The Path of Unsettled Belief

The Path of Unsettled Belief

Homily for Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2024

The Path of Unsettled Belief

Homily for Sunday, March 10, 2024
Fourth Sunday in Lent
John 3:14-21
Numbers 21:4-9

Our Gospel passage today finds us at the end of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Several verses before today’s text, we learn that Nicodemus meets Jesus at night. Emboldened by the midnight sky, Nicodemus seeks out Jesus, desiring to learn more about who he is. But frightened by his peers’ responses to Jesus, he desperately yearns for a private moment. Something troubles him. Something unsettles Nicodemus. “It seems to me,” Nicodemus may have thought, “that I know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do, but I still don’t understand it.” In believing in Jesus, Nicodemus comes face to face with confusing, troubling thoughts.

The conversation that follows demands Nicodemus to let go; to let go of all he accomplished and already understood. To let go and become once again like a newborn child ready to learn about the world in a whole new way. The conversation becomes an opportunity for him to pay attention to the presence of God in the world, in the middle of the confusion. The resulting words that come out of Jesus’s mouth continue on this path of unsettled belief. We hear Jesus’s words today in light of the events of death and resurrection. But Nicodemus on the other hand has no idea what is to occur. The parallel between a serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross is lost on him. But perhaps that is the point. Faith, Jesus seems to be saying isn’t about fully getting it, rather it’s about paying attention to where our beliefs are leading us.

And yet, we must contend with the peculiar image Jesus has chosen to describe himself. He says that he is like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Our Gospel passage makes little sense without the story from Numbers this morning. In Numbers, we meet God’s people in a moment where they are becoming increasingly impatient. They have already spent so long wayward in the wilderness, surviving in a land with no food and water. They were tired, hungry, aching, and most likely Moses was getting on their last nerve. So, they complained. In response God tells Moses to create a serpent of bronze and lift it on a pole, so those who look upon it will live. The serpent was a mark of God’s anger and mercy. God’s people might be saved, if they would look upon the image which would have brought about their death. This physical gift of healing in Numbers is transformed into the spiritual gift of salvation in the Gospel text of today.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The phrase “lifted up,” can also mean exalt. The Gospel writer deliberately uses this phrase to construct a theological paradox. In the Gospel of John, crucifixion and resurrection are condensed into a single movement of divine agency: Jesus exalted by God. It mirrors the Israelites being made to look upon the very thing that brought them death to receive life.To see the Son of Man lifted up calls believers, the baptized, towards faith of an eternal life. To believe that Jesus died and was raised to save us can makes us wonder if there is anything required of us at all. And yet, both texts this morning illustrates active encounters with God that transforms the way of living.  

Numbers is about a people stuck between promise and fulfillment. The wilderness wanderings were a surprise to Israel. Instead of a land of milk and honey, they get a desert. Deliverance at the sea leads into the wilderness. The wilderness seems permanent. And when God intervenes, they get snakes.  Snakes! What kind of a God sends poisonous snakes? The Israelite’s trust in God turns into resentment. When we are met with the presence of God, we are met with the healing not the removal of the challenge. God does not remove the snakes, or our troubling thoughts, or challenging times, rather He provides a means of healing in the middle of it.These then become encounters, moments of finding life.

For us today Baptism is invitation into encounter. In the encounters we live into the promise of meeting God in our lives. We aren’t told what draws Nicodemus towards Jesus in the night. Could it be his wounded pride or a bet between the other Pharisees? Or his curiosity to learn more? I like to think it wasn’t just Nicodemus’s knowledge that drove him towards believing that night. It was an encounter that pointed him towards Jesus.

For God so loved the world, loved you and me, that our response is to love the whole creation.  In the Gospel of John, the “world” means something. It is used enough times throughout to give us pause. It refers to everything in all creation— “the world came into being through him; all things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.” God loves the world. God deeply loves the world that God created, and God longs for this creation to live. And it’s not just reserved for humans. No, it is the cosmos that God loves by having given the Jesus to the world. It makes me wonder how can we respond to this overwhelming love?

Entering into Baptism orients our lives and very beings in relationship to those God loves. It requires of us to be relational just as God is. When Amelia and Jess,and all of us, recite the baptismal vows in a few weeks, we will “with God’s help” respond by loving our neighbor as ourselves and respect the dignity of every living thing. Baptism confirms for us that we are living in the “company of the Holy,” as William Countryman writes in his book,“On the Border of Holy.“ In the borderlands where deepest reality undergirds everyday existence it affirms that we have been claimed by love and we can risk staying on the border to assist one another.” Baptism brings us to the uncertainty and fragility of our lives. It helps us understand that this place of risk is an encounter with the Holy and with other believers.

And that means we being marked as Christ’s own forever are beloved by God into ongoing relationship. There is a song by NeedtoBreathe that has been on repeat in my Spotify playlist for months. Called “I Am Yours,” it affirms so beautifully that we are God’s, loved by God, to live a life of relationship with God.

cause I am Yours
And You will always be mine
It seems like madness, I'm invited
To the table by Your side
Sometimes I'm walking on a ledge
And I am afraid to just look down
It's like I think I'm control
I'm givin' gravity the doubt
But You love me where I am
Enough for You to not look back
And it's the only kind of love
That I have ever felt like that

The Gospel today is a continuation of Jesus attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God. It is not something that Jesus can explain to him in simple terms. It is the beginning of a process, a journey in which as we grow closer to Jesus we begin to understand more. I’m sure Nicodemus wished for a simple how-to-guide from Jesus, unsettled in the theological paradox he received instead. Yet, Jesus has given us a guide, our baptismal community. As travelers we meet one another on the road, providing companionship on the long-winding paths of life. Baptism joins each and every one of us to Christ, and one another in relational way of being. Once we are baptized, we become partakers of life with God. And then as we commit to Amelia and Jess in their baptism, we bear witness helping them grow in their own relationship with God. John 3:16 calls us to orient enteral life around an ongoing relationship to God. Our lives are constantly being renewed through faith in Jesus. “Glorify me,” Jesus says, “show your being in me that I may show your being to the world.”



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