Fourth Sunday in Lent 2018 — Preaching Notes
Recovery | REHAB WORSHIP SERIES
A homiletics professor I know teaches that when it comes to preaching, the place to begin is always with the context. Context is a lot of things. Context includes the community in which the preaching occurs. Context involves location and language and style. It involves negotiation between preacher and congregation, preacher and community, congregation and community. But context also refers to the text itself: To whom was the story originally told? To what circumstances does the story refer? Who is speaking? What is the setting?
Context is critical to all biblical interpretation, but it seems especially important in the case of Scriptures that are often proclaimed or prayed primarily outside of their original context.
Most Christians know by heart John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But many followers of Jesus might not know the context in which these beautiful words were spoken.
The assigned lectionary reading for today starts at verse fourteen, where Jesus makes reference to an incident from the Old Testament, involving Moses lifting up a “serpent in the wilderness.” This leaves us to wonder what on earth does a snake have to do with God’s love for the world and God’s sending his son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life?
Perhaps some might think initially that this wilderness serpent is another appearance of the snake who tempted Adam and Eve, and draw the conclusion that this passage has something to do with temptation and original sin. But the serpent in this story is not a tempter. This snake is a savior.
Because the story of the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness is not in Genesis. Rather, it is found in the twenty-first chapter of Numbers, which tells of the people of Israel journeying for forty years in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan after the exodus. In the context of our series, we might say that the Israelites were experiencing forty years of rehab.
The book of Numbers is a story of lost faith. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites got held up making their way to the promised land when they were forced to detour in the land of Edom. The delay meant forty years of misery and suffering in the desert. It had gone on so long that not only were they losing faith in their leader Moses, but they were losing faith in the Lord God. They began complaining loudly about the conditions of their wilderness experience:
“We were better off in Egypt. Why did you bring us out here into the wilderness to die? We’ve got no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!”
But then, if we are really getting into context, I might suggest we back up even a little bit further into Numbers, where we would quickly discover that this was, in fact, not their first occasion for whining and complaining. It’s not their second or even their third.
It is at least the fourth occasion, and in each preceding time, God addressed their complaints in some way. But here they are at it again. And at this point, according to the Numbers 21 account, God is tiring of their complaints, because the book of Numbers reports that after this last incident God sent poisonous serpents among the people who were grousing. The snakes bit them, and many of the people died.
So the ones who didn’t die apparently went running back to Moses. They quickly confessed that they had sinned against him and against God. They threw themselves on the mercy of Moses and begged him to intervene with God on their behalf. So Moses went to God, and God told him to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. God told Moses that anyone who was bitten by a live serpent should look at the bronze serpent on the pole. And when the bitten person looked at the bronze serpent, he or she would recover and live.
Statistics suggest that most people who enter rehab don’t recover after the first trip. It usually takes multiple attempts, and multiple failures, before a person is able to leave behind the old way of life and fully embrace what it means to be in recovery. The word “recovery is revealing in itself. It suggests that healing from something difficult or traumatic is an ongoing process that requires maintenance, perhaps for the rest of one’s life. We are going on to perfection, to use Wesley’s terminology that we talked about last week. Recovery takes vigilance.
So as we backed up in Numbers, I want to suggest that now, as we return to John’s Gospel, that we back up to the first verse of chapter three. If we look at the larger context there, we can see that Jesus’ mention of the serpent in the wilderness was part of a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus had come to Jesus seeking to understand his message and mission. Jesus would have known that as a Pharisee, Nicodemus would know well the reference to the story from Numbers and be able to understand it as a comparison to Jesus’ mission.
Thus, when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” Nicodemus would have understood very clearly that Jesus was saying he was to be a healer to the Jewish people in some way.
Nicodemus would not yet have known Jesus would be hung on a cross to die. He would not have been able to vision being “lifted up” in the way that you and I can. But he understood Jesus’ meaning: Just as looking at the bronze serpent on a pole enabled the ancient Israelites who were dying because of their sin to recover, so would looking at Jesus lifted up on the cross bring a hope for recovery to those who are dying in sin today.
So now we come to the final context that must be considered, and that’s your work to do. What is the particular context to which this good news is being proclaimed? Who is sitting there in your chairs or pews? What are their sins? What are they ashamed of? What are they hiding from the people in their lives? What do they wish they could change about themselves? From what do they need to recover? Are their sins making them sick? Are they causing them to not be able to live fully, or love fully, or be God’s witnesses on this earth?
The original sin of Adam and Eve was to desire to have the knowledge of good and evil for themselves, apart from God. They imagined they could do it on their own. They imagined they really didn’t need God to show them the way to the truth.
It is this original sin, of thinking that we can do everything without God, that leads to all the rest of our sins. So the first thing we need to do to begin to get out of the vicious cycle of our sinful behaviors is to admit that we can’t do it alone and to ask God and others to help us. And God has already provided the path to recovery!
Because just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved us that he gave his only son, so that when we believe in him, we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn us, but in order that we might be saved through him.
The good news is all we need to do is look to the cross. All we need to do to receive God’s healing grace is lift our eyes and gaze into the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. All we need to do is trust that he is the one who can transform us, change us, restore us, heal us, save us. And then let him keep doing it.
Call the people to repent! Invite them to go to the Lord in prayer and confess their sins. Tell them to ask the Lord to help turn turn away from their sins so that they too may have life. Life eternal.
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
I mentioned in an earlier sidebar that my real rehab experience was “take two.”
That’s because the first time I tried it, I failed. Dramatically.
To be sure, I was apprehensive about the whole project to begin with. I was more scared of rehab than I was of the heart attack and first cardiac catheterization and stent installation I went through, and far more scared of it than the second procedure I was to go through a few weeks later. I’d generally had an adverse response to hard exercise. Usually it was upper respiratory. In eighth grade, after running a mile as required for gym class, I was down for two weeks with upper respiratory distress, an ear infection, and vertigo that didn’t seem to want to quit. And I had a great uncle who died during cardiac rehab. Between my own body’s reaction and this family history (lots of heart disease and no male on my father’s father’s side living past fifty-eight in three generations; I was fifty-two), I wasn’t looking forward to starting–much less enduring– cardiac rehab.
But the staff of the rehab center were also the staff of the cardiac unit where I had received excellent care. I already knew and had come to trust them. So despite apprehensions, my actual attitude coming into it was more like “I may not like this, but I can trust them to get me through this.”
That trust was put to the test on the first day of rehab. I was feeling a little bit of chest pain, but was trying to ignore that and press through. But they didn’t like what they saw on their monitors about what was happening with my heart rate under fairly minimal exertion, beginner level stuff for their workout machines. It was spiking too high. And it wasn’t coming down. They stopped me. They called the cardiologist. He ordered bed rest until after the second stent would be installed. I had, in effect, flunked cardiac rehab, Day 1.
What I learned was I really could trust them, even though I didn’t trust my body or my reading of my body’s attempts to signal me to slow down. I could trust them. They could get me to a program that would work for me in time. And they could and would prevent me from causing myself harm along the way. They proved that that day.
And they continued to prove it throughout the thirty-six sessions over the five months that followed. As time went on, I could begin to see real, measurable improvements not just in the stats (heart rate, blood pressure, and my improved ability to hit higher specific goals for each device), but also in some less measurable things, like flexibility and endurance. And these have been lasting after the thirty-six weeks ended a few months ago.
Flunking cardiac rehab the first time turned out to be an encouragement. Perhaps it might have read for me as condemnation-- not even good enough to get through day 1. But the effect was quite the opposite. It may have been one of the most important steps toward being able to do it starting with Take Two, after the second stent.
And as I’ve noted, Take Two did take.