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Dangerous Love – Numbers 21:4-9/John 3:14-21 – March 18, 2012

This sermon was delivered by our guest preacher, Kevin Stefano, a member of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, and recent graduate of Duke Divinity School.  Kevin is one of the recipients of the E.H. and Myrtle B. Lane Ministerial Scholarship, which Lane Memorial UMC administers annually and which supports those pursuing professional ministry.

This morning’s Old Testament and Gospel readings both refer to snakes; more precisely to Moses lifting a serpent up on a pole … I have to admit that it isn’t the most pleasant and comforting of images for this 4th Sunday in Lent, mere days away from the beginning of Spring, a time when beauty surrounds us and new life is literally bursting at the seams.

One of the most memorable … and terrifying … pastoral visits I ever made came the summer after my first year in divinity school when I was serving a small rural church about 20 miles north of Winston Salem NC.  One evening I received a phone call from a parishioner, Ms. Louise, who lived just diagonally across the street.  So I excitedly packed up my 2 whole semesters of seminary knowledge and my big leather-bound copy of the NIV Study Bible and flew out the door … more than a little eager to offer my pastoral assistance.  When I arrived a few minutes later, I found Ms. Louise, face as pale as a ghost … almost sheet white.  Without saying a word she quickly handed me a small broom and pointed toward the ceiling of her porch.  I followed her trembling finger and looked up to see the biggest black snake I had ever seen wrapped around the porch beam (I swear it was as long as a football field).

Its beady eyes locked on me and its tongue was flicking rapidly. There I stood with my sad little corn-broom. Summoning all of the courage I could, I stared right back at it.  When I turned around, Ms. Louise was nowhere to be seen.  I noted the irony that on a nearby table sat a small basket of recently picked apples, and I made a hasty promise to myself that no matter what the serpent spoke to me I would refuse to eat one.  Obviously, the snake felt my divine presence (or more likely realized the futility of trying to swallow me whole) and slithered its way out a crack in the upper wall of the porch.  Ms. Louise, who I found locked in a bathroom at the opposite end of the house, assured me that this was the best pastoral care she had ever received.

Our Scripture lessons connect familiar images that are both terrifying yet strangely comforting.  Our Old Testament reading from the book of Numbers speaks of serpents, of complaining and disobedience, of sin and death, all language we have heard before back in the opening chapters of Genesis when Adam and Eve have an unfortunate run-in with a cunning snake in the Garden.  Our Gospel lesson tells us of God’s love for us and how through God’s gracious gift of Jesus to the world we are rescued from that Eden legacy of sin and death. John, the beloved disciple, also tells us that the Son of man must be lifted up, just like Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness.

An ancient image of primitive fear, the snake, and Jesus, the promise of God’s extravagant love, walk hand in hand together in these two passages. It reminds us that in both our faith and life journeys, danger and love are not always polar opposites, but instead frequently dwell together.

In the Wilderness With Moses – Our reading from John’s Gospel opens with Jesus making reference to this odd scene in the book of Numbers where the Israelites, grumbling and murmuring their way through the wilderness, get mixed up with a den of serpents … and it’s not a pretty picture.

With Moses at the helm, God has led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt.  Day after day they trudge through in the desert.  They are weary and frustrated, not at all sure where they’re going or if their leader Moses even knows what he is doing.  However, they are pretty sure they are going to die. Dissension grows in the ranks and there are whispers of a mutiny. All fired up, they wail …

  • “Let’s go back to Egypt!”
  • “Slavery in Egypt was bad but it’s better than freedom!”
  • “With freedom comes too much uncertainty, too much change, and too many choices,” they cry.

A long time friend of mine who pastored a church not far from here, once told me that every church he’s ever had the privilege of serving has a “Let’s Go Back to Egypt” Committee,” an often well-intentioned and always outspoken group of people who are opposed to any sort of change and always want to go back to the way things used to be.  After all, as the popular proverb states … “better the devil you do know than the devil you don’t.”

Well, eventually God has had enough of this incessant muttering and complaining and sends poisonous serpents into their midst …

Whenever I read this account in Numbers, I’m reminded of the scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In their search for the Ark of the Covenant, Harrison Ford and his companions find themselves looking down into the dim light of a cavernous Egyptian vault … the Well of Souls.  One of his companions asks him, “Indy, why does the floor move?”  Indiana Jones takes a torch and drops it into well only to see thousands of serpents, of all kinds, slithering all over the floor. Suddenly overcome by fear, he rolls onto his back and utters these timeless words … “Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes!?”

This is not such a strange and unfamiliar feeling for many of us to be sure.  As a matter of fact, a Harris poll on “What We Are Afraid Of?” revealed that 36% of all adults in the US list snakes as their #1 fear … yep, right up there with death and public speaking.  I can imagine that similar feelings gripped the Israelites as they encountered a slithering mass of fiery, nasty, and deadly snakes … in their manna baskets and cook pots, in their blankets and other personal belongings.

Many in their number die before the “Let’s Go Back to Egypt” Committee pleads with Moses to change God’s mind. In responding to God’s command, Moses fashions a poisonous serpent made of bronze and lifts it high on a pole.  All the Hebrew people who had died of snakebites were given new life, and every time an Israelite was bitten by a snake, all he or she had to do was lift their gaze to the bronze serpent and they were healed.

Perhaps it’s just me, but that seemed to be a really bizarre way for God to show God’s infinite love and mercy for his people  …  granting healing and restoration through pain and adversity  …  lifting high an image of ugliness and death to bring about new life.  As I learned on Ms. Louise’s porch, it’s an unnerving and downright freaky experience staring into the dark and shiny, lidless eyes of a snake on a pole. No wonder the Israelites were horrified.

Anyone who has been a patient in the hospital knows something about fear and healing as wellness is made possible by healthcare professionals that are represented by a snake on a pole,  This is just one of the images adopted by the American Medical Association … that of the ancient Sumerian God of Healing holding a long snake-wrapped staff.  But I guess that in a strange way it makes sense … for sometimes when you go to the hospital they have to hurt you before they can heal you:

  • Sometimes bones must be re-broken and set so they can heal properly
  • Often incisions must be made to get to the source of the illness,
  • The devastating side effects of various medications and treatments must be endured in order that the disease might be eliminated.

Danger and adversity frequently pave the way to new life.  Often an encounter with ugliness and death can be the means of deliverance … the vehicle of healing which restores us to wholeness.  We would do well to remember that!

The Gospel of John – And it is with these joyous and heartwarming images of human suffering now burned into our brains that we turn our attention to the Gospel of John, and to perhaps the most famous verse in all of scripture … John 3:16.  This scripture is found everywhere in our culture today …

  • On billboards and bumper stickers
  • On t-shirts, key chains, and bookmarks
  • On brightly colored signs or boldly emblazoned on the bare chests of enthusiastic fans at basketball and football games.
  • Once, I even saw a big bald guy like myself who had “John 3:16” tattooed across the back of his head … now that’s commitment!

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.”

In our Gospel reading this morning we see the ominous foreshadowing of Good Friday followed by the loving promise of Easter morning … for God so “loved” the world that he “gave” his only Son “to” the world.  For those who believe, whole and lasting life will come from Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, who is lifted high on a cross to be crucified, and is raised even higher on Easter morning, the time of resurrection, rebirth, and ultimate victory over sin and death.

A Love Story – Thus the story John’s Gospel tells this day is really the story of God’s love for us. It’s a story about how God gives God’s own heart to us in the form of a humble and loving servant, his very own Son … and about how Jesus should be received by those of us who believe.  In the Gospel of John, belief is much more than a mental exercise, an intellectual claim, or a brain game … belief is always an action verb.  It’s a giving over of our heart, our whole being.

Now, you don’t have to live very long to know that giving your heart to someone, loving someone deeply, is a risky and dangerous proposition. Giving your heart to another is a radical act of trust and confidence, one that leaves you vulnerable and exposed … and this is no less so for God. The moment you have uttered those 3 small words, “I love you” (and truly mean it), you have handed your heart to someone else, and in that moment, one of two things can happen.

  1. Your heart can be received gently and graciously.  The other can nurture it and care for it, and give their equally fragile heart to you … or
  2. They can drop your heart and watch it shatter into a million tiny, razor-sharp pieces.

To love at all is to risk being broken, however, not to risk love is to go through life fully protected & insulated … and fully alone.

Let’s be real this morning, rejection isn’t pleasant … often your world feels like it is literally coming unraveled.  Your stomach tightens and you feel nauseas.  You feel crushing weight pressing down on your chest … your just waiting for the end to come.  However, it is often true that a shattered heart also becomes softer, more aware of the pain of others.  If wounds of the heart don’t turn into the ugly scar tissue of bitterness, the heart can become that place where God works to bring about unprecedented levels of tenderness, kindness, love, compassion, and mercy.  A broken heart might just be the place where new life begins to take root and spring forth abundantly … a place where we find redemption and salvation.

Even if love is reciprocated we’re still far from safe, because love quickly can become disfigured and shattered in other ways. One of the dangers in loving someone is the tendency to love the other for what we want him or her to be. All too often we fall into the trap of imposing on others our preconceived notions of who they should be, or what we expect them to do, rather than loving them for who they are.  A few times I have caught myself uttering things such as “I wish you would just …!” or “Why can’t you be more like …!”

The other becomes not the “beloved,” but a project.  A challenge to be conquered, something to be tinkered with and fixed, perhaps even a problem to be solved.  This is not Gospel love but a selfish and utilitarian kind.  Instead of getting involved in the everyday, nitty gritty details of the lives of those we claim to care so much for, we fall in love with our own images and our own ideals.  Rather than joyfully receiving others unique and sometimes peculiar gifts and blessings, we insulate ourselves from what might be too unfamiliar or too uncomfortable.

And what is worse … this sort of self-serving love can infect all kinds of relationships, not only romantic ones … friends, roommates, team mates, colleagues, classmates, parents and children.

Catholic philosopher and humanitarian, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, says this,

“To love someone means to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our [own] attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ To love someone is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”

This is the way God loves us, by trusting us rather than controlling us, so that we can begin to trust ourselves. Authentic love begins with seeing others clearly.

  • What do you see in the people you love?
  • What are the qualities that they have that you love about them?
  • Who are they to you in all of their beauty … and brokenness?

Love is about seeing life and others honestly and truthfully. It isn’t peering at the world through rose-colored glasses and constantly surrounding ourselves with pretty pictures.  Like Jesus being lifted on the cross, love lifts us up and gives us a new vantage point, a new perspective. Love gives us a richer experience of life.

Without love we also miss out on the glory. Without love we miss out on the agony of the cross but we ALSO miss out on the joy of the resurrection.  Remember, this is God’s love story. When Jesus says, “God so loved the world,” Jesus is asking us to see God truthfully. Not to impose on God our notions of what we believe God could do or should do, not to remake God in our own image, but to take God for who God is.  Sometimes it’s hard to know with Jesus whether love feels like dying or being lifted up, like the cross of Good Friday or the glory of Easter Morning. Danger and love always go together in life with God.  John suggests that the love of Christ comes to us like a snake. It is dangerous love, the love-bite of Jesus!!

Well, we’re deep into the season of Lent now, that 40 day journey into the barren desert of our sin, and Jesus says the answer to our wandering in the wilderness is when the Son of Man will be lifted high on the cross, the love of God given for the world.  This is a love that we often find hard to imagine and even harder to handle – incomprehensible, frightening, and crazy love that challenges long held convictions; A love that pressures us to reassess our own self-understanding and our place in the world.

Almost 2000 years ago, rather than joyfully receive the heart of God, we tried to remake Jesus in our own image.  When that didn’t work, we reached for our stones and our clubs.  We spat on him, whipped him, lifted him up on a cross, and shattered the heart of God into a million pieces.

I wonder if we are really in such a different place today?

This morning’s eternal life equation is not complicated, though it is indeed hard to wrap our minds around.

  • The cure for a snake is a snake.
  • The cure for all human life is one man’s life.
  • The cure for death is death.
  • The cure for love is love.

And so I challenge each of you this morning to live daringly and love dangerously in this divine season of repentance.  Nothing less will do.

Lift up your eyes to the cross, and give Jesus your heart.


1 Comment
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