Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Opening monologue from Racing Demon by David Hare, reading the description of Rev. Lionel Espy.
There is a real challenge of God’s (perceived) absence in the modern world, isn’t there? Of God’s silence? And in that silence, anger, despair, violence, and more can grow. Worst, we can begin to feel that God does not exist at all or, if God is “real” He or She is a God of wrath, of punishment and anger only. Where are you God? Or “Why are you doing this to me?” These are important questions which we mustn’t gloss over because they reflect the real pain that much of the world is in.
Yet, into the vacuum of God’s perceived absence, anger, or non-existence comes Paul’s clarion voice which says – and bear with me please – “…we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- … so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus…it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Paul’s words are not pie-in-the-sky niceties spoken by an aristocrat who knew nothing of deprivation but of one who had been called from the life of persecution to one of grace … a call which brought him great challenge but face to face with the reality of God’s love in Jesus.
The readings do, however, give us broad strokes of the two realities of our journey with God: God’s absence, manifested in our own journeys of trial in life, as well as the overwhelming healing and grace offered, as a light in our personal and world-wide darkness. We cannot talk about the reality of God’s saving grace in Jesus without being honest about why embracing that grace is so hard.
In Racing Demon, a play from the early 90’s, highlighted the struggle of the Church of England to cope with declining attendance, corruption and rivalry in the church, and the church’s inability to meet people where they were. And in this play we see the world, in microcosm. A middle-aged priest who has lost faith, mostly, because he cannot see God acting in the world anymore, most especially through the Church. He sees God as an absent God. And don’t we often have that experience of God? The God who we pray too, but our loved one is still dying, our adult child is still struggling to find his or her way, we still cannot find work, school shootings continue to happen … where are you, God, we cry into the darkness. Is anyone listening?
The world also sees God as no longer relevant or real. There are the new age atheists who believe God is a fairy tale, told to us as children to either comfort us or keep us in line. Church is a function not of God but of people trying to manipulate, disempower, or impose its will on others. This has often been true, of course. God doesn’t exist at all in, our humanist zeal, we trust in our own intellect and brilliance to solve the most pressing problems of our time. And, besides, how could a God exist who would allow Adam Lanza to come into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shoot little people? How could God allow famine. No, there is no God. A god who would allow a world to be like this is not God at all.
And then there is the God of wrath. The Israelites complain about the “detestable food” they have been given to eat: manna and quail, every stinking day and they are sick of it. They are no closer to the promised land now than when they began. And then God punishes them for their outspoken words and they are afflicted with snake bites and die. Only when they turn back to God and repent do they find relief. So, God is a God who inflicts and wounds us for our transgressions. Why does God keep doing this to me?! We feel that God, maybe as part of some overall cosmic plan, is hurting us so that we will know how much we need Him?
These are all understandable ways of thinking about and seeing God as we experience the worst things that the world can throw at us; as we suffer and see the suffering of others. As we hurt and see those we love hurt. But, to that reality - which is a real place for us to be, but it is, ultimately, a reality of darkness, scarcity and pain – to that reality, Jesus says, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son to the end that all who believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world either, but so that, through Him [Jesus] the world might be saved.” Jesus goes on to say that the evil, or the challenge of the world, is that the world “loved darkness”, love the despair and angst and suffering of the world, more than it loved His Light. “But those who do what is true come to the Light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
We have the choice of which reality we ultimately embrace. Life can be terribly hard; there is no denying that. But God’s reality, not telling us to ignore the reality of challenge, implores us to hold onto the light, to cling to it, and, ultimately, to proclaim it. If the voice of God seems silent in the world it may be because we struggle to claim it and speak it. The voice of God is overwhelming powerful, especially when it speaks with our voice; the voice and light of God, in Jesus, speaking through us.
God loves us, God sent His Son to teach us, show us the way, sacrifice for us, and rise to new created life so that we can, too. The joy of God’s reality is more powerful than anything I have ever experienced. But this reality demands our nurturing: through prayer, through spending a little time each day with Jesus, scripture, and silence. But we nurture it most by sharing the faith that is in us, that there is a reality of God that can dispel the darkness. The richness of that sharing is more hopeful that anything we can do for ourselves or the world.