing and not believing, and that God loves me, warts and all.


So I would paraphrase John 3:15 like this:

God loves all of us so much that God comes among us in Jesus, so that we can learn to trust again, and experience that love now and forever.


PAUSE


The gospel passage begins by referring to a story that the original hearers would have known. This is the story:


With God’s help, the Israelites have escaped soul crushing slavery in Egypt. They are now free, but they are in the desert wilderness, a dangerous place with no food and no water. They are on the move from oasis to oasis, never staying for long. They cry out that they are afraid that they will die, and that they detest the strange manna, this miserable food, that God sends each day. So God sends poisonous snakes. This wakes them up, makes them realize that they had been wrong to give in to fear and to scorn God’s provision. They go to Moses, who prays on their behalf. God tells Moses to make a poisonous snake and put it on a pole, saying that everyone who is bitten can look at it and be healed. And it works: Moses makes a snake out of bronze, puts it on a pole, and whenever a person is bit, that person looks at the bronze serpent and lives.


In this story, the consequence of not trusting God is the appearance of poisonous snakes, literally “burning ones.” Terrifying and deadly. And the cure is to look directly at a burning serpent, raised up on a pole so that the people can see it. The cure for fear, for lack of trust, for disdain, is to look directly at the fear. Maybe a bit like vaccines, where a bit of the virus is the cure. It won’t make the snakes go away, the fear is always there. But so is the source of healing.


This is the story that the original listeners know. So when Jesus says, “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,” when Jesus says that, they understand that they are like the snake-bitten Israelites in the Wilderness, and Jesus is like the bronze snake. Only this time, it is not a temporary healing but eternal, never ending, love. When the time comes, all we need to do is look to Jesus, raised up like the bronze snake.


Because God loves the world and wants us all to come to the light.


PAUSE


I wonder if you have experienced a wilderness time in your life, a time when you felt hungry, lost and wandering?


I wonder how you were fed in that time? Did you have a sense that God was somehow providing for you?


I wonder what trusting in divine love looks like in your life?