The holy gospel according to John, the third chapter. Glory to you, O Lord.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "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. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most of us prefer cuddly, furry kinds of animals. We like the cute and pretty ones: fluffy sheep, cats, dogs, and bunnies - the ones that are tame, the ones that don't bite. Today's lessons are about snakes!
Like most people, I really don't like snakes.
As far as snakes go, I am not afraid of the small non-poisonous varieties. I have even been known to pick up a baby green snake and show it to the kids, back in the day when I was a camp counselor.
Poisonous snakes are a totally different matter. I don't want one anywhere near me.
When I was at a Lutheran Retreat Center in Arizona a few years ago, I was never very comfortable walking around outside after they had warned us about the rattle snakes. I think snakes need to stay far away from people before I will even consider that "live and let live" is a good policy.
The Holy Land is a mainly dry, desert land and it is full of snakes, so they are mentioned in several stories in the Bible. The poisonous snakes in today's Old Testament lesson were called "fiery serpents" because the bites really burned and caused a fever which led to death.
In that story, the Israelites were complaining about Moses and bad-mouthing God. They had been wandering in the desert for a long time. They were getting pretty whiny. They were sick and tired of only having manna to eat and not much water. They kept nagging Moses with a chorus of: “Are we there yet?" And, "Why don't we just go back home?" and "You are the one who brought us out here and got us lost."
Then the fiery serpents started biting and many of them died.
The bad news for us today is that we have all been bitten by those fiery serpents, those poisonous snakes. We are full of their poisonous venom and we are dying from it. The snake venom in us is our original sin. Every human who has ever lived has been poisoned by the snake venom of original sin, and we will all die because of it.
We have all had our times of self-centered living, times of unwillingness to see the image of God in others, times of jealousies and rivalries, times of carelessness, times of hurtful words and angry deeds, times of idleness and wastefulness. We confess these sins each week.
Sadly, we know we are full of venom. Sometimes we even act like snakes and bite each other, figuratively, of course, and share the venom of our sin. Sometimes we are the ones bitten and feel the fiery burn and the fever.
One of the things we know about snake bites though, is that the cure, the anti-venom, is made from the venom of the snake.
When the Israelites are bitten, they ask Moses to pray for them and he does. God answers the prayer, not by removing the snakes, but by telling Moses what he can do to heal the ones who have been bitten.
That part of the story is hard for us. We want God to get rid of the snakes. We wish God hadn't put the snakes on earth in the first place, or at least that God would keep the snakes far away from us. But we are not God, and we must trust that God's answer is the right one. We must trust that God knows more about healing and salvation than we do. We must remember that we too, act like snakes sometimes.
God has Moses make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks up at it will be healed. Even today, the snake wrapped around a pole, the caduceus, is the symbol of the medical profession. It does seem an odd symbol of healing. But an instrument of capital punishment is an odd symbol of salvation, too.
Jesus is the Good Snake. That does seem to be what he is saying to Nicodemus in the gospel lesson. He likens himself to the bronze snake Moses made in our Old Testament story.
Theologian, William Willimon, tries to explain all this. He says, “The Gospel of John therefore refers to Jesus, not only as the good shepherd, but also as the good snake. He surprised us, came in among us, slithering in to our illusions of stability and safety. We reached for the ax to beat him to death. He opened his mouth, and spoke words that cut us like a sword, venomous, prophetic words.
“And we beat him, whipped him, and lifted him up high on a pole. And in lifting him up from earth toward heaven, his poisonous, prophetic words of venom became the anti-venom, the means of salvation. And even those who had killed him, standing at the foot of the pole, were able to look up and say, ‘Truly this is the Son of God.’”
God brings healing in the midst of our worst failures and disappointments. God doesn't remove the snakes that bite us, but provides the cure, the anti-venom.
Jesus is the Good Snake, the anti-venom. He tells Nicodemus and he tells us, that looking up to him on the cross will give us eternal life.
God didn't send Jesus to condemn us, but to save us. Everywhere in John's gospel, John uses the word "world" to means the enemies of God, not the beautiful creation, but the evil corrupted place it has become.
Hear how that sounds in verse 16: "For God so loved his enemies that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life."
God loves enemies. This is very good news for us. God loved the Israelites who complained because their salvation from slavery required some wandering and that the food was boring.
God loves us even when we are at our worst, acting against the will of God. When we are disobedient. When we are following our own desires. When we don't do the good works we are created to do. God loves us and saves us even when we are complaining that God isn't saving us the way we think God should save us.
God's way of saving us involves a cross. God does not take away the suffering, but suffers with us. God goes with us as we journey through the wilderness and God gives us our daily bread. God provides all that we need.
Just keep looking up. Jesus is the Good Snake, the one who is lifted up. Look up to him and be saved.
Whoever believes in him has eternal life already.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.
I thirst for God, for the living God;
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while all day long they say to me, “Where now is your God?”
I pour out my soul when I think on these things;
how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God, with shouts of thanksgiving, among those keeping festival.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to the one who is my help and my God.
My soul is heavy within me;
therefore I will remember you from the land of Jordan, and from the peak of Mizar among the heights of Hermon.
One deep calls to another in the roar of your cascades;
all your rapids and floods have gone over me.
The Lord grants lovingkindness in the daytime;
in the night season the Lord’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to the God of my strength, “Why have you rejected me,
and why do I wander in such gloom while the enemy oppresses me?”
While my bones are being broken, my enemies mock me to my face;
all day long they mock me and say to me, “Where now is your God?”
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to the one who is my help and my God.
Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
On our Wednesdays during Lent, we have been talking about the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Last week we heard that we should love the LORD with all our hearts. This week our focus is
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your soul.”
Have you ever talked with someone who didn't grow up in the church? Asked them what led them to decide to join the church as an adult? People who come to faith as adults frequently say something like, "I felt something was missing in my life."
Our souls are the part of us that feel like something is missing. They are the part of us that longs for God. They are the essence of our life itself. Having a soul means we are living breathing creatures who long for our creator, long for the One who gives us the breath of life.
In tonight's reading, Psalm 42, the psalmist is someone who feels cut off from God and the community of faith. Listen to parts of verses six and three: "My soul is cast down within me. My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, "Where is your God?""
It can be a depressing world out there. Just read the news. Politicians are constantly saying nasty things about each other. It looks like a trade war is starting in the steel industry. The opioid crisis is the worst it’s ever been. This year’s flu epidemic is just reaching its peak. And that's just the headlines from this week.
It is easy to understand why someone would ask where our God is. We ask that question ourselves sometimes, not just about world problems, but about things in all the different churches. Why is there division among us? Don't we all read the same Bible? Why can't we all just get along with each other? Why do things in the church change when we don't want change? And conversely, why do things move so slowly when we need something done?
We understand why someone would ask, "Where is your God?" because we ask that question in our own lives often enough. We know sadness and we know grief. We know that bad things do happen to us and to people we love. We have all felt cut off from God, like God wasn't listening to us. Like God has forgotten us.
Like the psalmist, we have all asked where God is in the midst of pain and death, disaster and despair. In the very next verse after asking that question, the psalmist is remembering the good times, the times of leading the festival procession with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.
We have those memories of good times, too. We remember how we felt on the day of our confirmation, the day our child was baptized, that Christmas Eve communion service when we understood that Jesus was born for us, that Easter morning when the truth of the Resurrection became so real for us that we could feel it in the depth of our hearts. It feels great to be able to lead the festival procession with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.
We have asked where God is, and we have had times when we clearly felt God's presence. Despair and hope live together within us. They coexisted for Jesus when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, "Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." (Mark 14:36)
Even though today's news is depressing, what gets us beyond despair is the knowledge that today's news is not the end of the story. It wasn't the end of the story for Jesus and it isn't the end of he story for us.
You have probably never heard of Horatio G. Spafford. Mr. Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer who lost most of his wealth in the financial crisis of 1873. He sent his wife and four daughters on a trip to France, but on their way, their ship was struck by another ship, and it sank. Of the 225 passengers, only 87 of them survived. Mrs. Spafford was one of the survivors, but the four daughters all died. As soon as she reached land, she telegraphed to her husband: "Saved alone. Children lost. What shall I do?"
Mr. Spafford left for France to join his wife and bring her back to Chicago. In the depths of this grief, he wrote a hymn that keeps his name alive:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot,
Thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul." ELW 785
The psalmist answers the question, "Why are you cast down, O my soul?" with the refrain, "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God."
We can hope in God because we know the end of the story. We are living in the middle of it all right now and despair is a reality sometimes. We have our own gardens of Gethsemane and times when tears have been our food.
In the middle of it all, hope coexists with despair. We have despair, but we also have our times of leading the procession with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.
We know how things turned out for Jesus after his prayer in the garden. A short while later, he was betrayed by one of his friends. He was tortured and killed. From the cross he wondered if God had forsaken him. But that is not the end of the story.
We know the rest of the story of Jesus. We know that on the third day, he rose again and ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Our souls are the part of us that feel both despair and hope because they are the part of us that longs for God. When we love the LORD our God with all our soul, we can pray with the psalmist, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God."
Put your trust in God. You shall love the LORD your God with all your soul. Amen.
The holy gospel according to John, the second chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." 18 The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" 19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.
Jesus turns the tables over. Jesus turns the world around.
Today's gospel lesson shows Jesus in a very different light from the way we usually see him. And frankly, it is a little scary. We like to think of the Jesus we see in pictures with the cute little lamb in his arms. We like to think of adorable baby Jesus in a manger, when the cattle are lowing, no crying he makes. We like to think of kindly Jesus holding little children on his lap.
In C. S. Lewis', The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lion, Aslan, is the Christ figure. At one point in the story a child wonders why the lion has gone off and where he went. One of the others reminds them that Aslan is not a tame lion. He isn't domesticated like my house cat.
Sometimes we would like Jesus to be more like my cat than like a wild lion. But Jesus isn't tame. He is actually more like us than we care to admit. He gets really angry. Instead of cuddling a little lamb, in this story, he is chasing the lambs and cows and birds all over the place.
Just picture it. The place is crowded with tourists from all over the world. They came to celebrate Passover, so every family needs a lamb for the sacrifice. There are pens of lambs and cattle, and crates of doves and pigeons. It looked more like the county fair than a place of worship. I don't even want to think about what it smelled like.
Before you even get to the place with the animals, there are tables and tables of money changers. Since all the Roman coins bore graven images of the emperor, they had to be changed into the Temple currency, before any other transactions could be made. The money changers made their living by taking a percentage on each exchange. And of course, the government got a cut of the profits from both the money changers and the animal sales.
All this was just part of business as usual. It was a marketplace economy, supply and demand capitalism. The religion required sacrifices. The commandments forbid graven images. This was just the way things worked. What was Jesus thinking? What was his problem, anyway?
The relationship between government and religion was complicated during the Roman occupation. The priests had inherited their jobs and their status. But the chief priest in the Temple was appointed from among them by the Roman authorities. The priests had in effect, civil service jobs, because they had to answer to the Roman government. When Jesus turned over the tables in the Temple he was confronting both the religious and government institutions.
It could be said that the Temple marketplace served the community much like holiday shopping boosts the US economy each year. Both are only superficially related to religious observances. It has been said that the temple marketplace was to Passover as Black Friday shopping is to Christmas.
Jesus turned the world around. He changed the focus back to where it belongs. For the Jews, the Temple was the place where God was found. The Holy of Holies, the center of the Temple was the dwelling place of God.
Jesus turned the world around. God doesn't live in a building any more. God has come to earth in the person of Jesus. If you want to find God, look at Jesus. That's what Jesus is saying when he tells the Jews that they will destroy the Temple and he will build it up in three days.
We will celebrate those great three days in our worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. We will remember and relive those days with Jesus - through our Maundy Thursday communion service, Good Friday Tenebrae service, and our Saturday candlelight vigil.
Jesus turned the world around. He confronted the religious and government authorities. He was consumed with anger about the temple marketplace.
What does it mean to follow this Jesus, today? This Jesus who turned the world around?
Unlike the disciples, we don't live in an occupied country. We have religious freedom. We are happy our church is tax exempt. We have separation of church and state, but things don't always fit in those neat little categories. Church Street and State Street do intersect.
Our Lutheran church has always taught that it is appropriate for Christians to participate in government. We have social statements that guide us in responding to a number of issues. We have an office of governmental affairs in Washington, DC. Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, writes open letters to the president and other political leaders.
When we follow this Jesus who turned over the tables in the Temple marketplace, we must be careful to speak up for the same values he spoke for. We use the Bible as our guide and speak up for the Biblical values of peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, concern for people living in poverty, and care for people struggling with hunger and disease.
Which of these biblical values is currently causing you to get angry? Are you concerned about peace in the world? Peace in our homes, peace in our schools? Do you speak up when someone is being attacked, either physically or verbally? What is the best way to keep everyone safe?
Are you concerned about hospitality to strangers? Are you friendly and welcoming when you see people who may be immigrants in the stores and on the streets? Are you friendly and welcoming to people who haven't lived in this country their whole lives?
Are you concerned about creation? I love shorter winters, but I know that global climate change has potentially dire consequences. God has given us dominion over the earth. Dominion means lordship. It means we should love the earth and care for it the same way our Lord, its Creator does.
Are you concerned about people around the world? As followers of the Jesus who turned the world around, we can also use our voices to advocate for policies that help the poor and hungry, by providing food, clean water, education, and jobs that pay a living wage.
Are you concerned about people living with disease? Are you concerned that everyone has access to adequate healthcare? As followers of the Jesus who turned the world around, we can use our resources and our voices to help the sick and prevent disease.
These are complex issues and responsible Christians may not always agree about the best course of action. None of us is called to be personally involved in every issue. We are all called to pray for God's will to be done. We are all called to work wherever and whenever possible to uphold these biblical values.
This Jesus who turns over the tables and turns the world around is with us now. He is present when we hear the word and we share this meal. He gives his own body and blood to save us and strengthen us so that we can follow him, maybe flip over some tables, and turn the world around. Amen.