This is the Judgment
I have to start out by saying that when read these lessons, I wanted to scream. Well no, what I really wanted to do was to throw things. These lessons drive me crazy! I don’t want to preach on these lessons! I don’t like these lessons! Why do I have to preach on these lessons?
There is both a good and a difficult thing about using a lectionary, that calendar of reading the Bible on Sunday mornings that goes through a cycle of three years. The good thing is that it makes you deal with something besides the lessons you like. The difficult thing is that it makes you deal with something besides the lessons you like. This would be one of those days, could you tell?
OK, so what do we have here, and how can we make sense of this?
We start out with the people who are out living in the desert. They have not been out there all that long – we can guess that because they still remember being in Egypt. They have conveniently forgotten the terrible work they were forced to do, and instead remember the good food. They are sick and tired of living on manna. They grumble, loudly. Nothing new here, we can relate, yes? It is always easier to remember the good times and complain about the awful things going on in the present. But here’s where I get itchy. God gets mad and sends poisonous snakes, the snakes bite the people and they die. Really? Did God get mad? Or did poisonous snakes show up and did the people say uh-oh, we complained and then there were snakes? Is that the kind of God we believe in? Well no, we say, that was those primitive people back then. Well, maybe…
So the people grumble, they are “bad,” and God gets mad and starts killing them with “serpents.” The people recognize they have brought this on themselves and ask Moses to intervene. He does, and then, God does not take away the poisonous snakes, but rather, God provides an antidote. They are to make a bronze serpent and hold it up, and whoever looks on this serpent will not die. This image is now the image we know as the symbol for the medical system.
So when we think about the “image lifted up on a tree that keeps people from dying even though they have been bad” we find Jesus, which is why these two readings are together in the lectionary. The fancy way of saying this is that the image of the snake as healing agent is a precursor to Jesus’ saving activity. The people were “bad,” and God gives them the serpent lifted up to heal them, we have been “bad,” and Jesus is lifted up on the cross to heal us.
The thing that keeps me from throwing the whole thing out here is the epistle, where Paul is very clear that we are saved by grace, not works. That changes the equation, immensely and rather thoroughly.
So let’s go back to the Israelites in the desert, and their belief that if you’re not good, God’s going to get you. We want to think that they were quite backward in their thinking – but I think that actually, we engage in this kind of thinking all the time! How often do we do, or not do, something – not because we want to, but because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t? God’s going to get you if you aren’t good! And, the opposite of that is that God will love you if you are good.
My uncle enjoyed life, sometimes he enjoyed it a lot and engaged in some behavior that he knew was not the best for him. When he was dying, he lingered, until my mother put on her “clergy hat” and went to see him. She told him that number one, God already knew about everything, so there was nothing to hide, and number two, God loved him, in spite of everything and perhaps because of everything, everything! It did not take long after that for him to let go. Getting close to death has a way of making clear what we really believe, and he was very afraid that God was going to be mad at him for having been a “bad” boy.
But that is not the good news that Jesus preached. Jesus preached that God loves us. Period. Not because we are “good,” and God doesn’t send bad things to happen when we are “bad,” either. These categories of “good” and “bad” are our human categories, not God’s! So if that’s the truth, then why should we be “good?” Excellent question, and there’s an easy answer. Remember last week and the 10 Commandments? Remember that those commandments are broken into two sections? One was what God wants from us to be in right relationship with us, or rather for us to be in right relationship with God. The other section was to tell us how to live with each other. When we look at what God wants in terms of being in right relationship with God, it is not about us being “good.” Rather, it has to do with putting God first. Then, like any parent who wants the children to get along, God says, look, if you will pay attention to these rules, you will get along with each other, and that will make me happy. And if you don’t get along well with others, you won’t be very happy either. So if you want a good and happy life, follow these rules – but that’s why you follow them, not because God will hate you if you don’t follow them! Do you see the difference?
Today in the Gospel lesson, we read the very familiar John 3:16 passage: God so loved the world that God sent the Son into the world so that people would have eternal life . And then it goes on: “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.
This has been used millions of times to label people as “condemned” and that brings up pictures of devils poking people into dark pools of hot oil, doesn’t it? If you don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God and accept him as your Lord and Savior, you are condemned, right? But this is one of those things were we need to read more to get the sense of it, and the next sentence is critical: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” This is the judgment, this is the condemnation. The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness.
This is a question that makes much more sense to me. Do you love the light? Do you feel happy at the idea that Jesus invites himself to your house and hangs out with you? Are there times when you would just as soon that Jesus not see what you are doing? If so, you already know that there are things that need to be brought out into the light! And it may be that there are things that you think perhaps Jesus would not be very happy with, and the truth is that he doesn’t care at all.
There is a wonderful video on youtube that has been around for a while, it’s from Thailand Life Insurance. It shows a young man as he goes about his life, and it shows the various things that he does that make him what we might call a virtuous person. He sees a pot with a plant in it, and simply moves the pot over a few inches so that it gets watered. That is easy enough. He buys a few extra bananas and gives them to an old woman in his apartment complex. He helps a woman get her push-cart across the street. He considers a beggar woman and her child, and the sign in front of them asks for money to help send the child to school. School is free, but you must have a uniform and buy books. As he gives them his last bit of money, a merchant shakes his head at the young man’s naiveté. We also see him in his humble apartment on his knees, bowing in prayer.
Then we see the results of his labors. The plant has grown quite large. The old woman catches him putting the bananas on her door handle, and gives him a big hug. The woman with the push-cart is now a friend. Then he sees the beggar woman, sitting alone, and he is concerned. She motions him to turn around, and we see the little girl wearing her school uniform. The merchant is now impressed, or at least non-plussed. And this young man is happy. He has a good life. He is rich with all of the good relationships with the people around him. As the Dalai Lama says: if you want to make others happy, be compassionate. If you want to be happy, be compassionate.
It is just a different way of saying, love the light. Jesus came and taught us to love God and to show great compassion. When I look at the young man in the video, one of the things that is important is that he pays attention. He pays attention to the plant, to the simple and perhaps not so simple needs of the people around him. He does what he can with what he has. I think that is all we need to do as well.
In this fourth week of Lent, can we pay attention? Can we bring light into our worlds? Can we bring light into the lives of those around us? It may be something very simple, remembering to call and ask how someone is doing, taking time to help, giving dinner to someone else and eating at home instead of eating out. It may be more. But we do it because it makes us happy to help, not because we are afraid of God’s being mad at us if we don’t.
What will you do this week? Where will you choose to pay attention? Where will you see the light?