Weekly Preaching: March 11, 2018

March 6th, 2018

What texts this week! Numbers 21:4-9 introduces us to one of the most bizarre religious beliefs in ancient Israel and then simultaneously provides one of the more surprising, theologically suggestive and homiletically promising weirdnesses in all of Scripture. Circling around Edom near the Red Sea, the people murmur (which had to be so old, so trite by now). This region was infamous for its lethal serpents; verse 6 uses the adjective seraph, “to burn” — so were they fiery? Poisonous by extension? What a harsh penalty for murmuring! And to have come after God and Moses have borne the complaining patiently (and even graciously) for years. Think Indiana Jones: “Why did it have to be snakes?” Or maybe Genesis 3 — not the wily tempter, but the curse, that fallen humanity will suffer enmity with snakes.

And yet these venomous snakes are the healing; it did have to be snakes. Think superstition, magic... or Israelite religion, with such a homeopathic antidote. An object is controlled by its own image or effigy. To gaze on an uplifted snake, they believed, could cure ill effects of the snakes on the ground. Lest you think this is a one-off, a bronze snake stood in the temple until Hezekiah finally smashed it (2 Kings 18:4). Israel shared this with their neighbors: Egyptian religion featured serpentine amulets; cobras denoted royalty. A bronze bowl engraved with a winged snake was discovered in Nineveh, booty the Assyrians swiped from Israel’s King Ahaz! Archaeologists found copper mines near where Israel was meandering in Numbers 21, including a five-inch-long copper snake, dating to the time of Moses! (Think modern times also: the medical symbol of the Rod of Asclepius.)

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You don’t have to tie this to John 3 (although John himself did!), but it’s preachable. What is lethal is the way to life; the curse is the way to cure. Certainly the cross works this way: it’s a sign of horror, the killing of the Son, and yet it is itself the cure. Similarly, it is only in our dying that we come to life; it is the killing of our sin on the cross that frees us.

So, before visiting Ephesians 2, which can also be woven into all this, let’s stick with John 3:14-21. Nicodemus has made his famous nocturnal visit to Jesus. His puzzlement over being “born again” is itself fascinating, and can’t be lopped off from our precise reading for today. Jesus speaks of a whole new life. It’s not an emotional experience, this being born again (evangelical fantasies and churchgoer confusion/guilt notwithstanding). It’s God’s work, and our verses explain how God pulled off regenerating us.

I love Jean Vanier’s phrasing, unwittingly linking John to Numbers:

“This journey, our pilgrimage of love, begins and deepens as we hear God murmur within our hearts: ‘I love you just as you are. I so love you that I come to heal you and to give you life. Do not be afraid. Open your hearts. It is all right to be yourself. You do not have to be perfect or clever. You are loved just as you are. As you become more conscious that you are loved, you will want to respond to that love with love, and grow in love.’ ”

We see John 3:16 on billboards, t-shirts, etc.; some terrific music, my favorite being “God So Loved the World” by John Stainer (or this one by Bob Chilcott!) drives the verse home.

The omnipresence is striking and would have shocked most Christians through the centuries. John 3:16 was never the verse until the modern American revival movement — so chalk it up to Billy Graham, I suppose. The verse isn’t a problem, although it diminishes the breadth of the Bible’s vision for us and creation. Or does it? If we read it slowly, we see it’s better than we dreamed. It doesn’t say “For God so loved you, you religious person, that he gave his son — that is, had him crucified in your place — so that whoever believes in him, that is, whoever confesses his sin and agrees Jesus saves him, will not perish but go to heaven.” Instead it says God so loved the world, the kosmos, the whole thing! He gave his son — but he gave him when the Word became flesh; at Christmas; in his healing and teaching; and in his crucifixion and resurrection, which for John is way more about the glorification of God than me getting off the hook for my sins. Belief, for John, is way more than mental assent or repentance and feeling forgiven. It’s following, it’s union with the living Christ, it’s being part of the Body.

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I’d say whether you preach on John or Ephesians, these two texts illuminate one another in lovely ways. In Ephesians 2:1-10, the pivotal verse is 5, not 8 (which is cited so often). Paul (let’s give it to Paul and not confuse church people about authorship) begins by pronouncing us dead — which is about as sensible, given we’re reading his words and hence very much alive, as Jesus’ counsel to Nicodemus to be born again. The word translated “dead” is nekros; I’ve gotten to walk around a few necropolises from Bible times, including the catacombs where Christians worshipped. Eerie. 

Sermons have to explain how we’re dead while we have a pulse; Walker Percy might help. His parents died while he was very young, and he barely survived tuberculosis. Deeply influenced by Kierkegaard (who had written wisely of our “sickness unto death”), Percy creates characters like Dr. Tom More (in The Moviegoer), who lives in Paradise Estates, but really it’s a living Hell. People “have it all” but they are hollow and miserable. Even the meek priest confesses, “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

His later novels, especially Thanatos Syndrome and Love in the Ruins, play on these same themes. I’m struck by the moment when More refused to take Samantha to Lourdes because he was afraid she would be healed! Our worst fear is not that God is dead but that God is alive, and it won’t do just to drink and soak up pleasure. Again, in Numbers and John, it only in the confrontation with death, it is only by dying, that life unfolds, especially this miraculous life in Christ.

Some preachers might resort to the Walking Dead as an image, but that’s just too creepy even for me... although R.C. Sproul, in his tiny book What Does it Mean to Be Born Again?, does say that before being reborn, "We were spiritual zombies — the walking dead. We were biologically alive but spiritually dead."

Clearly, Ephesians 2 exposes how our plight is our whole person, not this or that misdeed. It’s my mind, my flesh, my thoughts, my actions and cravings. And yet God is merciful. No, God is rich in mercy (the Greek is polyeleosvery merciful, manifoldly merciful!). Paul’s hyperbolic language should be noted by the preacher; it’s not just grace, or the wealth of grace, but the surpassing wealth of grace!

A close reading of verse 8 is instructive. Notice the Greek word order. Grace comes early to emphasize its centrality. “Gift of God” is really “God’s gift,” God coming first, unusually in the Greek, to fix our attention on whose grace this is. Notice there is an article (the, that) before grace. So it’s not “For by grace you are saved” but “For by that grace you are saved” — that is, the grace celebrated in verses 5 and 7.

Faith is not a work; it is not a clever, even spiritual decision. Faith is God’s work; faith is all gift. “End of faith as its beginning,” Charles Wesley shrewdly wrote. Faith, St. Augustine helped us to see, isn’t the human contribution to salvation. Otherwise you get spiritual cockiness, no matter how grinningly spiritual. Markus Barth wrote, “The bragger is man in revolt against God, and a tyrant over his fellow man. But he who boasts of God and accepts his own weakness gives God the glory he is due.”

Of course, it’s salutary that the lectionary didn’t clip things off after v. 8. Verses 9-10 debunk any overly simplistic notion of “We’re saved by grace not works," as Paul then (as if to keep us off balance, or twisting in the wind!) explains that we are “created for good works.” Maybe it’s all in how we construe who we are, whose we are, what defines us, and what our doing emanates from.

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