Friday, March 13, 2015

We Are Perishing (Lent 4, March 15 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Lent 4, March 15 2015, St. Albans Church
Readings:  Num 21.4-9; Ps 107.1-3, 17-22; Eph 2.1-10; Jn 3.14-21

We are perishing.

We are now deep into the season of Lent, the time of year when we slow down and take stock of our lives, the time of year when we seek to tell the truth about ourselves and our human condition.  And the truth about ourselves which is found in today’s readings is this:  we are perishing. 

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We are perishing.  We are beings who crave eternity, but in truth we are mortal.  But perishing is more than just biological death.  We are people who crave significance, but all we are is dust in the wind.  We crave meaning in our lives, but we are nothing but a drop of water in an endless sea.  We crave purpose.  But all we do crumbles to the ground.

The image of humanity that Jesus chooses into today’s gospel, in the midst of his encounter with Nicodemus, is that of a people who have been bitten by snakes:  the poison is already in our bodies, and we are dying.  There is a bleakness to the human condition, and a mismatch between what we yearn for and who we are.  Many times, for much of our lives, we fight against our perishing state by striving to create meaning and significance for ourselves.  We accumulate possessions and we strive for accomplishments.  But often it’s our poets who point out the futility of it all.  At the very moment that Macbeth achieves the goal he’s been working and scheming for all his life, the crown of Scotland, Shakespeare pens the following soliloquy for Macbeth to speak:

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

The poet T.S. Eliot explored this same sense of perishing and desolation in his early works The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, savagely painting a picture of the bleakness of human life.  “April is the cruelest month” because roots which are apparently dead are given stirrings of life only to realize once more their perishing state, and that the only future that lies before them is a world which will end “not with a bang but with a whimper.”

Kansas captured this same sense of existential crisis with the song that we’ve been singing during Lent, Dust in the Wind:

I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind

Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind

We are perishing.  “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes”, we cry out.  And to this and to all of our cries, God hears and responds:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

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.

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.”

To a people who are perishing, God has offered the gift of life.  Significance, meaning, purpose, forgiveness, eternity and all that goes with it.  Everyone who believes in God’s only Son will not perish but have eternal life.

So what does it mean to believe in him?  That seems to be the crux of it, after all.  What does it mean to believe?

Does it simply mean that when we hear this, we say, yup, that’s true?  Most often these days, when we use the word believe, that’s what we mean, to give intellectual assent to the truth of a proposition.  But intellectual assent isn’t going to get us very far.  We may well give our assent to the fact that Jesus lived on this earth and that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  We may assent to many other teachings or doctrines.  But that intellectual assent won’t do much for our existential crisis.

And that’s not what John means when he writes the word pisteuOn, the word we translate as believe, four times in the verses I just read.  pisteuOn is verb form of the word for faith.  It has much more of the sense of trust or to entrust.  It involves making a commitment.  Originally we translated this word as “believe” in English based on the old sense of the word “believe” which meant “to hold dear” or “to love”.

And so when God gives us his only Son so that we might believe in him, he is not looking for our assent to some religious doctrine or statement of fact about the universe.  He is rather offering us something.  He is offering you and me the gift of a relationship, a relationship with God through Jesus.  Because it is when we enter into relationship with the living God that our lives start to make sense, our perishing stops, and we begin to be transformed into the people we were created to be.

You might remember that we talked about this last week, about what a high risk strategy it was for Jesus to clear out the Temple, and that the reason he took such a risk was because something really important was at stake.  What was at stake was our relationship with God.  Today’s reading tries to give us a sense of just why our relationship with God is so important.  It’s important because it gives us life.

And just as Jesus chooses the image of the snake bitten people to illustrate what perishing looks like, he also chooses an image of what it looks like for us to enter into relationship with God.  And the image he gives us is the image of birth.  In his encounter with Nicodemus which comes just before the text that we read today, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit.  We are invited to enter into relationship with God, and entering into that relationship is like a birth.  It’s as easy as being born and it’s as hard as being born.

It’s easy, because it’s a gift.  Birth is not something we do for ourselves, not something that we achieve.  Our mothers did a lot more work than we did!

But for us, being born is hard, because at birth we come into this world with no possessions, no accomplishments, no control and no independence.  Entering into relationship with God is like that.  It’s not a relationship that I’m going to control.  Our possessions and our accomplishments, all the things that we are really attached to in this life don’t mean squat in our relationship with God, and we might even be called to give them up.  In relationship with God, we acknowledge our dependence, rather than rely on our own independence.  And to put our trust in God means that we just might have to give up our trust in a whole lot of other things.  No wonder Nicodemus walked away dazed and confused.

Now, none of this means that living life in relationship with God is passive, in fact it’s exactly the opposite, it allows us to live at our most active in response to the calling that God will give us.  Jesus, the one human who was most fully in relationship with God, was certainly active and dynamic and purposeful.  But he lived without possessions, and he had his Gethsemane moment, the moment when he prayed, “if it is possible, take this away from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  You know how the story plays out.  This relationship with God stuff is serious stuff.

But it is so life giving.  In fact it is a matter of life and death.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.


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