Easter's Invitation

 

A Sermon for Easter Day

Based on Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

 

 

     One of the great wonders of that first Easter is that the earliest witnesses repeatedly told how utterly unprepared they were for the discovery they came to make.  You would think that over the years of telling and re-telling the story of Jesus that they would want to smooth over the rough edges and not leave behind a record making themselves look so stupid.  The very people who had been with him for three years, who had learned from him and seen what he had done for other people, betrayed him, denied him, fled at his arrest, were absent at his death, and neither anticipated nor discovered the empty tomb.  

 

    He took them from their jobs, their families, and their homes and everything looked so promising.  They thought he was the Messiah -- well, he didn't go around saying it exactly -- but what he did was enough to convince them:  he healed people, he taught the unteachable, he showed love to people no one else loved, dignity to the disrespected, acceptance to the neglected.  And it all worked.  He had crowds, a reputation, a devoted following.  Nobody thought he was going to Jerusalem to die.  Why die?  A Messiah doesn't just die.  He talked about the kingdom of God that was at hand.  And when they watched him they could really see God at work.  The only thing that didn't fit was the stuff about giving his life, giving it as a ransom for many.  His death?  It wasn't supposed to end that way.  Messiah doesn't die.  But he did.  And once he did, it was clear to them, they later admitted, that that was the end of it.  Period.

 

     So when they looked inside the tomb, the stories tell us, they thought someone had put the body elsewhere.  Or yet still maybe they weren't quite that sure.  So they ran back and forth in utter confusion, worrying about the graverobbers and the body-snatchers.  Except one:  the beloved disciple whom nobody knows -- the one who reached the tomb before Peter did, out-jogging him by just a half-minute.  And when Peter caught up, and they both stood there looking in, they saw what Mary saw.  And then the Gospel writer gives us a brief editorial:  "The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they (i.e. Mary and Peter) did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."

 

     As we should by now always expect, the writer of the John's Gospel leaves us with a little aside which upon further reflection is never just so little.  Mary Magdalene and Peter have discovered the empty tomb, but it hasn't done them any good at all.  They are not leaping with joy with "Christ is risen, He is risen indeed" on their lips -- they are still scurrying around wondering who got into the tomb and made off with the body and where it is now.  Only one is a believer here on this first Easter Sunday morning, only one -- and he had something more than the empty tomb.  The Gospel writer knows that seeing Jesus' tomb empty is simply not enough.  An empty tomb by itself constitutes no proof of anything at all.  Something more is needed.  And the other disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved, had something more.

 

     Of all the mysterious figures in John's gospel, this beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus' loved, is the most mysterious of all.  From the inquiring Nicodemus to doubting Thomas, from the brothers Peter and Andrew to the sisters Mary and Martha, to Nathaniel and Philip and Joseph of Arimathea -- it is this disciple whom Jesus loved who is always on the margin of events but somehow winds up stealing the show.  While everyone else has forsaken Jesus and fled, there is the beloved disciple at the foot of Jesus' cross being given Jesus' mother as his mother and he as her son.  He is the one sitting nearest to Jesus at the Last Supper, the one who in the midst of the others' silence asks Jesus who the betrayer is, and after everyone has gone back home to their jobs he is the one who first recognizes the Risen Lord on the shore of the lake, and on Easter morning it is he, not Mary or Peter, who is the first believer.  He always seems to be there at the important moments, asking the important questions, making the important observations; yet throughout John's Gospel we do not even know his name.  The beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is never named.

 

     Church tradition has identified this beloved disciple as John the son of Zebedee and the author of the Gospel of John, but whether or not this church tradition is correct, it is important to recognize that nowhere in the gospel of John itself is this identification ever made:  the "disciple whom Jesus loved" is never named.

 

     As early as the second century interpreters of John's gospel have asked what the author's intention might have been in not naming this beloved disciple.  And already then they saw the secret that the Gospel-writer had woven into his narrative:  the beloved disciple is a symbol of the church, the fellowship of Jesus' disciples throughout the ages.  In the beloved disciple the Christian believer of every age finds him- or herself close to Jesus at the Last Supper, close to Jesus at the foot of the cross, running with joy on Easter morning to discover the empty tomb, ready in the midst of his daily work to be sent out to do mission by the risen Lord.  The disciple whom Jesus loved is a figure of invitation:  an invitation to each one of us to see ourselves in his place, throughout the story of Jesus.

 

     That means, if the writer of John's Gospel has his way, that each time we join in the Lord's Supper we ask who the betrayer is, and honestly ask, so that we might be ready for confession and restoration again.  That means that in the midst of our daily routines -- from the lakeside to the city streets -- we are able to see the risen Lord sending us out to do mission and not to be surprised when we see our nets filled to the breaking point.  That means, if John is to have his way, that one who is next to you here at the foot of Jesus' cross is your mother and sister and son and daughter and brother and father, and you theirs, and that you take each other into your care.  And it also means knowing that on Easter morning the discovery of the empty tomb is not enough; because more is needed than that.  

 

     "Then the other disciple, [the disciple whom Jesus loved], who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they (i.e. Mary Magdalene and Peter) did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."

 

      We aren’t told here what Scripture he knew that the other two didn’t.  But it does say he knew something that they didn’t.  Maybe he was thinking of Psalm 16:10, that God would not give his own up to the grave or allow them to see corruption, or Hosea 6:20, that after two days he will revive them and on the third he will raise them up; or Isaiah 25:8 that God always swallows up death or drowns it in victory.  But those passages themselves rest on promise after promise before them.  He remembered that death met Israel in Egypt, but did not prevail; that death met Israel at the Red Sea, but did not prevail; that death met Israel in the wilderness, and in the Exile -- there was plenty to go on, plenty to recall from scripture, plenty for the beloved disciple to remember when he stooped to look inside the tomb -- at least enough to know that when death met God's own on Calvary it would not prevail.  The disciple whom Jesus loved, whom Jesus loves, knows that you cannot take the Promise of God, hang it on a cross, lay it in tomb, and expect to find it there lifeless forever.  "The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."  

 

     It took the others a bit longer, but not much longer. It took them a bit longer than the beloved disciple.  In fact, it took them all a while to realize why it took them so long to realize it.  Why?  Because they all had had other plans, other plans for God, hoping that God would do things their way, forgetting what it meant to have a God who made promises -- and had always kept them.

 

     They all tell us it took them a while to believe, because they had to figure out what believing in the Easter faith meant.  Believing in the Easter faith meant giving up all their plans for God, and to let God plan for them.  Believing in the Easter faith meant the rejection of all their attempts to make God come out their way.  It meant quitting all attempts to stand over God and to make God accountable to us.  It meant giving up every attempt to prove God on terms acceptable to us -- for otherwise God would not be God -- and to live out our lives under the terms of God's own gracious acceptance, an acceptance offered to every one of us as a gift.  It took them all a while to see that the one whom God raised from death was the one who said "Thy will be done," and not another.

 

     Believing in the Easter faith means getting to know the Scriptures again.  It means coming to listen to the Word of God that is applied here every time your family of faith meets together.  It means being with them to receive the Lord’s body and blood into themselves and taken him with us out into our world.  The Easter Gospel is the invitation to let ourselves be led by the crucified and risen Christ, who has broken through the dying and now offers us life, authentic life, to live as God wants us to live.  The Easter Gospel gives us real meaning and real purpose in our lives, and real hope for the future, into God’s eternity.  

 

     That hope is expressed in Easter’s wonderful refrain:  "Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!"

                                                                                                                              -- Richard L. Jeske

                                                                                                                                                 4/1/18

The Truth That Has Found Us

A Sermon for Good Friday

Based on John 18:38

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

   At the very beginning of John’s Gospel – we read it on Christmas Eve – the writer makes the statement:  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).  It is a magnificent confession, a Christian one, that claims to have witnessed what Jesus in his lifetime meant to people.  Now today, on Good Friday, we hear that word “truth” again toward the end of John’s Gospel, but this time it is spoken in cynicism, “What is truth?”  Pontius Pilate had the Truth right in front of him, and he still wants to know “what is truth?”  

    Truth was an important thing for Jesus, and he was upfront about it.  Earlier in John’s Gospel he had told some of his followers:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:32).  Then a little later he tells them straight out:  “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).  Of course, that is something Jesus’ opponents cannot see, and in chapter 5 he has a discussion with them about lying and truth-telling.  They don’t want the truth, Jesus tells them; they’d rather have the lie.  

     So at the end of John’s Gospel a dramatic scene occurs.  It is in Pilate’s headquarters, when Jesus has been taken, and a discussion ensues about the truth.  Jesus is accused of being a criminal, and, like a good judge, Pilate wants to find out what his crime is.  He’s heard the accusation that Jesus is an enemy of Rome, an insurrectionist who claims to be King of the Jews.  So Pilate wants to hear it from the prisoner himself.  

    At first Pilate asks the crowd why they don’t judge him according to their own laws, and they answer, “we are not permitted to put anyone to death.”  Of course, a few years later, they did execute James, the son of Zebedee, between the changeover from Pilate to the next governor.  So somebody, a lot of them, when it was convenient to them, were lying.  

    So Pilate asks Jesus:  “Are you the King of the Jews?” and when Jesus answers him it is quite a different answer than Pilate expects.  “Not a worldly king,” Jesus says; “if I were I’d have my armies at your gates.  My kingdom is not of this world.”  “So you are a king,” Pilate says, missing Jesus’ point.   “That’s your word,” says Jesus, “I’m more interested in the truth.  I was born for that, and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  But that subject is too much for Pilate, too irrelevant at the moment, and his actions now show it. He caves in to the clamor of the crowd.  Public opinion is more important to him than the truth.  He finally gives the truth over to be done away with.

     So in John’s Gospel the world and the truth are at odds with each other.  The world will go with lies, and crucify the Truth.  There is no real discussion.  The world is so locked into its own opinion, its own values, its own “alternative facts,” that is does away with the truth, even as it stands before its very eyes.  So John sees Jesus’ cross as a judgment on this world:  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:31-32). “I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer, (because it is the time) of judgment, when the ruler of this world is condemned” (John 16:11).  Jesus’ cross was the result of the world’s lies, its rejection of the truth.  So Jesus’ cross is a judgment on this world, and yet there is a promise:  it will draw all people to himself.

    I don’t know about “all people,” but I am drawn to that cross, and I know you are too.  But it places a heavy assignment to those who believe in the cross of Jesus. We get to decide about the truth, and how to break through the world’s values and its lies.  It’s a hard assignment, but the cross of Jesus calls us do to that.

     For instance, we’ve seen a modest revolution going on right now, led by those who face the dangers in our schools and the right to carry weapons.  Millions throughout the country, led by children, have marched about that last week.  And finally someone, a former Supreme Court justice, has raised the question about whether the Second Amendment gives everyone the right to carry weapons (John Paul Stevens, New York Times, 3/28/18).  In fact, he has called for the repeal of the Second Amendment, for the one reason that we have totally misunderstood it.  He refers to the statement of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that says that the National Rifle Association has perpetrated a fraud on this country, with the lie that the Second Amendment gives everyone a right to own any kind of weapon they want to have.  The Second Amendment – written in the 18th century – allows citizens join militias and bear arms “for the security of the State.”  It says nothing about bearing arms for any other purpose, for personal self-security or even for sport.  But we can’t even hear such an admonition – the argument passes over our heads – because we’ve accepted the lie that repealing the Second Amendment will take away our right to have any kind of weapon we want.  So we get to decide about the truth of what the Second Amendment says or a lie about what some people want it to say.  And of course, in the background, we can hear Pilate’s question:  “what is truth?”

     We know what he did with the truth.  He caved in to the clamor of the crowds.  He put Jesus on a cross, and that cross has now become a judgment on the world and its values.  Yet that cross offers healing, and whenever we proclaim its healing power we are drawn into the danger of it.  And tonight I remember someone who suffered its dangers, St. Paul himself, who was drawn to that cross and who said this about it:  “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things … in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own … but one that comes from faith in Christ…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death … because Christ has made me his own” (Philippians 3:8-12).

     So tonight when we hear that question, “What is truth?” we already know the answer.  We know who is the Truth, and that if we continue in his word, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.  It is not that we have found it, but that it has found us, and it made us his own.         

-- Richard L. Jeske      

           3/30/18

A Sermon for Palm Sunday: the Sunday of the Passion

HOLY WASTE

Based on Mark 14:3-9

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

     As a youth, I always wondered about this day.  It begins Holy Week, the most sacred week of the year, but with such ambiguity.  Its very name gives mixed signals: “Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Passion.”  Is it a parade, or is it a wake?  Is it a festival, or is it a funeral?  Is it a time of rejoicing or a time of sadness?  Is it a time of God's presence or a time of God's withdrawal?  Is it Palm Sunday, a celebration, or Passion Sunday, a tragedy?  

     Why continue that original mistaken celebration when we know how it all ends?  Why repeat the action of that first Palm Sunday, when we now know that in a few short days that moment was forgotten as a dream, and triumph went to tragedy, adoration to ashes, celebration to crucifixion?  

     We remember it because the whole story is to be remembered, not just part of it -- that sometime, one day, one Sunday, in one hour of watching with Jesus, we can gather together to read the whole story, not just snippets of it. And it begins in a surprising way:  something like a footnote happens, like something incidental, but it is to be told wherever the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, a brief vignette of a woman engaged in an act of giving: 

     [Read Mark 14.3-9.]

     As soon as the story is read it drifts into the background and is almost forgotten, lost in the fast-moving drama of Passion Week.  As soon as it is read, it sounds like a story that doesn't belong where it is, a leftover from earlier days [where in fact Luke puts it in his gospel (Luke 7.36-50)].  But each time Mark's (and Matthew's) story of Jesus' suffering and death is told, this woman's action introduces the story, and both Mark and Matthew conclude it with the words:  "Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

     What has she done?  She has taken something very costly, some very expensive oil, and poured it on Jesus' head.  In that culture, for hundreds of years, that's what you did to kings and prophets and priests -- at their inauguration when they were being set aside to do the work of God.   But Jesus puts her act in perspective:  "she is anointing me beforehand -- for burial."  But that word was not on Jesus’ disciples’ agenda:  every time he talked about dying they rebuked him for it.  Now here’s a woman who is doing what they don’t want to see, or hear, or understand.  But she did; she understood.  And that contrast is posed for us to remember at the beginning of the story, indeed wherever the gospel is at work – “where the gospel if proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”     

     Why is that the case -- that wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will be remembered?  At the beginning of the Passion History we are told a story of a poignant act of giving and receiving.  Throughout the rest of the story we are told of “achievers”:  of plotters, and dealers, and takers, and betrayers, and denyers, and scrammers.  Now we get to see what the gospel really is, and we get to place ourselves somewhere in the drama.

     Didn't you hear yourself say somewhere along the way:  “Couldn't there have been another way?  Why did things have to play out this way?  Did things have to begin with a parade only to end on a cross?”  Didn't you hear yourself say:  “Why go to Jerusalem?  Why take the risk, Jesus?  Why not stay at Bethany?  Why not stay on the hillsides teaching?  Why not remain in the villages healing?  Think of all the good you can do there?  Why go to Jerusalem to die?  What a waste, what a waste.”  

    And pretty soon, the question makes momentary sense:  "Why was this ointment wasted in this way?  This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor."  Jesus' answer is that only recipients can understand, and if the rest of these “achievers” are really interested in the poor they will always have ample opportunity to show that interest. The poor will always be there for them to be recipients of their good giving.  But right now, this recipient will not be distracted from her giving.  She has received, and now she wants to give, because only those who know themselves to be recipients can want to give.  Out of all the others, this one woman has heard the gospel her Lord has been proclaiming, the good news of God about God's giving and our receiving.  Out of all the others, she has grasped why Jesus has come:  not to remain on the hillsides teaching, not to remain in the villages healing; she knows that he has come “to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10.45).

     But before he can give, he himself must also receive.  And he does.  He receives the oil of anointing.  It might be waste, but it is holy waste, an act in which someone finally affirmed why he had come.  It was an act of devotion in which someone encouraged him to do what he had come to do.  It was a moment of celebration to be remembered by him in his moments of sorrow, a moment of joy to sustain him in the coming hours of suffering.  It was a gift from God, this moment, the good news of God's giving, through this woman, to Jesus.  Such an important moment in the story:  it was an act to be remembered by all of us wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world.  It was to be told in remembrance of her, the giver, and of him, the receiver.

     She must have heard him, when he said that he would be given over into the hands of sinful men, and be killed, and on the third day rise again.  Out of all the others who did not want to listen to that (Mark 8.32, 9.32, 10.34), she heard him, and believed him.  So in the midst of his giving she stopped him, and gave him something to prepare him for the burial at hand.  She must have believed him, that in his final act of giving he would become a recipient.  She believed him, that when he gave himself up on the cross he would become a recipient of the life God had in store for him beyond the cross.  She believed that he would give himself as a ransom for the many; and she believed that on the third day he would be raised from death.  She believed that, and so at the outset of his final journey she reminded him that the one who would give himself would also be a recipient.  Her act of giving proclaimed the gospel to him, and therefore he said, "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

     So he must have remembered.  He must have remembered her when no one would give him anything anymore.  He must have remembered her when no one could watch and pray with him; he must have remembered her, when the ones who said they would never desert him scattered like leaves in the wind; he must have remembered her when the betrayer gave him his phony kiss and when his denyer stood outside in the courtyard; he must have remembered her when no one else stood at the foot of his cross but the lonely Roman soldier who at the very moment of Jesus' giving could say, "Truly this was God’s Son."

     He remembered the giver who made him a recipient.  And he could think back over the many times when he was tempted to be the achiever -- when the crowds wanted him to be their king, their great wonder-worker, their great teacher -- and he had to escape to a solitary place where he could pray – alone.  He went away to pray, because he knew that achievers do not pray, only recipients do.  And out of all the others who were waiting for him to show his mighty power, this woman reminded him that he was a recipient.  And he must have remembered her, when in his moment of final giving he began to pray, starting with Psalm 22.1, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me," and continuing straight through to Psalm 31.5, "Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (cf. Luke 23.48).  He must have remembered her when he prayed those Psalms, for her act of encouragement strengthened him, and he would not be distracted from it.  "She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.  And truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."  

    This week, when Christians gather on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, others will say “What a waste – what a waste of time” – as they turn to their TV Guides to find something “more important” to do.  They will know nothing about holy waste, nothing about sacred, sacramental time -- only about profane and empty waste.  But today we begin with a story of holy waste, a small quiet story that “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."   

     Soon we’re in a garden, Gethsemane, where the handover takes place.  There has to be a garden in this story, because that’s where the whole Bible begins, in a garden called Eden, the new creation of God.  But in that garden, two people decided that the garden was theirs, not God’s.  They dreamed about being like God, and ruling over everything.  So God gave them some work to do, tilling the ground by the sweat of their brows, working for their bread and experiencing pain to replenish the earth, to which one day they would return, dust to dust and ashes to ashes.  Today we hear of another garden, one where Jesus prayed for us, was taken for us, and gave himself over for us, so that once again we might regain the life God originally planned for us, eternal, authentic life with God.  The last pages of the Bible also end in a garden, as the Book of Revelation describes it, a garden in God’s holy city, with a tree there producing fruit every season and whose leaves offer healing, healing to the nations (Revelation 22:2).  That is the church’s mission, the mission of healing, given to it by its Lord.  

     So this week we are asked to go to a garden and pray with Jesus – for one hour. We are asked to end our season of Lent with three sacred days of prayer.  We go with our Lord from Gethsemane to Golgotha, from a garden to the place of a skull, the dark place of the cross.  We get to reflect on how dark everything would stay if it were not for next Sunday, the day of new life.  Then on that day we will see how God broke through the darkness to give us eternal light.  It will be God’s work, God’s gift to his Son, and to us.  We are recipients of God’s giving, and we will be left not with the drudgery, but with the privilege of preparing, like that unnamed woman did, of preparing Christ’s way in this world.  

                                                               3/25/18

 

LIFE IN THE DESERT OF GOOD AND EVIL

 

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Richard Jeske, Vicar

     Of all the things Jesus could have used from the Old Testament as a picture of himself, he uses a snake, the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole.  What an odd comparison to make:  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”  

     It’s a reference to the old story mentioned in our first lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, about the time when the people of God were on their journey from slavery in Egypt to the land God had promised them.  They were in the desert for a total of forty years.  Think of it:  a generation in the desert, the wilderness generation.  It took a lot of faith to believe that what God was doing with them was good.  Instead of the joy of being released from slavery, out there in the dessert those bad old days of the past in Egypt suddenly turned to the good old days.  Instead of joy and gratitude for the manna and quail God had provided them for food, they soon got tired of the diet – you know, same-old, same-old.  As we heard:  “So the people spoke against God and against Moses:  ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  Out here there’s nothing to eat, and we can’t stand this miserable food!’”  So the Lord said, “OK, maybe you’d rather have snakes” – and poisonous snakes began to take their toll on the people, until they quit blaming God and would look to him for healing.  Moses was instructed to put a bronze serpent on a pole, and whenever anyone would look at the serpent they would be healed.  

     Jesus uses that story as an analogy about him and his cross.  Whoever looks to him on his cross and believes in him has eternal life.

     What an odd comparison.  I don’t know about you, but snakes are not my favorite animal.  If you find yourself close to a snake, what’s the first thing you want to know about it?  (Is it poisonous?)  If it’s poisonous, what will you want to do?  (Head quickly in the opposite direction – call 911 or call Pest Control or your local exterminator or get Clint Eastwood to pull out his six-gun and shoot it dead.)

     Remember the even older story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden?  It told the man and the woman they should what they wanted to do; they could be like God if they did.  So the snake wound up getting a curse put on it, as God said:  “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God said to the serpent, “and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15).  That old Genesis story says that there would be ongoing enmity between the descendants of the snake and the descendants of Eve.  Snakes and human beings would never get along very well.  Snake charmers aside, among human beings there is a primordial fear of snakes – before 9/11 and Al Queda and Isis a 1999 Harris poll said that nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the one thing in life that they feared the most.  So for a lot of people, the only good snake is a dead one.

     But the bronze serpent on Moses’ pole was a symbol of healing – and Jesus uses it of himself in today’s gospel.  In the ancient world outside Israel, snakes appear as not always bad.  The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt wore a headpiece with a hooded cobra on it, as a symbol of protection for the Pharaoh.  The Sumerian god of healing was depicted with two intertwined snakes on his staff – and that symbol of healing is still worn today – do you know by whom? -- by your doctor:  it is a symbol adopted by the American Medical Association.  Two snakes intertwined on a staff:  both threat and healing, and if any of you have had surgery, you might have feared the doctor for what he or she would be doing to you in order to heal you.  Surgeons have to hurt in order to heal.

     In Greek mythology, Asclepius, the god of healing, carried the image of a snake on his staff, but it could also be suddenly transformed into a live serpent.  So sometimes these ancient snakes are saviors, and sometimes they are dreaded demons.  Snakes can go both ways.  They can be strangely beautiful, and fearsomely powerful.  A snake is a creature that can travel six miles an hour without feet.  It can climb a tree without hands.  Snakes can shed their old skin and start all over again. They live in dark, secret places, and generally are nocturnal.  They appear to most of us, not always in our front yards, but in the deep recesses of our most threatening dreams.  Even in our dreams, when a snake appears, we want to run the other way.

     But – and here’s the biblical point – snakes have to answer to God too.  They are his creatures, like we are; and they can do a lot of harm, like we can.  But God can take them and transform them into symbols of healing.  The very thing that can bring pain, can bring healing as well, a sign of protection, and of authentic life.

     So Moses’ healing serpent became a sign of Jesus’ cross, when he was lifted up so that those who believe in him may have eternal life.  Think of how crosses are used today:  they are often beautiful objects to wear, in silver and gold, often seen on altars, all clean and polished, and often with jewels on them.  They can adorn church buildings, be used as worship objects, be given as precious gifts to loved ones.  

     But Jesus’ cross – the one on which he was crucified – was ugly.  It was not a toy, not a decoration, not a piece of jewelry.  It represented everything that was wrong about the human race.  It represented cruelty, rejection, and anguish and deep pain.  It represented the desire of human beings to play God.  It represented human stubbornness and evil.  And yet, in the hands of God, it became a symbol of healing.  God sent his Son into the world of human stubbornness and cruelty, into a world in which human beings prefer lies rather than truth, where human beings would rather harm and kill – and he gave that world another chance at life -- eternal, authentic life.

     In spite of all its evil, of all its rejection of God and his will, the world is still God’s creation and therefore God simply did not want to leave it captive to its own impulses.  But we were trapped in the desert and couldn’t get out ourselves.  So God acted:  “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

     So Christians use that cross to remind them that eternal life is available to them right in the midst of the desert where both good and evil are at hand.  Eternal life, i.e. authentic life, the way God meant life to be lived, is available because God has transformed our world by sending his Son into it.  At their baptism Christians take that cross onto themselves, when the priest marks them with the sign of the cross and says, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  So Christians mark themselves every day with that sign, to remind them of their baptism, and of what God has transformed them into being.  An ugly symbol of death becomes for them a sign of new life, authentic life, the way God meant it to be, God’s life, which is eternal.

     Jesus’ cross then becomes the place where we let our values be judged.  “This is the judgment,” John’s Gospel says, “that the light has come into the world.”  Jesus’ cross is God’s judgment on the dark values of this world.  When we look to Jesus’ cross, no longer can we count others better than ourselves; no longer can we ignore the needs of others; no longer can we accept lies, and practice racism, and the exploitation of others who are made, as we are, in the image of God. A light has come into a dark world, says the Gospel writer John, and it judges our darkest values and offers us healing.  We get to decide now who we are:  people who love the darkness or who love the light.  Today Jesus tells us:  “Those who do what is true, what is authentic, come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

     You know, those words were a subtle compliment to someone.  Jesus said them to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who, John says, came to Jesus at night to learn from him.  He came to the light, but in the darkness, at night.  But now that Nicodemus has come to the light, namely to Jesus, he has an assignment:  to show clearly that his deeds are done in God.  A few chapters later he does that.  He had come to Jesus by night, not wanting anyone to see him talking to Jesus.  But soon, when his fellow leaders want to arrest Jesus, he tells them:  “Aren’t you going to talk to him first?  Aren’t you going to give him a hearing?  Aren’t we supposed to do that first?”  Of course, Nicodemus then became the object of their ridicule (John 7:45-52).  And later, after Jesus’ death, it was Nicodemus who, with Joseph of Arimathea, reverently prepared Jesus’ body for burial.  Once he had come to the light, namely to Jesus, Nicodemus could no longer remain in the darkness.

     All because he heard what Jesus told him:  “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  

     What a privilege it is that our congregation has been given that message to tell, not only in words, but also in deeds.  In our world we are confronted with darkness every day, but we get to choose the light.  That’s life, authentic life, in the desert of good and evil.  All because of a cross, the symbol of degradation, which God has transformed into the sign of our healing, and of our salvation.  We will wear that cross gladly on our foreheads, and we will take it wherever we go, so that others, through us, will look to Jesus’ cross for the healing that they know they need.  It is no longer just an icon, but it is the light from which we now live.

                -- Richard L. Jeske

                                                                      3/11/18