Planning - Fourth Sunday in Lent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
The people's complaining brought death in the form of serpents. God offered healing from the serpents' bite for all who would look upon a bronze serpent Moses fashioned and lifted on a pole.
Psalm Response: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (UMH 830.
A psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from deadly disease caused by human sin. Tone 1 in E-flat major would be most appropriate for the upbeat theme of this psalm.
Paul proclaims the power of God's salvation, delivering us from "the ruler of the power in the air" and "the passions of our flesh," which were killing us. God extends this salvation to humans through grace -- not through our earning it in any way. God's salvation not only breaks the chains of the powers that bind us, but empowers us to live lives full of good works. We become a reflection of the "immeasurable riches of God's grace" that God desires to lavish upon all who will receive them.
Jesus offers two meta-narratives to help Nicodemus understand the meaning of God's salvation through him -- Moses lifting up the serpent, and God's free gift of eternal life to all who will "believe into" (i.e., live as disciples of) Jesus.
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Easter is only three weeks away. Holy Week begins in two weeks with Palm Sunday, and concludes with the Great Three Days. The church in Lent continues on the way to the "birthing room" with those to be baptized. The community of faith continues to repent and believe the gospel with outward acts of compassion and justice and personal acts of devotion and prayer.
The gospel this week shows us our need for repentance and God's offer of new life as we repent and "believe into" (put our whole trust in and follow) Jesus Christ.
See "Planning Lent and Easter for Congregation, Group, and Home, Year B" for an overview of the biblical themes for each Sunday of this season.
As of Friday, March 16, United Methodists began 50 Days of Prayer for theGeneral Conference of The United Methodist Church (April 24-May 4). You may download and share the prayer resource from Upper Room Ministries in multiple formats (including ePub) and languages (English, French, Portuguese), so all in your congregation may join this journey of prayer each day, and especially as you gather for worship on the Sundays leading up to and during the gathering.
Today, March 18, is designated as One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday. The special offering collected this day underwrites the administrative and programming expenses of UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMCOR provides direct assistance, coordinates volunteers, and partners with organizations on the ground worldwide to bring both immediate and long-term relief after natural and human disasters. This special offering makes it possible for 100 percent of donations to specific projects to be spent solely on providing relief, with zero percent administrative costs taken out of them.
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Snakes, crucifixes (the kind with the body of Jesus on them) and even zombies (see comments on Ephesians 2, below) might be key visual symbols from the readings today. The "snake" in Numbers may refer to a "fiery serpent" ("saraph" in Hebrew), more of a winged snake, perhaps in the form of a flame. The winged snake was an Egyptian symbol for a goddess of the underworld, so the imagery for its first audience is evocative of being caught again the in very snares and slavery from which they had been delivered.
The imagery of snakes is important in some parts of U.S. culture again, and it is ripe for Christian reclaiming. Winged snakes are part of dragon lore, which is significant in Wiccan and other neopagan "seeker" communities today. Serpents in "mainstream Western" cultures may be symbols of unalloyed evil. For many ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Palestinian/Hebrew culture and Greek culture, they were much more nuanced, having potential for either good (healing, protection, wisdom -- as in the symbol for the American Medical Association) or evil (disease, death).
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Atmospherics: The Texts
We begin with John. Though this week's reading includes the "famous" John 3:16, the overall message of this text (and the focus of this week) is our need for radical repentance and God's gracious provision to meet our need and give us new, eternal life in Jesus. As John describes it, what God does for us in Christ is not a sort of "divine sleight of hand" by which God chooses no longer to look upon us with wrath (God covering God's eyes, we might say), but rather a full exposure of our violence (God uncovering our sin for us and all to see). When we acknowledge our sin and turn from it to follow in the way of Jesus, God gives us new birth and new, eternal life. This gift of new birth is not the result of our assent to a set of "facts" about Jesus. It is rather what God actually does in us when we "face facts" about ourselves and about God and God's mission made flesh in Jesus and give ourselves over to follow in his way.
The dialog with Nicodemus (John 3:1-16) provides three different metaphorical pathways to that larger theme. There is the initial dialog about new birth (verses 3-10). There is the comparison to the serpent lifted in the wilderness (verses 11-15). Then there is a summarizing statement ending with a call to discipleship (John 3:16). The text this week offers us the second and third of these pathways.
The comparison to Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness and the Son of Man being lifted up may have been more immediately accessible to John's first hearers (and to Nicodemus) than the "born again" language that precedes it. Assuming that Nicodemus and John's readers would have understood the allusion to our Old Testment reading today, they may have made the associations as follows. In the serpent story from Numbers, God used the "poisonous snakes" or "winged serpents" to bring judgment and death, and then used the bronze serpent to bring healing and deliverance. As people looked to the bronze serpent for deliverance, they were acknowledging that they were responsible for bringing the poisonous serpents upon themselves. In a similar way, when Jesus would be lifted up on the crucifix, he would bring salvation to all who acknowledge complicity in the violence that came upon him and then "believe into" him (John 3:15-16).
"Believe into" is a critical term in John's gospel. This phrase is often translated "believe in." That has led many interpreters over the centuries to read this text as if it were saying "Whoever gives assent to the idea that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose the third day" will instantly receive eternal life into their "celestial account."
But the Greek construction does not allow that interpretation. The Greek does not say "believe in" (using a preposition followed by the dative case, denoting primarily intellectual assent) but rather "believe into" (using a different preposition followed by the accusative case, denoting "handing oneself entirely over" to the other). The former allows for a view of salvation by faith alone that requires not even the slightest attempt to follow Jesus. The latter is no less an exercise of faith, but it is far more. It is not just intellectual assent, but absolute trust and submission to Jesus as Lord.
Thus John 3:16 is not referring primarily to believing things about the life, execution, and resurrection of Jesus, but rather to following him in his way. Eternal life is thus not a "thing" we get when we give assent to the right theology, but rather the reality in which we live as we follow the one who is Way, Truth and Life. This is not to say that "right belief" is unimportant. It is rather to say that this text -- and indeed the gospels and the letters of Paul -- call us to something more, to life in and through following Jesus, which we can do because of God's great love for us.
For too long, fairly or not, John 3:16 has been associated with escapism, with fire insurance (believe X and get your "get out of hell free" card), or worse. Today is an opportunity to reclaim it for what it is -- a gracious, mercy-filled, and serious call to repentance and the offer of new life in discipleship to Jesus.
Which of the images or metaphors in this text will be most helpful for your worshiping community to hear this call and have the opportunity to respond? The serpent? The explanation of "believe into" and its connection with discipleship (not just assent!)? The words that follow John 3:16 that make that point even clearer -- that light has come into the world, already, even before his execution, in the person of Jesus Christ, and that we can be "drawn to the light" both to expose what is destructive and to reveal his life made available to us?
It may be that your worshiping community can really deal with only one or two of these images today. Read the whole text, just like you may read all of the texts for today, but riff on what can communicate best though music, song, video, dance, art, movement in your context -- whatever you have available to reveal how these words of Scripture are being made flesh, or can be made flesh, in your midst.
Ephesians 2 begins with a bold, but also hopeful statement. "You were dead." What made them dead? The fact that they were "walking in" (a synonym for "being a disciple of") trespasses and sins following the patterns being set by the powers that be. Worse, he says, "We were all, by nature, children of uncontrollable passion." They had been disciples of this world's powers, passion's offspring.
A word about the phrase "passion's offspring." This has often been translated "children of wrath" and then associated with a theology that says that God was out to destroy us in God's anger because we were so bad. That's not what the Greek or the cultural understanding of the phrase at the time would have meant. The Greek word for "wrath" here is "Orge." "Orge" refers to a primal force, beyond our or anyone's control, that moves us to act according to its own passions and often chaotic anger. It is like Freud's "Id" on steroids. It pictures a reality of being thrown around by potentially vicious and dangerous forces, and that there is nothing we or anyone can do about it. That's not being alive. That's being dead or even "undead" -- like zombies moving under someone else's control.
They and we all, Paul says, had been like this, past tense.
"You were dead."
"But God" (verse 4)
But God has acted, even for our dead/undead and hopelessly overrun selves, offering us real life, not a different version of "zombie undeadness," in Jesus Christ. God does not do this because we did anything to fix ourselves. God is simply this gracious, this loving, this merciful toward us. Deliverance comes, as in John 3 and Numbers, as we see our state, acknowledge we're embedded in it and cannot fix it, and trust God's provision through Jesus and give ourselves over to follow him. This is not "pulling ourselves up"; it is surrender.
Like John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9 is has often been interpreted in a way that bifurcates God's salvation from our following Jesus. Reading this with verse 10 corrects this distortion. God's saving love for us is sheer grace, sheer mercy. We did nothing to earn it. It's a given. We are God's workmanship, and God loves us, period. We become God's new workmanship in Jesus Christ, as we enter into Jesus, doing the good works his way enables us to do. Entering into Jesus refers to baptism and to following his way with others. Before "walking in good works," (2:10) before our discipleship to Jesus, we were "walking in trespasses and sins," disciples and children of "wrath." Now we walk in good works as disciples to Jesus.
Are there people in your midst who can talk about "before and after" following Jesus in terms as compelling as Paul has laid out in this text? Many recovering addicts and current or former prisoners can. So can people who may have been healed, or may have experienced deliverance from trauma or mental illness. So can many who have come through profound grief. Find these people. Find ways for their stories to be told.
Numbers 21 offers a story that may be new, unfamiliar, or even strange to some. But don't let its newness or strangeness discourage you and your worship planning team from letting this be an "entry point" to today's texts for worship. In some settings, the unfamiliarity may be helpful. People may bring far fewer preconceptions to this text than to either John 3 or Ephesians 2, and so this text may become an opening to the others and to the larger theme of this day.
The folks who were complaining against Moses were no orderly delegation sent to Moses to raise a question. This was a contagious, hate-speech campaign. It was everywhere on the grapevine. Negativity, bitterness, and complaining had gone viral among the people.
God intervened with snakes. The Hebrew word here (saraph) describing these snakes could refer to something more than just a sudden plethora of vipers. It could also refer to winged snake-like creatures that were known for their supernaturally destructive powers against those who attacked one they were set to defend (an analog perhaps to the cherubim set at the entrance to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24). Whatever they were, and whatever happened as a result, a few people did finally send a delegation to Moses. Those who came acknowledged their complicity in bringing this about and begged Moses to plead with God to remove the snakes.
Moses pled, but God did not remove the snakes.
Instead, God offered a way to make confession and repentance, already begun in the official delegation, as viral as the bitter and destructive complaining had become. Moses was to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and tell folks that when they are bitten, if they would look to the snake on the pole, they would be healed.
In modern terms, might we call this medical malpractice? Perhaps. But it was spiritual healing these people needed most, and that is what God offered them.
Taking away the snakes, after all, wouldn't have really addressed what was actually destroying the people. They would have learned nothing from that except that if they complained loudly or directly enough, they could get some relief. The culture of complaint was the real problem. The only real treatment for that was replacement therapy. The culture of complaint had to be replaced by a culture of trust in God as deliverer and healer and guide. (Remember the first commandment from last week?) The culture as it was had to end, full stop. A new way of living had to begin.
Where will you begin among these three texts for this Sunday?
What cry of the people, or what message or reality that has gone viral among them (for good or for ill) provides the best, first opening where you are?
Do you need to look at things from an unfamiliar angle to reset your congregation's vision? Then consider starting with Numbers.
Is there an endemic sense that what matters is assent to particular doctrines and not actually following in the way of Jesus? Are folks are being engulfed in their own desires rather than following Jesus? Then focus with Ephesians.
Or is there a cry of exasperation that the "typical talk" about John 3:16 just doesn't make sense in this world? Then start with John, recalling as John does, the story in Numbers.
Whatever you do today, whatever you plan, open yourselves in prayer for the Spirit's guidance on ways you can help people genuinely repent and receive the new life God offers us in Christ as we follow Jesus.
A word about this week's theme in the overall scheme of Lent. All along we've been noting that Lent is not primarily "penitential." And then here today, our theme involves repentance. Aren't the two the same?
Actually, not so much. "Penitence" is a word that comes from the Latin word "poena," which means "punishment." Penitence (or penance) is a kind of self-punishment or self-discipline, we might say, that one undertakes to deal with ongoing sin in one's life. "Penitence" and "penance" historically have been near synonyms, with penance referring more to the acts and penitence referring more to the attitudes undertaken as one seeks to undergo this "self-punishment."
Repentance, on the other hand, ("metanoia" in Greek) means a "change of one's whole outlook." The Hebrew verb often translated "repent" ("shuv") means "to turn away from" or "return." Repentance means turning one's back on one way of life to walk in a different one.
Do you catch the significant difference? Martin Luther did. And in fact, he made it the very first of his famous "95 Theses." Roman Catholic teaching generally translated the Greek verb "metanoiein" into Latin as "Agite poenitentium," or "Do penance." Luther pointed out, in Theses 1, that this was not what the Bible said! It wasn't a matter of "doing the penances," but rather, as we say in our baptismal vows, truly repenting by accepting the freedom and power Christ gives us to turn from sin and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).
To be sure, penitence has a role in repentance. We do feel sorry for the wrongs we have done and the ways we have walked counter to the way and will of God, and we do seek to amend our lives and discipline ourselves lest we continue to do so as part of our turning from sin. But the decisive action in repentance is not our penitence, but God's gracious gift of new life that not only removes the penalty for our sin, but breaks the power of sin over us. Penitence focuses too much on us and our problems and pain. Repentance bears its fruit in the flowering of God's life-restoring grace and power. When God has done that in us, the better response than penitence is gratitude, praise and getting on with living the new life God has opened in us.
So penitence? Not so much. Repentance, yes.
As the poet John Donne put it long ago,
"here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood."
(Holy Sonnet 7)
If you have youth preparing for confirmation or people of any age who will be baptized at Easter, continue to list their names in the bulletin and gather around them with prayer as a part of this and each succeeding Sunday's worship. Growing, caring relationships with candidates for baptism and confirmation will lead to a full rather than empty ritual on Easter. Such relationships will also go a long way toward closing the "back door" in months and years to come!
For more on this kind of intensive attention to candidates for baptism or confirmation, see Come to the Waters by Daniel Benedict, especially pages 102, 106-107, and 117-119. Consider using one of the prayers for "examination of conscience" suggested there.
Continue to pray for all those affected by the global economic crisis, for peace in the world and for those in the armed services. See "Praying for Peace in the Face of War: Resources for Worship."
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- Greeting: BOW 326 (Ephesians)
- Greeting: BOW 424 (One Great Hour of Sharing)
- Opening Prayer BOW 251 (John)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 480 (Numbers, Ephesians)
- Prayer: UMH 456, "For Courage to Do Justice" (One Great Hour)
- Prayer: BOW 436 (Girl Scout Sunday)
- Prayer: BOW 334 (Numbers, Psalm, Ephesians)
- Prayer: BOW 336 (John)
- Prayer: BOW 500, "For Blessing, Mercy, & Courage" (Psalm)
- Poem: UMH 58, "Glory to God, and Praise and Love" (Ephesians)
- Poem: UMH 342, "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin" (Ephesians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. Remember that we have vibrant and growing, and (in Laos) sometimes also persecuted, United Methodist congregations and missionary partnerships in these countries.
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 551 (Psalm, Ephesians)
- Great Thanksgiving: (Communion) BOW 60-61
- Blessing: BOW 563 (Ephesians, John)
- See BOW 424 and BOW 436 for additional suggestions.