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Finding Jesus in Exposure

A sermon on John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

[One comment before I begin: I be will be talking about the light and darkness metaphor, which can be problematic in our particular cultural context because of the history of racism in America, which includes using the language of “darkness” in a really negative way as code for people with black or brown skin. For Jesus and the gospel writers – who were all dark-skinned themselves – this cultural meaning did not exist. For them darkness is just the opposite of a source of light, with no racial overtones. It’s a powerful metaphor, but in our context, we need to be really clear that the links to racist readings are sinful and need to be explicitly rejected by the church. I encourage us all to be conscious of this as we reflect on the teachings of this gospel passage.]

I would like to begin by asking a question that is particularly relevant on this daylight saving day, which comes after so many of us have experienced being without power, and thus light, at some point in the last week or so.

The question is: Why do we need light?

[And the congregation answers: To be able to see!]

Of course! Light allows us to see. We all know this about light, but I stumbled across an insight about that truth in my reading this week. Theologian Frederick Buechner observes that: “we can’t see light itself. We can see only what light lights up.”[1] In other words, light is important to us, but not for its own sake.

We need light as a tool. It illuminates things that we WANT to look at. It also exposes the things that are hidden in darkness, even if we might want them to stay that way (more on that in a bit).

First, in the context of a sermon, it’s relevant to ask how this revealing, exposing nature of light applies to our faith? What does “seeing” mean in the gospel context?

I have mentioned before that the phrase “come and see” is a repeated theme in the gospel of John. It is how Jesus calls the disciples, and how others witness to him and his works. “Seeing” is the way that we learn who Jesus is; seeing is the way into faith. And that’s an important reminder for understanding this passage, because it gives us a new perspective on probably the most memorized bible verse of American Christian culture: John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son,

that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It’s highlighted in study Bibles, and written on Inn-N-Out soda cups, and plastered on handmade signs at football games. Which is inconvenient in a season when I am preaching about finding Jesus in unexpected places … except… when we study this verse in context – we might notice some new things!

As a child, I was taught this verse as a quick and easy summary of the gospel: “God loves us, so God sent Jesus to save everyone who believes in him.” But “believing in Jesus” was understood as code for a whole lot of theology that was nowhere in this verse, or in the context out of which this verse had been plucked. I learned this verse as a proof-text about how right belief, right doctrine was the key to going to heaven. Meaning that I had to believe the right things about Jesus in order to be right with God.

But the language of this passage isn’t about doctrine at all… it’s about light, and the things that are seen in the light.

So, what does this gospel focus our sight upon?

The first thing that we see in the light is that Jesus must be lifted up, in the same way that the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. Thanks to the compilers of the lectionary, we just heard the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, but it’s a really weird story so hearing it might not have helped us understand what that means.

Jesus being lifted up is pretty clearly a reference to the crucifixion, but how does it help our faith to compare Jesus’ death to Moses making a snake out of bronze and putting it up on a pole, so that people who had been bitten by snakes could look at it and live?

Well, if we set aside the pre-scientific weirdness of looking at a statue to be healed from a snake bite, we might recognize that there is a profound connection being made between injury and cure. From this perspective, looking at the snake is not just some bizarre magical ritual… it is a claim that healing requires us to confront the image of our affliction.[2] We have to be willing to see what is hurting us in order to be healed.

When we apply that insight to Jesus’ crucifixion, we get a new understanding of the means by which his lifting up brings us life. If Jesus’s death on the cross is the image of our affliction, then eternal life comes by seeing that our affliction – the harms from which we need to be saved – are the familiar patterns of human behavior that still destroy truth and love today: Jesus was killed because he challenged the power structure of his time, and because he insisted on welcoming outsiders, and because he taught a radical, self-sacrificing ethic of love even for our enemies.

So, if Jesus’s death lifts up for us the source of our affliction, of our alienation from God, then on the cross we are confronted by the truth that human lust for power, and suspicion of outsiders, and addiction to self-protective violence ARE our affliction. Jesus raised up on a cross shows us our collective sin. And in doing so it also shows us that our hope for life comes in our willingness to see those evils for what they are – the rejection of God. The point of the serpent story is that healing comes from looking at the source of affliction. So our healing, as humanity, comes from being recognizing our sin, and the ways that it hurts us.

But therein lies the challenge, because the second thing that is exposed by the light is our own unwillingness to see and be seen. The second half of the reading shifts attention away from what God has done in Jesus and toward the exposing nature of light in our lives.

And here is where we start to feel nervous, right? Because Jesus seems to be dividing the world into two groups of people, and we all know that we sometimes act like the people who love darkness. Who among us is eager to have everything we have ever done exposed by the light of Christ? Who among us have never felt the shame of our own failures, and never longed for the darkness to keep that shame hidden in the shadows?

Certainly NOT me, and not the man to whom Jesus addressed this teaching. In these verses, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus - a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who approaches Jesus as a respected teacher.

But he approaches Jesus at NIGHT…. He is reaching toward the light of Christ, but there would be consequences for his religious and political status if this conversation were known, so Nicodemus hides it in the literal dark. I’m sure Jesus’ words about those who love the darkness were not lost on Nicodemus. Jesus was talking about him.

And if we are honest with ourselves, he’s talking about us too. Because we are all there with Nicodemus. It’s just human nature to want to keep hidden the things that could get us into trouble, or show us in a bad light.

United Lutheran Seminary is dealing with the consequences of that instinct at this moment – because our new seminary president had things in her past career of which she was ashamed, and so she and the Board kept them hidden from the community… until they weren’t. Now that this past has come into the light, it’s the lack of transparency, and the distrust that has fostered, that has created a much bigger issue than the original facts that were hidden.

The love of the darkness has created is own punishment – for President Latini and for the whole community.

And that reality is what Jesus describes to Nicodemus: “And THIS is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

GOD doesn’t punish us because we love darkness, rather the love of darkness, the love of hiding and the instinct to protect our shame IS ITS OWN CONSEQUENCE. When we bind ourselves in secrecy, and try to keep our sins hidden, the shame controls us to the point that we stop even WANTING the light. We believe the lie that the beauty, and the warmth, and the ability to see that we get from the light is not worth the exposure of our faults.

But there is GOOD NEWS in this gospel for all of us who know that we love darkness more than light… because the exposure we fear is actually our hope.

Remember the lesson of the bronze serpent: we have to be willing to see what is hurting us in order to be healed. Exposure is NOT a threat. It is the means of our salvation. Jesus – the Light of the World (John 8:12) – was lifted up on a cross to shine light on our sin… to confront us with the image of our affliction, which is ALSO the image of God’s love for us.

We don’t have to be afraid of exposure because the LIGHT is where we find God’s love, which covers our sin not with shadow, but with forgiveness and with grace.

Confession is not a virtue that is highly valued by our culture, but it is how we start almost every Sunday worship in this church. The invitation of the cross is to see our sin lifted up in all it’s painful truth – the things we have done and the things we have left undone – to expose to God’s light the things that all our instincts tell us to hide in the darkest shadow because we are afraid to have them seen. And then, when God’s light shines in our darkness, to hear the love and grace of God pronounced in response.

We don’t have to be trapped by fear. We don’t have to be bound by shame. For God loved the world in this way: that God sent God’s only Son; and let him be lifted up on a cross, so that we could see in the light that which we try to hide in the darkness.

And in that light we could see, as the gospel hymn[3] declares: All the fitness he requireth, is to know your need of him.

That’s what you need to believe for eternal life. That you need him.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1973, p.62.

[2] My thanks to Pastor Daniel Eisenberg, who illuminated this element of the Numbers 21 story for me.

[3] Come ye sinners, poor and wretched.

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