Swimming upstream with Jesus

Preached on 11 March 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

“To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.”

That’s a pretty strong claim I read in an online commentary this week.
Another one put it this way,

“Discipleship demands endless struggle.”

It sounds impossibly demanding, daunting, but I think it’s true.

Here’s the thing, though.  Discipleship isn’t a pass/fail test.  Even when it seems that we’ve been swept far downstream by those currents of the world, we’re never lost to God; we don’t drown.  With God’s help, we can turn back upstream and make a little progress.  If we join together, we can possibly make more progress.  No matter how many times our courage flags, we can turn and begin again.

Maybe I’ve begun where I should have ended.  Let’s back up and take a look at our Scripture readings for today.

In the Old Testament reading, we find the Israelites leaving camp at Mt. Hor.  They are well on their way out of Egypt trying to get to the Promised Land.  They have hit one obstacle or difficulty after another and they’re grumbling.  We hear that God has sent poisonous snakes into the camp and people are dying.  Not really a warm, fuzzy image of God, is it?  No, this God is dangerous and unpredictable.  The people think it must be a punishment for something they’ve done, maybe their complaining.

So, they turn to Moses and ask him to intervene with God, to take the snakes away.  You may have noticed that God doesn’t do anything to the snakes, but God does offer a remedy.  He tells Moses to fashion a pole with a bronze snake on it.  When someone is bitten, they can look at it and be healed.  Notice, nothing is said about sin or sacrifice or punishment.  The bronze snake that Moses lifts up is for healing.

Jesus refers to this story in our Gospel reading.  We come in right in the middle of a private conversation, in fact, in mid-sentence.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the middle of the night with some questions.  He’s getting even more confused and, I daresay, so are we.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Jesus tells him, “as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,” (for healing, remember), “so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Hmmm.  Often, it’s assumed that lifted up is about the crucifixion.  But maybe it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s lifted up on the cross and lifted up from the tomb and lifted up in the ascension – the whole Easter story.  And what might he mean by “believes” and “eternal life?”

Next, we hear what may be the best-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16.  I read from a different translation so that we could hear it with fresh ears.

This verse, unfortunately, is sometimes used like a test of who’s in and who’s out; who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.
Or it’s treated like it’s a one-time event, almost an intellectual exercise: believe in Jesus?  Check.  Ok, glad that’s taken care of.

But, as we continue reading, we see that there’s more to it than that.  Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it or judge it.  To save the world in the world; it’s the process of ending hate, injustice, exploitation, oppression, for a world of justice, compassion, mercy, love and so on.  This is eternal life.

Jesus saves the world through his presence in the world and we are invited into that presence, to join in the salvation of the world.

“Believing in Jesus” is about choosing “light” (justice, love, compassion) and rejecting “darkness” (injustice, hate, oppression).  Lest you think this sounds like the “just say no to drugs” campaign in the 80s, here’s the difference.  We’re not alone.  This is about Jesus’ invitation to be with him in choosing light over darkness.

This brings to mind our baptismal examination and covenant.  In the Examination, we begin with renunciations:  We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.  We renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  And we renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

And then, we turn to Jesus Christ.  We accept him as our Savior.  We put our whole trust in his grace and love.  And we promise to follow and obey him as our Lord.

This isn’t a one and done thing.  These are choices we make every day, multiple times a day.  It is in our turning to the light in Christ that we are able to turn away from the darkness.

Then in the Covenant, we promise to persevere in resisting evil.  We promise that when we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord.  We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves.  We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and we promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
All this, with God’s help.

This all sounds like what we’ve been talking about.  It’s an ongoing, lifelong process.  Is it easy?  No.  But the promise is life, abundant life with Christ. Starting now.

And so, we’re back where we started.

“To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.”

To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim into the current that carries Christ’s life-giving grace, the current of justice and mercy, of love and compassion, the current of freedom, hope, and love; the current of eternal life.

May we be blessed with such courage.