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Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107, 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
March 11, 2018 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
The story Christians have to tell is filled with power and hope even though we are so small and powerless. The world is so vast and great in comparison to the beautiful corner of it we get to call home. Earth is tiny and insignificant compared to the Universe…our galaxy…our solar system… the Sun…even Jupiter dwarfs us.
But when we contemplate what we have, it is enough to serve as a lifetime… and more…of joy; it is worthy of a lifetime…and more… of our most inspired effort. And we are wonders because we are aware and…to some extent…woke to it.
I am almost finished with the third and final volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. Manchester wrote biographies of many other famous people and many pivotal moments in history.
But he finally came to Churchill and spent the last years of a prolific and brilliant career trying to capture the essence of a man many people believe was the greatest of the 20th Century.
But Churchill would not have been great, and he probably would not have inspired a single biography if the world had not gotten itself into so much trouble and had not become so dark a place by the time his country turned to him and his King ever so reluctantly asked him to lead them through the cataclysm of the Second World War.
And when Hitler had been totally and utterly defeated his grateful nation voted him out of office before the Japanese surrendered. He was a man for one season.
Still, he was a great figure in the story of humanity’s struggle to come to grips with its darkest self, make sense of monsters and glimpse our place in the cosmos.
Churchill’s life was always full of strife and failure, but he found a way to turn his challenges into an inner strength that never abandoned him. He said that his mastery of the English language was due to the fact that he could not understand Latin or Greek and therefore had to repeat the lowest form…writing English…while the cleverest boys went on to learn Latin and Greek and become doctors and lawyers and scientists. His weakness became his strength, and his strength was his weakness.
When all was said and done at the end of the second Great War, he was honored to have lunch with King George VI. A great crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace and the King invited Churchill to join him and his family on the balcony to acknowledge them.
Manchester wrote, “Always respectful of the monarchy, Churchill stood a discreet foot or so behind King George, his posture that of a five-foot-eight-inch man under a five-foot-six-inch ceiling.
“In the photos of the scene, Churchill wears the impish smile of a little boy who has just been told, Behave yourself. When the crowd caught sight of Churchill, Mollie Panter-Downes wrote, “there was a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar.”
More than anyone else, he embodied the spirit that had brought them through the ordeal. Later that day, both King George and President Truman delivered radio addresses to their nations and the world. Neither of them mentioned Churchill.
Churchill’s great feat was delivering the world from Adolph Hitler, but there is a dark side to any mortal who overcomes evil violence with what we have come to know as redemptive violence.
We honor what he did because it was better than what der Fuhrer had in mind. But it was all awful. My father said that when he got home everyone wanted you to party and celebrate the great victory, but he…like most veterans who had seen too much…just wanted to forget it.
One of the great prices we pay for our hour of glory is our peace of mind. We give up our inner peace for the sake of a greater cause.
But the man we gather to honor this hour…and every hour this day of the week…overcame violence with non-violence. He, too, had a difficult childhood.
He was born in a strange town that his impoverished parents had been compelled to go to just as his mother was about to give birth. They all had to flee into Egypt to escape the paranoia and malevolence of their king, Herod.
When that king had died, they moved back to an obscure village to avoid any notice. Nothing that good had ever come out of Nazareth. No one would look there.
And there was never a good thing that he did that did not create enemies for him. The people of his own community drove him out of town when he pointed out that God’s grace was not only for the Jews, but to all who believe in God …even for people that looked and acted a lot like their oppressors.
He was not violent enough for them. He made a good beginning at the synagogue, reading from the Prophet Isaiah, ““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
But then he reminded them that the great Elijah himself had saved a widow in Sidon, home of their ancestral enemies, and they knew that he did not belong to them. If you say something good about my enemy, you cannot be my friend.
He could have bemoaned his fate. He had only been teaching them the lessons that were clearly in their scriptures. It was God who had saved Israel. Israel had not saved God…or itself. God had given them free will. Who were they to try to confine the Almighty?
He could have said what we are wont to say when things don’t go the way we think they should… “Why me?” He said, “Your will, not mine.”
And today, Nicodemus comes to visit him under the cloak of night lest anyone see him asking this itinerant rabbi from the hill country a respectful question…lest anyone even suspect him of thinking there is any value in what Jesus might have to say.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Jesus responds that no one can see the kingdom unless they are born again.
He says, in effect, that the slate of our worldly expectations must be wiped clean. We must get out of the cycle of revenge upon revenge or the world will surely die. There is some hope that this Nicodemus who has come from the other side to hear what he has to say might linger long enough to understand.
Jesus knows that the world is full of anger and anger provokes violence and violence inspires revenge…and if we just keep heading in that direction we will one day live in a world that is full of darkness.
What we have to do, then, is to show the world the way to the light. Again Churchill comes back to my mind. France had been overrun and the European continent was in Hitler’s grasp and he had an overwhelming force of arms to bring to bear next upon Britain.
“Hitler knows he must break us in this island or lose the war…. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire … last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Later in life he would be asked what his favorite year was and he said… not 1945…but “1940, every time!”
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in much the same way, knowing there is great meaning in tragic times, and while Churchill was not a religious man, he owes a debt to his savior and ours for his stroke of insight in England’s darkest hour.
Jesus, in the hard days of the Roman occupation when he is speaking to a people who only want to know where he gets his authority recalls to Nicodemus the hard days the Nation of Israel was in the Wilderness and they began to quarrel among themselves.
Serpents came among the people …not entirely unlike the serpent came to Eve…and the people were infected with their venom and began to die. As Paul puts it, we are dead through the trespasses and sins in which we are tempted to live, following the course of this world.
As we read today, God told Moses to put a poisonous serpent on a pole and lift it up to all those who had been bitten, so they can look upon it and live. If we will only see our sin and know that the sin for what it is: ours…if we will accept the fact that we are not perfect and need help…we can live again…be born again…have hope again.
It was the failure of the people in the Wilderness to see that their problem is in them that doomed them to defeat and death. If England had blamed Neville Chamberlain for their plight in 1940, they would have surrendered and been done with it.
But they sought instead to be a point of light. And here’s the thing: when it all seems dark around you, then you must become the light…if there is to be any light in the world.
So Jesus tells 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.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us not to hide our light under a bushel, but to put it on a stand so it gives light to everyone in the house.
We may think we have fallen into a dark time in our society, with people not gathering to get to know each other, hunching over electronic devices where…I read this week…disinformation spreads faster and farther than the truth.
But here is the good news. You are now in church. You know people who have done and are doing good things for neighbors they know and people they have never met…and they are energized and uplifted…to be doing good…and so are we.
It is an old story. We saw people becoming better as they did what they could do to help others recover from the shock of 9/11, better as they rescued strangers from the floodwaters of Harvey, and better as we helped our friends on the Blackfeet Parish weather the winter of 2018.
We all have a role model to follow in that regard and it’s not Winston Churchill. It’s that itinerant rabbi from the hill country I mentioned earlier…who never held office… who never wielded worldly power.
All of his words and all of his actions drew attention to overcoming the darkness…how to bring the light into the world. Those who would not let go of their sins…those who preferred the darkness…those who would dominate others with the threat of violence or worldly power…were made their choice…the wrong one…and that choice would define them for eternity. But, he said, there is another choice if you are born again.
Jesus had made his choice, too, and he made the same choice God had made…his will was aligned with God’s will…he and God were one …he and the Holy Spirit were one.
We are saved, Paul writes to us today, by faith through grace. God in Jesus Christ loves us…wants the best for us…is willing to give us more than we would ever dare to ask on our own behalf…shows us the way.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Amen.