Lent 101: it is a matter of life and death

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10

This is our fourth meeting of Lent 101.
Next Sunday, believe it or not, is the last Sunday of Lent
before Palm and Passion Sunday.
Papers due today. I’m sure you have them ready for me!
I’ll accept signed excuses from God!
Next paper due April 4—entitled I am Woodbrook—
how this church tells your story—how you tell the story of this church.

Three thoughts for the day today—it’s a good day for thinking!:
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that
“Someone who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live.”
Then Elie Wiesel’s comment,
“Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.”
And finally, William Carlos Williams’ note:
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,
yet [people] die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Our learning objective of the day comes from Paul’s letter
to the Corinthians in which he asks, with great rhetorical flourish:
“Where, O death, is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

I. Introduction
How many of you all remember watching the TV show M.A.S.H.?
Remember how it opened with the medevac helicopters coming over the hill
the ambulance getting into place,
the doctors and nurses scrambling to get ready,
everyone preparing themselves to receive the incoming—
all to that haunting theme music?
And you knew—you knew it was a matter of life and death.
It’s so easy to see when it’s physical—
when there are bodies on stretchers on both sides of the helicoptors
and blood and brokenness and pain.
It’s so easy to remember that we are all dust,
and to the dust we shall return.

II. Overview of the Season
A. Ash Wednesday
Remember, mortal, you are dust,
and to the dust you shall return.

B. Lent
1. definition
2. name
3. history
4. disciplines/habits

In the early history of Lent, the forty days after Ash Wednesday
leading up to Easter, constituted a time of study—
a time of instruction in the faith—
a time of reflection and dedication—
of self-denial, discipline, alms-giving—
all in preparation for baptism as part of Easter Sunday morning’s worship.
People would wait up to a year to be baptized!
That was part of Easter’s liturgy—
not just the resurrection of Jesus being celebrated,
but new followers of Jesus being raised up to newness of life as well.
It was an intense time of preparation.
In fact, in Jerusalem, as the fourth century was drawing to a close,
Lenten custom included three hours of class each day.

Then when Christianity became the state religion under Constantine,
usually dated along with the Edict of Milan in the year 313 of the Common Era,
all the new members to faith
(with greatly varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment—
many converting for purely political or pragmatic reasons)
threatened the integrity of this process.
And so it was during this time, that the fasting—the disciplines
became an expectation of all Christians not just the new converts—
to encourage each other and the newbies in the faith—
to remember their baptism even as others anticipated theirs—
to remember dying to the self, being buried and looking ahead to being raised—
to try and protect the integrity of the Lenten season.

III. Scripture
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
Ephesians 2:1-10

We consider three texts this morning.
Three years ago, we focused on the Numbers passage.
You remember?! Of course you do—
the children of Israel recently led out of Egypt—
out of bondage—out of slavery—out of fear.
Now wandering—now impatient—now complaining—
looking back to Egypt thinking, “You know, that wasn’t so bad!”
And the text reads that God sent poisonous serpents among them—
that bit them and they died.
And the people repented—or were at least contrite—or just scared,
and God told Moses to create an image of one of those serpents
out of bronze and if someone was bitten by a snake
and looked at the image of the snake, they would be healed.
Bizarre story of an apparently shallow people
and their vindictive and equally shallow God.

All I want to point out this morning is that the word translated poisonous snakes
is, in the Hebrew, seraphim—literally “the burning ones”—
the burning ones who in Isaiah and Revelation
sing around the throne of God, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6:1-3; Revelation 4:8).

It was a seraph, remember, who touched Isaiah’s lips with a live coal
in a ritual act of purification (Isaiah 6:6-7).

According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides,
the seraphim are in the fifth of ten ranks of angels.
Medieval Christian theologians ranked them in the highest choir of angel hierarchy.

So you could say—you could legitimately say,
the people were being—you know, they were being themselves—
looking back on their time of enslavement, thinking, “You know, that wasn’t so bad,”
and God sent angels among them, and they died.

Holiness among us, you see, kills.
God warned Moses to look upon my face is to die (Exodus 33:20).

And in the presence of holiness—the killing holiness—the people repented,
or were at least contrite—or just scared,
and God told Moses to create an angelic image—
the bronze image of an angel,
so that if the presence or the touch or the bite of the presence of holiness
sickened someone to death, they could look upon the image—
the lesser truth—the mediated truth—and be healed.

Now in the John passage, Nicodemus arrived under the cover of night
to talk to Jesus about what Jesus was teaching.
Here, not so much a matter of not wanting to see holiness,
but of not wanting to be seen seeing holiness!

And Jesus tells Nicodemus that
God did not send him into the world to condemn the world
(though that might be expected of holiness incarnate),
but in order that the world might be saved
(through the very image of holiness made incarnate).

Somehow the holiness that kills becomes the holiness that saves.

The light has come into the world, said Jesus,
and yet people loved darkness rather than light.
Holiness does not force salvation.
But those who do what is true come to the light
so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds are done in God.

God’s doing, in other word, what God has always done:
sending holiness into the world—
not for some individual salvation,
but to raise a people to recreate the world.

For light shows us what’s real,
and we burn in our subterfuges.
And in our fear—in our terror, God says,
“No, no. You don’t understand.
Look more carefully, at the very image of me,
so devastatingly other than you, and what is it you see?
You see sacrificial initiative. You see love.
You see the absolute priority of never forcing anyone
to embrace even God’s holiness.
You see unimaginable possibility.
Fear not, this fire comes to save—
to burn away all that is not gold,
and to leave you shining.”

Finally, the Ephesians text—the responsive call in your bulletin.
And the whole first part is basically saying the world shapes us—
works to shape us—in its image, and we are dead in that image.
But God, rich in mercy and abundant love, wants to reshape us in Jesus—
to bring us to life from our deadness.
And this is grace. God’s gift.
Nothing we can do for ourselves.
We can’t pull ourselves out of our place in the world.
Being raised is not the result of works, but it results in works—good works—
God’s intended way of redeeming life.

So all three texts, deeply, say the same thing.
Light comes into the world—the searing, burning light of holiness.
And it’s painful for those of us whose eyes have adjusted to the darkness.
Just imagine someone coming into your bedroom while you’re still soundly sleeping—
in the dark and so very early hours of the morning when you’re in the deepest sleep,
and rudely turning on the overhead light—
and you don’t want the light—all you want is to go back to sleep.

IV. The Tragedy of Our Time
It fascinates me how fascinated we are these days
with books and movies and TV shows about vampires.
And yet we read the books and we watch the movies and shows—
and never realize we are the walking dead!
We’re fascinated by what we think is not us,
and in our fascination, we forget to be repulsed.

A volunteer in Calcutta in the days of Mother Teresa
learned from the lepers that “leprosy is a disease of numbness.”
And as he left Calcutta to return to the U.S., he wrote,
“It occurred to me that I was returning to a land of lepers,
a land of people who had forgotten how to feel, to laugh, to cry,
a land haunted by numbness” (Shane Claiborne,
The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical
[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006] 89).

Most of you have heard about Robert Bales, the U.S. serviceman,
a staff sergeant in the army, who, according to the reports,
early last Sunday morning, March 12, 2012,
went on a deadly killing rampage, murdering 16 civilians—
including nine children and three women
in two of the villages of Kandahar.
A 38 year old father of two from Washington State
with 11 years of service in the military, three tours in Iraq,
where he was wounded twice,
he was in his first deployment to Afghanistan
with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division
A soldier quoted as saying after an earlier battle,
“We discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants
and then afterward we ended up helping the people
that three or four hours before were trying to kill us.
I think that’s the real difference
between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy …”

In this past Wednesday’s edition of The Baltimore Sun
did you catch it?—a letter to the editor by Jerry T. Lawler
“As a psychologist who … spent [time] in the Middle East,
I have been following with great interest the commentary
following the massacre in Afghanistan by the U.S. soldier ….
Almost all of the opinions expressed by leaders, pundits
and talk show listeners betray a fundamental cultural myopia.
They seek to find the pathology in the individual
and not the wider society.
We think that the soldier must suffer combat fatigue
from multiple deployments or suffer from post traumatic stress disorder
or another mental illness and rush to declare the incident
an isolated one of a rogue soldier.
It is precisely this myopia that is lost on Arab populations
who see any behavior as reflecting the values of the society at large ….”
(Jerry T. Lawler, “Afghan massacre: What blame rests on society?”
The Baltimore Sun/News/Wednesday, March 14, 2012/20)
I don’t know if Mr. Lawler has ties to one of the great faiths,
but his is a prophetic word—much needed—a much needed prophetic word
right there in line with the great prophets of the Bible
who never shied away from announcing and denouncing
death as a systemic reality—a cultural reality.

And we so desperately need prophets who will echo Dr. King, saying,
“We don’t have enough people who have anything worth dying for,
and we have way too many people who have too much they’ll kill for.”
We need prophets who will echo Elie Wiesel, saying,
“We have so many people dead who just don’t know it
because they still show the basic signs of life”—
who will echo William Carlos Williams, saying,“We have good news that’s hard to hear
so we don’t make the effort to share it and we don’t make the effort to seek it
we don’t work for it, and we’re all dying for lack of it.”

I know church is where we go to get away from all the death.
It is sanctuary where we get away from the dying.
And we really don’t want to hear more about it here.
But if we’ve so well inoculated ourselves from the death around us—
if we don’t smell its stench,
what good does an hour a week of celebrating life do us
in a week permeated with death—a life permeated with death?
And, actually, we’re not here to get away from death, anyway.
We’re here to undo it—to look it in the face and undo it.

For far too many, within the church as without,
the defining characteristic of what constitutes good news
has become if it’s easy news—
news that doesn’t require much or anything of us.

Now here at the end of roman numeral section IV,
I want to go back real quick to roman numeral section II.
I know, I know—just wreaking havoc with your well organized notes!
But if we go back to our overview of the season—
where we’ve explored the definition, the name, the history, the disciplines of Lent,
I want to add some things—three things.
First: we talked about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness.
After Moses spent 40 days on Sinai, he came down from speaking with God—
he came down having been exposed to the presence of holiness—
and the skin of his face was shining and the people were afraid (Exodus 34:28-35).
Second: on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus,
revealed in his glory, shone like the sun.
Holiness among us gleams—shines—cannot be hidden.
And third: the word “quarantine,” in its earliest manifestations,
actually goes back to Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days—
from the Latin for forty, but, as we know and use it today, comes to us
from the Venice of the 1660’s, terribly afraid of the plague,
instituting a policy by which ships arriving from countries
known to be suffering from the plague were kept offshore for … forty days!

You have been exposed to holiness.
These 40 days of Lent are a quarantine—time to spend with holiness—
time to embrace this sacred infection,
and let it destroy everything of death about you.

Many of you remembered M.A.S.H.
I didn’t just pick that one out of a hat.
Who remembers the name of that haunting theme song?
Yes, “Suicide Is Painless.”
Never more true than today.

It’s a little harder to see—
so much easier when it’s physical—
but the medevac helicopters are still steadily arriving—
more numerous all the time—swarming around us,
bearing the wounded of our world—the broken by our culture.
And we, as the children of God,
are really supposed to be running around getting ready—
waiting to receive our numb and broken and dying sisters and brothers—
who have been entrusted to us—
to share with them the good news that’s hard—
“Stop allowing yourself to die.
Stop participating in death.
You think what you do—what you’re a part of
is painless and pointless, but it’s killing you.”

V. The Phrase of the Day
So our transformative phrase of the day is
“raised to the life that is life.”
It’s that for which Lent used to explicitly prepare people.
It’s the good news we have to share with our world.
But our corresponding tragic phrase of the day is
“the walking dead”—
which is the hard news that has to first be accepted
before the good news can be received.

VI. We Live in Hope
And yet we live in hope—
in the midst of death—surrounded by death—
touched and shaped by death,
we nonetheless live in indomitable hope.

Why? How?
Because we are those who were buried with Christ Jesus in baptism.
We are those who died to death and have been raised to newness of life—
life that truly is life—life that is abundant.

Now, do you take that seriously?
Do we take that seriously?
Amidst death, we live and know how and why.

VII. Assignment
Your assignment: think this week—set aside time to very specifically consider
how is ours a culture of death?
Our children and youth play video games violent beyond measure.
We watch movies and TV shows—commercials
that perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence.
It’s the media in general, isn’t it?
You may remember in the immediate aftermath of 9-11,
there was a moratorium on violence in the media. You remember?
Some projects were suspended. Some movies not released.

Didn’t last long though, did it?
Because violence sells.
It sells movies and books and games and advertisements.
It sells politics.
Make no mistake, those who peddle fear and frenzy
and seek to dictate and enforce morality
are dancing with violence and death.
And violence sells religion, of course—theirs and ours—
cheap religion to be sure—Godless religion, I’d say—
that promotes good news that isn’t hard first—good news that’s easy.

Ours a culture that listens to profits over prophets—
that doesn’t see and care for Jesus in the least of these—
that boasts that anyone can make it
while making it virtually impossible for too many—
that writes off the collateral damage of our way of living—
that crucifies God regularly as a matter of course.

Your assignment’s an ugly one—to recognize death—
to recognize the death all around you,
to begin to smell the rot and decay around us—
and yet—and yet to claim life—
to embrace the holiness in the very midst of all the dying
to embrace it no matter how much it burns—
to claim the life that truly is life and to be set on fire
to be set free.

I think that’s the real difference
between being a follower of God
as opposed to being anything else.


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