Miss the preaching of Justin Rimbo on Sunday? Well, read it here for yourself.First Reading: Numbers 21: 4-9
Gospel: John 3: 1-21
“Let’s Do the Mind-Warp Again”
“Snakes on a Plain”
My Humble Walk family, grace to y’all and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, most folks here know who I am, I thought it might make sense to start by giving a refresher for anyone who doesn’t. While Humble Walk might attract its fair share of seminarians from certain local institutions, I am – as far as I know – the only person Humble Walk has ever sent to seminary, and it actually looks like I’m gonna graduate.
Our family pulled up our tent pegs two years ago and relocated to Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. It’s a lot like Luther, but with much less snow, and the students aren’t as smart or good-looking. My wife Angie is a teacher and all-around talker-downer for me when things get too crazy, and we have two kids, Owen, who is 6 going on 30 – he’s very serious, and considerate, and Type A. He almost gave an altar call during a Maundy Thursday service once at Humble Walk, trying to usurp Jodi’s Children’s sermon. And Zoe, who is almost 4, is the opposite. She is an ARTIST and has grown to be kind of like that Amy Poehler character from SNL who runs around shouting “RICK RICK RICK.”
All in all, things are really good in South Carolina, but I find that we still spend most of our time trying not to get sucked into drudgery and routine or maybe just not feeling exhausted all the time. That would work for us.
I’ll share this example from a few weeks ago about what our days usually look like – Owen goes to elementary school close to the school where Angie teaches, so they usually get up at 5:30 to get ready to go together, and they get home around 5pm, just totally wiped out. And I take Zoe to preschool, and go to class, and pick Zoe up, and get Zoe to a sitter, and go to class again, and come home and we all eat dinner, and then I go and read, and write papers, and read some more, and then it starts all over and I just want to get some sleep. But in the morning, as soon as she hears the shower, Zoe is up, and once Zoe is up, there is nowhere to hide. On this particular day I have in mind, I was completely passed out in bed when Zoe threw open the door, flipped on the lights and said, “DAD. I have TERRIBLE news . . . I have the hiccups!”
She was right. As far as I was concerned, at 6am, this wake-up call was, in fact, terrible news. To be woken up this way felt kind of like I was under attack. And I have to be honest in saying I was also kind of a jerk to Zoe later that morning.
I hear – through my sources – that you have had some kind of a winter here. And if there’s one thing I remember from the seemingly-endless winters that are a part of living in Minnesota, it’s that, somewhere in March or April or early May, the lack of sunlight starts to warp your brain a bit. So when the weatherman finally comes on and says, “it’s going to be warm and sunny this weekend,” you have nothing left to do but sort of glare at the television and say, “Psssh. Right.” And maybe you’ve gotten a small taste of it this past week, but it takes a few weeks of living in sunlight again to remember that summer even exists, that we’re not stuck in some eternal winter, like the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
HERE’S THE THING: WHEN WE GET USED TO THE GRIND, TO ISOLATION, HIBERNATION AND DESPAIR FOR LONG ENOUGH, THEN GOOD THINGS - EVEN WHEN IT’S PURELY GOOD NEWS LIKE LIFE AND LIGHT - CAN START TO SOUND LIKE IT’S A LIE. LIKE JUDGMENT. OR DEATH. THE DOLDRUMS HAVE THIS POWER OF MAKING LIGHT LOOK LIKE DARKNESS.
In both of the readings today we find two groups of people who are a part of a wrestling match with God, and their reality has become so self-centered that they are in serious danger of that distorting, late-winter mind-warp. Consider the preposterous things that are leaving the lips of the Israelites as they wander the wilderness (and you have to read this in a whiny voice): “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to diiieeeee? We don’t have any food except for this food God sent us which we used to like but now it’s DETESTABLE . . . we want pizza . . .” At other times, they say things like, “It would be better off just to be slaves again.” So much drama.
And then we have Nicodemus: Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, and Nicodemus the Pharisee, a “leader of the people,” sees him flipping tables in the Temple, and so he arranges a little covert meet-and-greet under cover of darkness. Maybe he didn’t want the other Pharisees to find out he was meeting with Jesus . . .
There’s actually this other theory that says that after dark was the appointed time when the Pharisees met to discuss matters of the Law, so maybe Nicodemus is actually there on official business – maybe he’s sent there as a representative of all the other Pharisees, to figure out who this Jesus is, and what he’s up to.
In both cases, we have people who have missed the forest for the trees. The big picture of God’s goodness. The Israelites are stuck looking down. They are looking two feet in front of them. Their focus isn’t on the wide-open expanse of freedom above and around them, or the potential for a future, they’re just blinkered. And this story says that God sends snakes to bite them – an interesting take on the way we understand God, and probably deserving of its own sermon – but at least this gets their attention. So God works through nature to wake them up, and then heals them through the same thing. There are, literally, snakes on that plain.
The Pharisees aren’t so much looking down as they are stuck looking in. They love God and God’s commandments, but that love has warped into a love for their ingrown interpretation of the Law, the letter of the law, that they alone get to interpret and enforce, like judges in a courtroom. And the very idea which Jesus embodies - that God is fulfilling the law through restoration and reconciliation and through and for people who aren’t already in is, for them, like walking out of a movie theater after a ten-hour marathon. The light is almost blinding, and can knock you off balance, they’re disoriented. Nicodemus – and really, all the Pharisees – are put in this new position where, pretty quickly, they have to figure out whether they will accept Jesus’ re-working of their ideas, or if they’ll reject it. It’s a bit of a crisis. The lights have been flipped on.
I didn’t take any Greek at seminary, so I’m relying on the wisdom of Karoline Lewis to let me know that the word “judgment” in this text has the same Greek root as the word “crisis.” A crisis is a moment when we have to figure out how we’re going to see things. So maybe Jesus when Jesus is talking about judgment coming into the world, he is saying something close to, “Here’s the crisis at hand: a healing, restorative light came into the world, and some people liked their brokenness so much that they wanted nothing to do with it.”
This is a laughably simple decision for us. Light is a good thing, right? Jesus is just alright with us. It’s fun to point the finger at the silly Israelites and the Pharisees as being mind-warped, self-centered whiners until we remember that, oh yeah, they’re me. If you’re not sure about this, think for a second about how you felt when you heard Jesus say that his coming into the world is a “judgment.”
Judgment sounds, to us, like suffering. It sounds like snakes on a plain! After all, if you’ve ever attended 6th grade, you have been judged. If you write something and put it on the internet, you will be judged (don’t read the comments). If you are a human being, whether you’ve been on a reality TV show or not, you have experienced judgment at the hands of other human beings, and it suuuuuuuucks. And Jesus says he is judging us? Why would Jesus want anything to do with judgment?
Well, maybe he wants to transform it. Redeem it? Or, more specifically, he wants to turn it back into what it really is, which means exposing us to divine light for long enough that we instead start to forget about winter – about death, and despair and isolation – and see how we’re a part of something better. If Jesus is judging us, meaning Jesus is making the call on our inherent value, the judgment is that we’re LOVED, and WORTH IT. I need to hear this over and over - Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn us – to cut us off from God, as much as we ask for it – but to save us. To heal us. And part of that means restoring us to our full selves.
When judgment is left in our hands, it is a tool for pain, for bigotry, for hatred – for condemnation. In God’s hands, judgment becomes more like a huge coming out party. We don’t have to hide who we are, because who we are is a people joined to Jesus Christ in our baptisms and lit up, and lifted up for everyone to see. Jesus isn’t just about transforming the concept of judgment – Jesus is also transforming us into who we’re created to be. All of a sudden, encountering Jesus sounds less like condemnation, and more like life. The good news is good again.
Jesus can do this. The beginning of this same book says that Jesus was there at the beginning, his life was the light of all people, so we already know Jesus can turn chaos into creation. And – Easter spoiler alert – Jesus also has the power to turn a cross into an empty tomb. So who are we to say that Jesus can’t turn our twisted version of judgment into grace, healing, salvation? Jesus – and Humble Walk is proof of this – takes messes, and does miraculous things with them.
In a few weeks, we’ll see Jesus lifted up on the cross, the same way the snake was lifted up in the wilderness, the same way we lift Jesus up when we gather as a community. This time of year, especially, we proclaim Jesus’ ability to transform – to take what looks like death, and turn it into life. To stick with us for long enough that we make it through the mind-warp and start to trust in Jesus again. And on Holy Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, Nicodemus shows up one last time, and we get to hear his epilogue as he shows us what that transformation looks like.
Nicodemus, who once came to Jesus by night, comes to his dead body before the day is over, following the Jewish customs of anointing Jesus body and wrapping him in linen, and laying him in a tomb nearby. A great act of love. And done in public, no less. He’s not hiding, he’s not afraid of the light.
It seems that, toward the end, Nicodemus’ crisis is finally resolved, but I’m not so sure he resolved it himself. Somewhere along the line, as an unwritten subplot throughout this whole book, Jesus has affected Nicodemus in a such a way that he turns from darkness to light, from suspicion to trust, from inward to outward, to who he really is. Jesus, even in death, takes what’s warped in us – our misperceptions and selfish invulnerabilities – and . . . I won’t say Jesus makes us normal, but he transforms us into a really good kind of weird – the kind that loves openly, and lays down its life. This is the gradual, gracious work of God; the long winter’s crisis of coming out into the light. May it be so for us here and now. AMEN.