The 4th Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Rebellion and Redemption
Today is one of those times when the readings call for more exploration than we’ve got time for in a sermon. We’ve got God killing complainers in the desert with poisonous snakes, and a magically healing bronze serpent on a pole. Paul says that following the desires of the flesh makes us children of wrath. And then there’s Jesus condemning those who don’t believe in him. I feel like a commentator after a Presidential primary debate. I don’t even know where to start.
For now, suffice it to say that the authors of scripture, including the gospel of John, were usually on to something true. But as they grappled with the mystery of God, they were limited in their understanding, and fell back on conventional misconceptions of their day: that God punishes, that sensual pleasure is bad; that there is only one path to truth. Nevertheless, underneath all this, they were on to something. So what were they on to in today’s readings?
All three of them tell stories of rebellion and redemption. This is a universal, human theme, and one that is worthy of reflection in this season of Lent. We all have a tendency to rebel against what is good for us and for those whose lives we touch. We betray our own best nature. But God is always ready to help us return to reality, to the center. We rebel and God redeems.
Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and now they were wandering as nomads, living off their wits, in a very dangerous land. They had been asked to go on this desperate journey completely on faith, with no guarantees. And they went, trusting in God, trusting in Moses, trusting that anything would be better than slavery.
But eventually, in the blistering heat of the Sinai, after watching their children bitten by deadly snakes, their trust faltered. They rebelled against what was ultimately the right thing - to keep on going, in faith. And yet even in their rebellion, God did not abandon them. God provided healing and encouragement to move forward through the wilderness. That’s the main point here.
Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that they, too, were once rebellious, and had been redeemed. Paul likes to point to sexual misbehavior, but he could be speaking about anything. Once you were as good as dead, he says, living unconsciously, jerked around by what you wanted and what you feared, like selfish brutes.
But even when you were dead, Paul says, God made made you alive again. Now you are called to a higher way, to wisdom and love, and to good works. Paul encourages them to remain sane, to not go back to their former way of life. As it is put so graphically in both Proverbs and the 2nd letter of Peter, Don’t be like a dog that returns to its own vomit.
And in the gospel, the sometimes over-the-top Gospel of John, Jesus also speaks of rebellion and redemption. For even though God had come into the world, people loved darkness rather than light. And yet, the gospel of John also says that God so loves the world, that in spite of this, God enters into our darkness, as light.
So these are our stories, stories tainted by conventional misconceptions, perhaps, but underneath that, true stories about our humanity. We rebel against what is good for us and others whom we affect. We betray our true nature. We love our darkness, and sometimes we’re as good as dead. But this is never the end of the story. God comes to us, in spite of all this, and helps us make our journey to spiritual sanity.
How is it that this story unfolds in our lives? Why is it that we tend to rebel, and how is it that redemption happens?
We are, I believe, born good. The extreme Calvinists have it wrong: we’re not born into total depravity, irrevocably stained by sin. We are children of God, with a soul that wants to face into the light. We naturally want to love and trust, and to delight in this wondrous world. The face of any baby will tell you this.
But we’re affected by the broken world into which we are born. We’re hurt, some of us much worse than others, and confused by what happens. So out of an instinct for survival, we twist ourselves away from the light. We use whatever we think will work - anger, we hide, we play it safe, we lash out, we use drugs or alcohol, we try to be perfect. Whatever we use, it seems to be effective, so we keep doing it.
This begins before we know what we are doing, but at some point it becomes a choice. It becomes a habit to rebel against our true self, against our God-given nature. There is a part of us that loves our bad habits - we, too love the darkness rather than the light - because we believe that what we are doing will continue to help us survive, to give us what we need. We’re like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, who clings to his Precious - but soul-killing - ring.
But at some point we might become self-aware. We see that it isn’t working. And with courage, we begin the long journey back to our true nature. Here is where redemption begins, when we decide to stop rebelling, to return to the person that we were when God created us. But we cannot accomplish redemption on our own - we’re too habituated to our rebellious ways.
God doesn’t wait for us to get it together, but comes as an invisible force that enters into us, working with us. God so loves you, that God comes into your darkness as light - even while you are still grumbling in the desert, even when you still love your darkness, even when you are as good as dead, - God sneaks in, and starts working with whatever willingness you’ve got, in order to make our efforts effective.
Our part in this process, our willingness, is often portrayed in the Bible as obedience. We don’t like this word. It suggests to us hanging our head down low, buckling under, and doing our duty.
You may prefer other words, like commitment, diligence, conscientiousness, discipline: without which we will never progress. In applying ourselves in these ways, we obey - we aim ourselves towards grace, and we keep going. That’s obedience, and that’s what the season of Lent is all about.
But as St. Benedict said, the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. The life of someone who is serious about redemption will be a continuous Lent. This is not to suggest some dismal, joyless existence of unending duty. It speaks instead to the need for continual diligence in the journey of faith. Like the Israelites in the desert, the only way forward is to keep on keeping on.
Spiritual diligence has been described as removing the dust that covers the mirror of the soul, every time we notice that it has accumulated. An angry thought arises, and we dust the mirror. Fear of the future comes, and we dust. Impatience, resentment, greed, hatred, sloth, distrust - all dust. And every time we remove it, we rediscover what already lies beneath - the soul, as a mirror, reflecting God’s glory. As a favorite spiritual writer of mine put it:
When we resume our original nature and incessantly make our effort from this base, we will appreciate the result of our effort moment after moment, day after day, year after year. This is how we should appreciate our life. Those who are attached only to the result of their effort will not have any chance to appreciate it, because the result will never come. But if moment by moment your effort arises from its pure origin, all you do will be good, and you will be satisfied with whatever you do.
Here is the great paradox. We are already redeemed, but we must learn to live into that redemption. The Israelites were already in the Promised Land, out there in the desert, because God was already with them. But they had to keep on journeying until they understood that.
So continue your Lenten journey with conscientiousness, wiping the mirror of your soul every time you notice that dust has accumulated. Come out of your pointless rebellion and be obedient to the person that you really are, to the person God created you to be.
But do so with a light spirit, and with confidence. There is no judgment, only love. As you do your part, God is invisibly moving into your dark places, in order to make your effort successful. And remember that as this wonderful work of redemption takes place, you are only becoming what you already are, and will be, forever.