Year B — The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 18, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Numbers 21:4-9
A curious thing about poison — it not only is a substance which can sicken and kill, but is often also the means of producing the antidote which becomes a cure. Of course, it must first be injected into a subject who is capable of producing antibodies, becoming affected and quite likely sickened in the process. (For a review of how snakebite antivenom is prepared, click here.)

Consider the imagery of sin as poison; consider as well the One who is willing to be afflicted with sin on our behalf in order to produce the ultimate antidote — life from death.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The psalm supports the first reading, though the names have been changed [or omitted] to protect the guilty. The key thought here is not to cast further blame on the wandering Israelites for their complaining and lack of faith, but rather to focus on God’s action when God’s people cry out in their trouble (v.19) –“he saved them from their distress.”

There is help; there is a Savior.

Ephesians 2:1-10
As Pastor Mary Ann Braswell notes so well in the sermon below, the bottom line for all of us who live as human beings in this world is simple: we have a sin problem and God has a sin solution. It is high time that the ones with a problem and the One with a solution should meet.

John 3:14-21
The word of grace is always set against the backdrop of sin and its judgment. Notice that it is sin that is judged by God; the wrath of God is always directed against the power of evil. Sinners (which includes all of us, naturally) are affected by sin and are touched by the judgment of God so far as sin remains in our lives.

But God’s purpose is not now, nor has it ever been, simply to punish sinners. God’s eternal purpose is to bring light into the darkness and forgiveness into the midst of a sin-affected world. The simple, beautiful doorway to God’s grace is belief — trust — in the Beloved One we know as God’s only Son.

by the Rev. Mary Ann Braswell, Guest Preacher*

I recently saw a comment posted in a Facebook pastors’ group that disturbed, and perhaps, convicted me. Another pastor shared that in the 20 years before he entered the ministry, he never heard a single sermon on salvation! I have really struggled with that and wondered if it could be true. Finally, I decided that likely every sermon he heard had been about salvation, but he had failed to connect the dots; for any sermon about God or Christ and their love for us is ultimately a sermon on salvation. 

Today, I’d like to try and connect the dots.

We live in a broken and hurting world. Most denominations, if not all, are seeing a decline in numbers. Church seems to have fallen out of favor. There was a time when Sunday was different. Businesses were not open. There was no point because they would have no customers since everyone was at church. Those days are long gone. 

Today Sunday is just another day for most people. The church seems to be competing with the things of the world, and sometimes it seems like we are losing. A lot of people who don’t attend church will say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” To me, that means they are seeking. They might not know what, but they recognize the need for something more in their lives.

Nicodemus was like that. He was a Pharisee and religious teacher, yet he sought more. So he sought Jesus in the darkness. The Bible does not say why he came at night, so we can only speculate. Perhaps he did not want to be seen with Jesus, who was not in good standing with the religious leaders.
Perhaps he wanted to catch Jesus at a quiet time, away from the crowds that surrounded Jesus during the daytime. Or perhaps this was a metaphor; Nicodemus was in the darkness, seeking the Light of the world. 

As Jesus explained to him that he must be born again, this second time a spiritual birth, Jesus also reminded him of the story of Moses lifting the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness so the Israelites could be healed from their snakebites. The one on the pole offered healing by faith.

Jesus also would be lifted up on a pole, the thing we call the cross. The difference is that what we gain by faith when we look at the cross and believe is not healing from snakebites that would lead to death, but forgiveness of our sins which would lead to eternal life. Notice that God sent Jesus because he loved us, not because he condemned us. 

We have a choice to accept or reject that love and the salvation that comes through believing in him. If we accept, we are promised everlasting life. If we reject him, we are condemned by our own action. We perish when we are cut off from God.

Our salvation comes through Jesus Christ who came into the world to save us. He is the light of the world, and he came into the darkness of the world for our sake. Everyone has to make a choice. The Israelites could chose to look at the serpent on the pole and believe and be healed or not look and not believe. We can choose to look at Christ on the cross and choose to believe and be forgiven of our sins and have everlasting life or not look and not believe.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Salvation is about love, not condemnation. Salvation is about accepting, not rejecting. Salvation is about everlasting life, not death.

From this day forward you must always say, “Yes, I’ve heard a sermon on salvation!” If you have never made this decision before, today you must decide. Will you accept God’s love or reject that love? Today, I’ve connected the dots. 

Yes, it really is that simple! 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *_

*Mary Ann Braswell is Pastor of the Lone Hill-Excelsior Charge of the United Methodist Church in Douglas, Georgia and is a regular Lectionary Lab reader/workshop participant. Welcome to another honorary “Bubbette!”

Bonus Sermon

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton 

(Bubba was feeling a little extra energetic this week, so he sent this one on through…)


I have concluded that almost everyone has a relative like my late Aunt Mildred.
She was my Daddy’s sister, she lived with her parents until they died, then she married her longtime suitor. She never had children, which, some of us think, was something of a blessing for those unborn.
Having no children, she doted on her nieces and nephews and sent us birthday cards with sticks of gum in them until we were well into our 30’s and 40’s. She also wrong long, disjointed letters all over those cards; front, back, and then folded them out and wrote on the inside.
One time, in the midst of all the news about Uncle LW’s impending hernia surgery and what they had for lunch at the Derby and what they had to pay for it and what was wrong with it, and how Myrtle feels about her son’s job change (now if I can only figure out who Myrtle is) and a long digression on the ugly dress Cousin somebody wore to Grandpa Watson funeral in 1960 and a guess at how much rain they had last week based on the amount in the coffee can on the stump in the backyard, there was buried this line: “I paid the premium on your Combine Accident Insurance last week.”
Believe it or not, that was the first thing in that letter that I did not understand at all. What? What is Combine Accident Insurance? A combine is a piece of farm equipment I haven’t been near since I was twenty years old. And, I’m sure it’s not about farm equipment anyway and what kind of insurance is it and why is Aunt Mildred paying the premium? In the midst of this muddle I did what all southern boys who have been raised right do. I called my mother.
She said, “Oh Lord, you know your Aunt Mildred, bless her heart. She takes out these policies on all you children all the time. She’s scared to death somebody she knows will wind up in the hospital unable to pay their bills. She’s got policies on all 5 of you children, plus LW’s nieces and nephews too. I tell her you all have got jobs and insurance but she just says it might not be enough, you can’t ever have too much insurance.”
I said, “Mama, what should I do? She’s wasting her money!”
“Oh honey, there’s nothing you can do. She’s convinced that this Combine Accident Insurance is the greatest thing in the world and nobody can change her mind. If you ever have an accident, would you please her know. Nothing would make her happier than to file a claim on you.”
Though it did make me feel strange to learn that the best way to make Aunt Mildred happy was to get hurt, I decided that Mama was right and wrote Aunt Mildred a thank-you note and let it go.
What struck me most deeply in this episode was the realization that for all those years Aunt Mildred had been spending that money on me. She didn’t ask me, she didn’t tell me, she didn’t expect anything from me. She did it because she loved me and cared about me, because she thought it was a good thing to do for me.
In the midst of all this I felt twinges of guilt. ” Geez,” I thought,” I don’t even read her letters and she does that for me.” And, putting aside all the practical reasons why this was a silly thing to do, I did realize it was a sign of her love and that there was something very tender and sweet and humbling about her doing that for me. I was touched, I really was.
A few years ago these texts came up and a pastor friend asked me if I was going to tackle the bronze serpent in the First Reading. I said no, I thought I’d stick with Ephesians and John 3:16 and he said, “Well, that’s safe. It would be hard to mess that up.”
I laughed and agreed it would indeed be real hard to “mess up” such a clear Gospel message. But then I thought, as hard as it is, that is exactly what we do. For various reasons and in various ways we regularly mess up the message of God’s gift of grace.
We “mess up” the gift of God’s grace by not taking it seriously enough. We say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I know all about that salvation business. Yeah, yeah, Jesus died on the cross, good. But what has he done for me lately? How can this Christ business improve my life now?”
I recently heard a story about a company that was having a hard, hard time. The owner called in all the employees and told them that things were bad but that he believed they would soon get better.
He told them that he had decided that instead of laying everyone off, he was going to keep them on full payroll; all they had to do was come in on Wednesdays and do maintenance on the machinery and clean up the place.
There were sighs of relief and smiles all around the room and then somebody asked, “Do we have to come in every Wednesday?”
That’s us. In the face of the stupendous, gigantic gift that is God’s grace, we want to know the details. Do I have to go every Sunday? Do I have to pray every day? Do I have to gie a part of everything I earn?
Just like I failed to take the depths of Aunt Mildred’s love seriously. Sure, she was a little eccentric and capable of incredible silliness. She was laughable.
And she loved me, and she loved my brothers and sisters. She loved us with a love we did not deserve nor adequately appreciate. We certainly did not earn it, we seldom responded to it, we never understood it.
This is a parable of our relationship with God. God loves us in spite of ourselves, God loves us more than we deserve, God loves us in ways we do not understand, God loves us in reckless, extravagant, spendthrift ways. God does things for us, like dying on the cross, that seem to others to be silly, foolish even.
And yet it is that silly, foolish, incomprehensible love which is the Gospel, the message of the gift of God’s grace.
And the most silly, most foolish and most totally incomprehensible thing about it is this: in spite of our unworthiness and unresponsiveness and inability to understand it, God just keeps on loving us, just keeps on giving us the gifts of divine grace.
“For God so loved the world that he gave. . . .”‘ John 3:16


3 thoughts on “Year B — The Fourth Sunday in Lent

  1. Thanks for the Aunt Mildred story…she is in every family, the butt of our jokes, eye-rolling, and the warning to the girl children (you don't want to grow up to be like her, do you?), and yet she loves with a generosity that beggars we who so smuggly judge her.From a Canadian Female Bubba

  2. Have a feeling that you mis-typed in your second paragraph … "She lived with her parents until she died. Then she married her long-time suitor." Do you mean to say that she lived with her parents until THEY died? or am I missing something completely? (which is quite possible!) From another Canadian Female Bubba

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