March 11, 2018 Sermon

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018 Lectionary B

ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GA

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                       Scripture: John 3:14-21

 

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

Am I saved?  

 

Let us pray.  Gracious Father, send now the Holy Spirit to teach to rest in Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

When I was a stock broker my branch manager told of a certain businessman, whose goal was to become a billionaire.  So he worked hard, was successful, and then one day he made it.  He had become a billionaire.  Jubilant at his success, he rode the elevator to his penthouse office, but before even reaching the top, he dropped dead of a heart attack.

 

Now, we will never know what might have been going through the short-lived billionaire’s head prior to his unexpected, untimely death.  Aside from knowing that he was excited, we can, though speculate.  Finally, after all these years he had met his goal.  His life purpose and satisfaction had been governed and determined by the objective to be a billionaire.  His family life if he had one had revolved around that goal, perhaps even to the detriment and dissatisfaction of his wife or his children.  Seemingly, his health had likewise suffered.  He had believed that if he met his goal of becoming a billionaire that all would be right with him and the world.

Let’s say he thought he would be safe, protected whether from that voice in his head which told him that he would be a failure if he made only a million, or from the voice of his peers who might have said that he just could not make the grade.  Likewise he believed that he would be safer financially.  Whereas, we might not have aspired to be a billionaire, we, too, have held onto certain notions that we believe will keep us safe or protected.  Certainly, our finances are one of those notions.  If our bank account gets low or there is a sudden expense which we had not anticipated, then our sense of being safe or protected slips and anxiety rises.

 

Marriage is another place where we look to be safe and protected.  We invest a lot of time, money, and energy into that relationship.  If it fails, resulting in divorce, then that feeling of being safe or protected evaporates.  One’s world is turned upside down.  Values are challenged and changed.  Self-esteem is assaulted and confidence confounded.  Trust and love are blown to pieces.  What is one to believe?

 

A job is another place we look to for being safe and protected, especially if that job has been held for some time—a career, perhaps.  With the winter Olympics having just come to an end, I read where that can be quite an adjustment for those athletes.  For years they have been working toward that singular goal of gold, spending many hours every day perfecting their skill, and suddenly it is all over.  Who are they?  Their purpose for being and doing is gone.  Whether the Olympics or otherwise, one’s job can be the mainstay of one’s identity.  Take that away and how safe or protected does a person then feel?

 

Then there is our health. What’s the saying, “If you have your health, you have everything?  When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.”  Nothing more need be said here, I suspect.  The bottom line for all these places where we look for safety and protection can be boiled down to three words.  No, we don’t normally think in the way that those three words suggest; nonetheless that is what it amounts to.  Am I saved from whatever might come along to threaten my well-being and safety?  In short, am I saved?

 

As we listened to this morning’s gospel from John this morning what did we think?  Did we find ourselves wondering how it might apply to us?   In the very first verse of this morning’s gospel we heard Jesus say, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  Our OT reading from Leviticus clarifies Moses’ lifting up the serpent.  “The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

 

Sounds simple enough!  If they had been bitten by a poisonous serpent all they had to do to save themselves from dying from the bite was look at the serpent which Moses had crafted on the pole.

 

In an email correspondence Deborah J. Stowers shares her personal reflections about the serpent on the pole.  We might very well relate to what she has to say.  Here are her thoughts.  “As a person who has a life-long terror of snakes, I responded that some of the bitten people could have refused to look at the bronze serpent and died. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would, but it was possible.  From my own nightmares, I can easily imagine being a Hebrew woman surrounded by venomous snakes slithering in sand, crawling upon rocks, hanging from tent flaps and ties and hiding in pots and among tools, and the snakes’ hideous odor permeating the air — adding to my terror of their presence and murderous intent.

 

I can see myself desperately swinging my head from side to side and whirling my skirts to dislodge any real or imaginary snakes that may be clinging to the clothes I’m wearing — vainly trying to look at all places at once to identify and avoid the danger all around me. I cannot imagine having the courage to lift my eyes from the snakes around me to raise my gaze to a bronze “serpent,” even as people who love me scream that it is my only chance to live. Fear, overwhelming terror, would immobilize me from doing the only thing that could save me.
I suggest that many sin-bitten people do not look up and live because of fear, overwhelming terror, at the nightmarish situations in which they find themselves.

 

They do not look up and live because they have no practice trusting anything but their own abilities. They do not look up and live because they have invested little time or effort in those who love them.  They do not look up and live because they have no long-term relationship with God that allows them to trust even when not to do so is death,” so concludes Deborah J. Stowers in her email correspondence.

 

We might not have been snake-bit, though I know of at least one of us here at St. Elizabeth’s who was bitten by a copperhead.  The prospect, however, of being bitten by a venomous snake certainly raises the question as to whether we are safe.  Am I saved from the sudden and unexpected reality of dying because I unwittingly stumbled upon a copperhead, rattlesnake, or water moccasin?  It is a question that might best apply to those of us who spend time outside—gardening, jogging, hunting, or walking.  And, with the weather about to get warmer, you had better watch where your step.  Our death may be a mere bite away.  Remember the doctor a few years back who went to clean out his pool and was bitten by a rattlesnake.  It sent him to the hospital for several days.

 

Sometimes I look back at previous sermons that I have preached on a given passage of scripture.  I last preached on today’s gospel on March 15, 2015—three years ago. I came across this piece of history, included in the sermon. Here’s the verbatim. “Certainly, it seems we have had more deaths here at St. Elizabeth’s recently.  Let’s see.  Judy Grayson was 74, I believe.  Kimberly O’Brien was 52.  Kathy Durant was 68.  A couple of weeks ago when I was talking with Bill Cox, who runs Richmond Hill Funeral home, he told me that the month of February had been particularly hard – four of those who died were young people in their teens or twenties.  When it comes to dying, well, we never know.”

 

When Jesus reminded those Jews listening to Him two thousand years ago how their ancestors had been saved from dying merely by looking upon a bronze snake on a pole (how miraculous that must have seemed), could not God likewise save them from dying if they would believe in His Son.  We see the analogy.

 

We are then heartened in this morning’s gospel when we hear, as we have so many times before, Jesus telling us, “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.”  Can such really be true?  Can believing in Jesus really save us from perishing, from dying, ultimately dying? Can we believe this?  We know in time that we all will eventually die.

 

My phone rang the other day; it was the same number two days in a row.  Because it was a 912 area code, I answered.  A woman’s voice began to speak, “This is Allison from the warranty department.”  With that I hung up. Whether it was a real person or a recording, I did not care.  Still, to what warranty was she referring—my house, my car, my refrigerator?  What about my washing machine?  I suppose Allison wanted to let me know that my warranty was about to expire, but that I could purchase additional time.  Oh no!  What if the warranty was on my life?  Could it be that I was running out of time and my life was about to expire?

 

This past Thursday I had a follow up visit with The Endoscopy Center.  Two weeks prior I had undergone that lovely procedure that requires fasting and drinking a half gallon of a very unpleasant, lets’ call it a purgative.  You know what I mean.  Some of you have gone through the same procedure recently.  As for me, it is a procedure that I must undergo every five years.  My dad had colon cancer.  During this most recent procedure, they found two polyps.  As I drove to my follow-up visit, my anxiety was high.  The shadow of my dad’s own history hung over me.  Would the polyps be benign or was it cancer?  In other words, was the time of my demise drawing near?  And so, I struggled with that dark, deathly idea, rehearsing certain scenarios.  I suspect many of you know what I mean.   As it turned out, I am fine.  In another five years, however, I will again undergo that preparatory torture.  Regardless, the fact remains.  We will all eventually die; yet, Jesus tells us that if we believe in Him, we will not perish.

 

Jesus doesn’t stop there, however.  There is more to what He has to say.  “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.”

 

Needless to say, we live in a very judgmental society right now.  Whatever our political preference, you have to admit that the rush to judgment these days is extraordinary and disturbing.  Fear, it would seem, permeates the national dialogue regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.   It is difficult if not impossible to know what to believe.  Snakes are not only on a plane (Thank you, Samuel L. Jackson).  They seem to be everywhere.  They come to judge you and me; to condemn us for using certain words, holding a certain perspective, or for some deficiency we did not know that we have.  And so the walls created by condemnation grow thicker and taller and we are afraid.   Where will it stop?  It stops with Jesus.

 

It stops with Jesus and that little word, called grace.  Sure, we have heard the word before and its meaning—unmerited favor from God toward you and me. St. Paul explains in this morning’s epistle to the Ephesians. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

 

In other words, we don’t have to strive; we don’t have to work — that is the good news. The bad news, perhaps for some is that, therefore, there’s nothing to brag about. If we are in a right relationship with God, it isn’t because of our hard work and our striving and our efforts.  We are not saved because we have sinned less than others, go to church regularly, or give more.  Neither, are we not saved because we have sinned, not gone to church, or given little.  Rather, we are saved because God reached out to us before we did anything. God loves us, you and me, because God loves you and me. That’s it! If we think God loves us because of our great works, our righteousness (I’m so good) we’re not really basking in God’s love; we’re basking in self-love, conditional self-love. Hear that—conditional self-love.

 

Though enlightening, realizing this might seriously disturb us.  The rush to judgment we witness these days boils down to people not knowing that God loves them and by extension they do not love themselves unconditionally nor those with whom they disagree.

 

So if grace is free and we don’t have to do anything to get it, if it’s just there for the taking — why, indeed, are there so many who seem not to “get it”? There may be a number of possible answers to that question, none of them simple.   Jesus, though, puts it this way in today’s gospel.

 

[T]his is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”  If you will pardon me, there is meaning in these words of Jesus that we just heard that we should perhaps look at more closely.  What is this evil of which Jesus speaks?  Our reflex is to think that it means something sinister.  The Greek word is πονεροs, meaning full of labors, annoyances, and hardships.  That’s a little different understanding of evil, is it not?

 

In other words, there are those who would rather labor and strive than walk in the light of God’s grace in Jesus.  Is their motive pride or the need for self-justification?   Regardless, understanding evil by the meaning in the Greek might remind us of something else that Jesus says.  We find it in Matthew 11:28. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus will give us rest from the evil of our struggles and our labors.  Do you hear how simple that is?  Seriously, do you hear it?  All we have to do is believe in Jesus, and we have got it made.  No, that does not mean we will not suffer.  No, that does not mean that life will be easy, but it does mean that the burden of us being saved does not rest on us, but on Jesus.  And, He has already done that—saved us.

 

If you have never heard anything I have said before or will say in the future, do get and hold onto what Jesus says to us in today’s gospel because nothing else matters.  “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.”  Everyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life.  I can tell you when the day comes that you and I are about to pass from this mortal life, knowing that we are saved because we believe in Jesus is all that will matter to us.  We can’t take our children, grandchildren or anything else with us.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.