Ephesian 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Numbers 21:4-9
There is the story of a Christian who encountered a truck which had some good theology written on its tailgate. The truck was one of those extended dump trucks, belonging to a demolition company. The truck passed quickly, and all the time there was to read the signs painted on the tailgate were almost missed. The first sign was written in large letters, and it read: “we could direct the world.” The second sign was on the bottom of the tailgate, written in smaller letters. It read: “Jesus saves.”
The Christian man could not believe his eyes. The owner of the truck intended for these two signs to be read and understood separately, or were they meant to be understood together? The lettering on that truck expressed some mighty good theology. And personally, I do not know how one could sum up the contrast between humanity and God more concisely. We could wreck the world, but only Jesus can save it.
The apostle Paul’s theology is not written on the back of a truck; it is recorded in the New Testament epistles which he wrote. And in the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul summarizes the condition of mankind, the kindness of God, and the nature of the salvation which he has provided for a lost humanity in Christ.
As we read Ephesians 2:1 – 10, it is not difficult for us to realize pain and death in our present world. We are now a year into the pandemic. Over a half million people have died in the United States alone. It has felt like one long Lenten meditation, one long meditation on death. Overnight we lost communities in classrooms and intimacy of loved ones, and the joy of traveling and visiting. And what about Eucharistic communion! A litany of sorrows will never be exhausted. So many sufferings and deaths have been experienced without someone physically capable of holding our hand.
One of the lectionary’s passages, Numbers 21:4-9, though not presented this morning, tells us we are promised, and we believe with transcendent, supernatural hope, that every pain and sorrow is held in the mind of God just as a mother holds her child. These consoling words speak to the children of Abraham, our predecessors, struggling and complaining about the difficulty they were experiencing as they are led by Moses.
It is through the Red Sea that they must pass. It is the ones of Christ, through the cross, that we must pass. It is so hard! Make it stop! The children of God are being bitten by a fiery serpent that has been by God. (Or so they think) many people of Israel were dying. In anguish they plead with Moses, their heavenly mouthpiece, to ask God to send the serpent away. Strange advice follows; God asked Moses to fashion a brass serpent and put it on a pole. The author of John’s Gospel tells us that the serpent is risen on a pole, just as Christ is raised upon the cross. And just as God, through Moses, asks us to gaze upon the serpent and be healed, we are asked to gaze upon Christ and commune with his wounds; portals, so to speak, pointing to eternal life.
What does all this mean for us? Perhaps there are infinite meanings. At least one meaning in this story reminds me to look upon the thing you fear. Look upon the serpent. Look unflinchingly at death. Look at God’s beloved son, upon the cross of shame and infinite sorrow. By the merits of the pain, you suffer on the cross, Lord Jesus, and the humiliation Jesus underwent to redeem us, to give each of us the strength, the patience, and the courage to look at our sin and our shortcomings. Let us seek in the mystery beyond the cross for our salvation. Bless us, O Jesus, that we might always love you.
With this we ask for the meaning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. This day of meditation describes a year of celebration and deliverance called, “the year of Jubilee.” This Jubilee involves a year of release from an indebtedness and all types of bondage. All prisoners and captives were set free, all slaves were released, all debts were forgiven, and all property was returned to its original owners. In addition, all labor was ceased for one year, and those bound by labor contracts were released from them. One of the benefits of the Jubilee was that both the land and the people were able to rest. It is like a complete exoneration; this one is absolute and fully observed.
The prophet Isaiah refers to the year of Jubilee when he says, “thus says the Lord: in a time of favor, I have answered you; in a day of salvation, I have helped you; I will keep you and give you, as a covenant to the people…” During the year of Jubilee, God’s favor and forgiveness was demonstrated from neighbor to neighbor with the release of debt, from contracts, and the vines of slavery. In Jubilee, for you and me today, God has released us from the debt of sin, for giving his people from all unrighteousness and given us an inheritance that comes through the one Isaiah is talking about… “I will give you, as a covenant to the people, “ the promised savior;” and that is Jesus for you and for me.
The Jubilee presents a beautiful picture of the New Testament themes of redemption and forgiveness. Christ is the redeemer who came to set free those who are slaves and prisoners to sin. The debt of sin we owe to God was paid on the cross as Jesus died on our behalf and we are forgiven the debt forever we are no longer in bondage, no longer slaves to sin, having been freed by Christ, and we can truly enter the rest God provides as we cease laboring to make ourselves acceptable to God by our own works. We can celebrate with exuberant hearts the joy that comes with God’s faithfulness and forgiveness.
This Sunday is unique in the middle of Lent. It is called, “Laetare,” which means “rejoice.” What in the world are we doing by rejoicing right in the middle of this remorseful season? The reason why we have an Old Testament text about the year of Jubilee and a gospel text about the joy of being filled by God when bellies are aching for sustenance, is because this is a sort of the Mardi Gras of the Lenten season. Today is like a little season of rejoicing before the passion of Jesus becomes more prominent in our worship, our readings in our reflections. They also serve as a reminder. It reminds us that what we endure together, through these penitential days—through holy week—and the suffering and death of our Savior— will come to an end. For this reason, it reflects our ups and downs of life well. For example, today, in the church year we rejoice. We rejoice that God has set us free that he has come to forgive his beloved children today we rejoice, and we are feeling good, hopefully. Today is a good day— today things are not so bad. But then your day or your week changes. You hear a bit of bad news—and maybe it is much more than just a bit. In a blink of an eye your day of rejoicing over freedom has become a day of sorrow over the bondage of pain that has unexpectedly been thrust upon you. Your days turn on a dime and you wonder what to do next. You wonder if you are going to sink in the middle of all the grief or if you are going to make it and once again find relief.
The burdens of your nights in your days come on quickly and unexpectedly. Sometimes we think, “this is it; I can’t take it anymore. This is the big one. This will end me! But it never does. And it will not even when it is our own sins that are the cause. And yes, there are repercussions to our sins. They affect our families by hurting the ones we love causing rifts between wives and husbands, children, and parents to be thrust during grief that we just talked about and it might be you who causes it. Our sins that serve our selfish needs instead of the needs of neighbors who are also harmless. We might not, because you are the only one who knows. But they can come between you and the Lord when thoughts, words and deeds are placed before your total devotion to God’s word.
Life’s more grievous moments have at its very root the fact that you live in a fallen world, and that we are all fallen people, and that you; yes yourselves, are the cause of the distress that happens to you. You might as well be honest about it, know the truth, and take responsibility. Repent and turn from your sinful ways. Repent and rejoice. Yes, in the middle of Lent, rejoice. Christianity without joy is a betrayal of the one we follow. We are forgiven, redeemed people, who belong to the faithful flock on the way to the kingdom of God. It takes a Christian to know that Jesus loves you so very much even when troubles abound on every side. While this is true, Christians do know this joy, but it does not always mean you feel this joy— no matter what season it is.
Here is where I would like to make a distinction for you. When bad times are upon us, the feeling of joy is difficult to find. When days are good and happiness abounds, the feeling of joy comes easy. The feeling comes and goes. But that is not the kind of joy that lasts; that is not what true joy really is, Real joy is a gift, and it comes to every person who has faith in the one true God—Jesus the Lord. Joy is more than a feeling— it is a substance that penetrates the lives of sinners and makes you into a new creation. Joy comes to us right in the middle of the Lenten season. We are slowly descending toward holy week. Remember, we crested the hill and are making our way down to Jerusalem together. And although we remain firmly grounded during this repentant season, reflecting on the suffering of the death of our Savior Jesus joy still consumes our days and our nights. Perhaps not the feeling, but definitely the gift… YES, joy embodies our salvation. AMEN!