Written by Pastor Ed
Offering a Second Chance
March 15, 2015 Lent 4
Numbers 21: 4-9
John 3: 14-21
A recent movie has sparked a lot of discussion on blogs, social media, and even TV talking heads, particularly in the US. The movie, “American Sniper” tells at least some of the story of Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL in Iraq, who was known for his accuracy and dedication to his mission. I have not seen the movie, and won’t, but the discussion around it was intense, some horrified at the cold-blooded killing of persons suspected of being “the enemy,” others in praise of this “American hero.” One Fox News commentator even going so far as to claim that “Jesus would praise him and say, ‘Well done.’”
Now I’m not sure what Jesus that commentator was referring to, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus or the God we read about in our passages for this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. One of the ways, in fact maybe the only way, that any military can operate is to reduce the enemy to something other than people like us. They must be portrayed as less than human, something “other” than people like we are. That’s true no matter what side you’re on.
But scripture tells us over and over that we are all made in the image of God. In a recent Tedx talk, Peg Chemberlin, recent chair of the National Council of Churches, talked about how this image has changed our way of thinking about the world. It’s a view of the earth, seen from the moon. When you view the earth from space, it becomes much more difficult to claim that one little piece of this ball is so much more important than somewhere else. The song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands” makes much more sense.
On a smaller scale, and closer to home, it’s much easier for us to rail against and condemn others when they are simply a nameless group. Whether its immigrants, homosexuals, or the homeless, as long as we don’t know anyone personally or can simply categorize them as “not us” then we are free to generalize and condemn. Clearly they are not like us.
Or are they? I recall a discussion a number of years ago in which someone made the point that, from God’s perspective we are all sinners – and another person’s comment that they realized that made a difference in how we view others whom we tend to call sinners.
When Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus, the setting for our passage from John 3, he got a bit of a shock. Jesus said you have to start all over again, be born anew, to enter the Kingdom of God. And part of that starting over, I believe, was seeing things from a new perspective. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone, or whomever, believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Paul echoes this change of view in II Corinthians 5 when he talks about no longer seeing from a human point of view, but rather from God’s view. “From now on therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passes away; see, everything has become new.” (II Cor. 5: 16-17)
And remember, Nicodemus was one of the religious leaders, one of those who would have made judgements about who was a sinner and who wasn’t. One who defined the laws of who was acceptable in the synagogue and who was unclean and could not enter. And Jesus makes this radical claim that God didn’t send the Son to condemn the world, but rather to save it. That anyone who believes in Jesus could be saved. No wonder Nicodemus was confused.
But God has always been in the business of saving rather than condemning. When the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained bitterly about almost everything and God tended to get upset with them. But when they repented, God would send a remedy and give them a second chance. Thus it was with the bronze serpent that Moses raised. If the people would humble themselves and look at the serpent, they would be healed. Psalm 107 details how again and again the people were in dire straits, often of their own making, and they cried to the Lord, and the Lord saved them. The Psalmist repeats the refrain, “Let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to humankind.”
There are two sides to this whole issue. One is learning to see the “other” as a person made in God’s image, and for whom Christ died. They are not just some label we slap on a group, as though everyone in that group, which is always rather loosely defined, would fit into a certain description. It’s like when people ask me, “How do you like Canada?” as though Canada were one big homogeneous place.
That’s hard for us to do sometimes because of all the rhetoric we hear around us. Whether it’s on the playground at school, on the job, or yes, even in church, we are often tempted to go along with broad generalizations, put down, and condemnations of those who may be different than us. But God has offered each person a chance to believe and live. God doesn’t see from a human point of view, and as Christians we have been called to change our point of view. “From a distance,” as Bette Midler sang, “we all look the same.”
But perhaps even harder for us is to recognize our own need for that second chance. The “Star Wars” movies popularized the idea of “the dark side” and how everyone has that shadow side to themselves that we each need to deal with. John, in the passage we read, talks about it also as the contrast between light and darkness, a favourite theme of John’s gospel. “The light has come into the world,” Jesus says, “and people loved the darkness more than the light.”
All too often we take the dark sides of our own lives, the fears and struggles we deal with and transfer them to others, because we aren’t ready or able to deal with them in ourselves. We try to make sure we’re “not like that.” Or we chose something we know we don’t deal with and focus on that in other people so we don’t have to deal with our own issues. Whichever it is, we claim for ourselves a perfection that isn’t real.
All of us need those second chances in our lives that God provides for us through Jesus Christ. This past week several of us were at a presentation by Doug Shantz in which he talked about a Moravian practice of writing memoirs, faithwalk, statements. this has been a long standing practice, dating back to the 17th century and he spend some time reading many of them in Herrhut, Germany where the archives has some 30,000 of them.
He talked about how people shared in these short memoirs their own struggles and fears as they came to faith and throughout their lives. The truly interesting thing is that these were generally read at a person’s funeral. But one of the outcomes of the practice was, and is, to let others know that such struggles and fears are part of life; to recognize that we all face those dark sides of ourselves and must constantly look to the cross for healing and forgiveness.
I do believe that when we have come to recognize God’s offer of second chances to us, and are willing to acknowledge our own failings and sins, looking to Jesus and the cross for forgiveness, to the light to reveal those places within ourselves that need forgiveness, then we will be much more ready to offer forgiveness and light to others who are seeking to walk the same path that we are on, even with their shortcomings which we can so plainly see.
On top of Mt. Nebo is a sculpture representing the bronze serpent that offered the children of Israel healing. The artist has shaped the serpent in the form of a cross, reminding us that God offers that same healing to us when we look to him and recognize our own need for healing. It’s a powerful symbol, and my thanks to Ted for drawing it to my attention.
From God’s viewpoint, we are all in need of that healing, and God offers it to all, whoever, the world. I invite you to contemplate not only the world’s need for healing, but also each of our own need for that same healing as we listen to the Bette Midler song I referenced earlier. You won’t be able to make out all the words on the screen, but you should be able to make out the lyrics, whether you watch them on the screen or simply listen. “From a Distance”