A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: Sermon for Lent 4B: “A Message of Healing and Hope”

Sermon for Lent 4B: “A Message of Healing and Hope”

March 10, 2024

come-share-in-god's-joy

Nicodemus. Was. Afraid.  Why else meet Jesus under the cover of darkness?

Does anyone remember the message of my sermon last week? (The power of anger in the work of love.)

Remember how angry Jesus was? Chasing out the money changers… overturning tables… exposing the corruption of a religious system that brought economic benefit to an oppressive regime. 

Today’s conversation partner with Jesus, Nicodemus, was part of that system.  He may have even been in the temple when Jesus began overturning tables. As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was complicit in a system that claimed to serve God, but actually served Herod. You would think that Jesus might be angry with Nicodemus, too.  Perhaps even condemn him. 

Nicodemus had much to be afraid of – would Jesus be angry with him? Would his community be angry if he was seen with Jesus? Then he would lose his position, wealth, and status.  Might he have been afraid because he sensed a power in Jesus, a divine power, that would upend his own religious beliefs and practices? Might he have been afraid that his understanding of God was incomplete?

Nicodemus had good reason to be afraid. 

And still he takes a risk and finds Jesus. 

Does Jesus show his anger to Nicodemus? No, he meets him where he is on his spiritual journey.  Jesus loves Nicodemus. Jesus is angry with the system, but he does not condemn someone caught in it. Jesus welcomes and engages Nicodemus. 

(I could end my sermon here. Think of how many people today no longer talk with someone, even a family member, because they have different points of view about politics.)

In the section of their intimate discourse that we hear this morning, Jesus wants to help Nicodemus understand who he is, why he has come, and what this could mean for Nicodemus.  So, as a wise teacher, he starts with an example Nicodemus would know and appreciate,  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

You may remember that after the Israelites grumbled against God in the desert, God sent snakes. Snakes! Poisonous, death dealing snakes. (This makes me think of Indiana Jones.) The people were understandably locked in fear. God then directs Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze and put it up on a pole, such that any bitten Israelite can “look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:7-9).

The reference to this story highlights God’s character as the One who saves an impatient, ungrateful people even in the face of rebellion in a most elegant way – by looking at what they feared, at what threatened their lives, the people could find their way, they could find eternal life. A God who could love the rebellious Israelites in the desert might even love Nicodemus. Just like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus himself would be lifted up, he would become the antidote for fear of every kind.

By meeting Jesus under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus is beginning to face his fears. He is taking a step on his spiritual journey.  He is moving towards the light. Nicodemus shows us that wherever we are on our spiritual journeys, whatever we fear, whatever weighs us down, we can come just as we are to Jesus,  who offers the gift of eternal life. 

On Thursday, seven members of the AVC community joined with our friends at Temple Ahavat Achim for Torah study. Before and after reading from the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch, a prayer is said.  The prayer that followed our study caught my attention:

Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, who gave us the Torah of truth and planted within us eternal life. Blessed are you, God, Giver of Torah.

Eternal life is exactly what John suggests that those who turn to Jesus will receive: 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.

Eternal life is a concept we frequently misunderstand. It does not mean simply living forever or escaping death or the promise of life after death. It is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God.  It is not about some future life that begins after death, but is a quality of relationship with God that begins now and continues into the future. 

God’s love for us doesn’t magically take away our fears.  This past Wednesday in our Facing Death, Finding Peace class we considered what our own particular fears are around dying death. Unsurprisingly, everyone in the room had something they were afraid of.  It’s only natural. Faith doesn’t erase our fears, it gives us permission to speak them, to look at them, and to trust that as we do so in the presence of love… in the presence of God, they lose their power. 

The death of Jesus on a cross shows us everything we would rather not look at, everything we are afraid to look at,  because it exposes the callous disregard for life that drives every system of oppression. To contemplate Jesus on the cross is to somehow to try to come to terms with the worst kind of death – a young man, innocent, violently killed, who suffered at the hands of an unjust system. 

The kinds of deaths we are witnessing in Gaza and Ukraine. Today’s gospel reading also suggests that we must not be afraid to look at the places and people who continue to be crucified in our world. When we look at how the evils of the world can destroy life, we are compelled to be honest about what we need to do to bring healing and hope. 

Think about what evil regimes do.  They do not want you to see their misdeeds.  They target or bar journalists and arrest protesters. Because they know that if we see what is really going on – in Ukraine, in Russia, in Gaza – then we would be compelled to stand up, to speak up, to allow our broken hearts and anger to be fuel for change. 

And, maybe, in such desperate situations, the only God that could be relatable is one who is crucified too? 

What are you afraid of? You do not need to carry it alone. You do not need to ignore it, or repress it.  Like anger, it is simply another emotion that has some information for you, that tells you that you need healing and perhaps, need to take action.  Be like Nicodemus.  Bring your fears to Christ.  He will not condemn you.  He will be with you to listen, to love, and ultimately, to lift you up.  Amen.