Had Jesus not used the image of the serpent in the wilderness as a metaphor of the resurrection (John 3:14-15), Christians may have been inclined to neglect the story entirely. In this story, Moses fashions a glittering saraph and lifts it up with a pole so that the impatient people, plagued by poisonous snakes, can look and be healed. This act evokes disturbing images of ancient animal worship and magical healing rites. The report that king Hezekiah eventually destroys Nehushtan as an idolatrous object (2 Kings 18:4), despite its Mosaic provenance, confirms our ambivalence and turns our assumptions about the way God works topsy turvy.
Even if God is pure spirit (belied by a host of biblical metaphors), our encounters with the holy are always physical. We touch the divine through the mundane – sensing the boundless tangibility of the cosmos, straining against the limitations of timing and spacing. We create shrines wherever our awe is especially intense and stock them with ritual objects that help us focus our attention, deepen our reflection and reconstitute our commonality. We throw our bodies into worship and service, inspired and sustained by those precious accoutrements of religious devotion. Like Job, we bear our vexation and our vindication in the flesh.
Beloved, do not despise the earth or any earthly thing, least of all each other. We are not just vessels containing a divine spark, we are creatures (‘adam) taken from and returned to the life-giving soil (‘adamah). The bodily resurrection of Jesus would make little sense to a disembodied race. So lift up the bronze serpent. And lift each other up, as that precious, broken body was lifted, lowered, raised.
As I was walking through the Art Institute of Chicago a few weeks ago, I came upon a painting of a woman lying down in a bed. She was positioned in what could have been mistaken, by a hasty glance, as a romantic pose. But upon closer examination, the sunlight coming in from the painted window illuminated this woman’s posture as one of defiance, anger, brokenness and shame. She was lying somewhat haphazardly. On the bedside table was a collection of empty bottles. And yet the artist captured her expression at the moment when the light from the window landed on her. The light illuminates the contours of her face and makes her brokenness look absolutely beautiful.
We use the metaphor of light and darkness to talk about God fairly often. Typically, the darkness is vilified. In a raw, emotional way, that makes sense. As children, we are often afraid of the dark. And even as adults, we don’t like it when our ability to make sense of the world around us is taken away. But maybe it’s not that simple. As an artist, I have come to love the shadows. They bring depth to our images, they ground us. The shadows are so human.
This week’s theme is “the light enters the world.” It’s a complicated statement. It’s not “the light makes the darkness go away forever,” which would perhaps be easier to understand. It’s not even “the light overcomes the darkness.” Even if sunlight is the metaphorical God, the darkness doesn’t disappear. The shadows are, as I said before, so human. We know, especially as we reflect during this season of Lent, that the world is full of suffering and chaos and that much of that is caused by humanity. But even in our most painful moments, when we lie like the woman in bed, we can be illuminated. We know that the existence of God doesn’t make suffering go away. Instead, the light is entering the world. It’s showing us the shapes and colors and the joys and sorrows. The light is what allows us to see our humanity.
Jesus points to the ways of peace. His life and ministry powerfully demonstrate love of neighbor and wholly living in faith. But Jesus did not sit and watch the unjust practices of the world strengthen until they became the norm. He was never apathetic about transgressions against self, other or God. He did not avoid conflict out of fear of being perceived as a troublemaker or disturbing the calm. When faced with injustice, Jesus took action.
We often shy away from the clearing of the temple account, afraid that it contradicts pacifist values, afraid of a Jesus for whom making peace may include righteous anger. Or perhaps we give this story no more than a cursory glance, categorizing it as an anomaly in the actions of Christ, out of fear that it calls us. It demands that we also take action when faced with wrong in this world, with situations that deny our God who loves and welcomes all unconditionally. This story challenges us to confront injustice out of love. It challenges us to do our part to dismantle systems of oppression, to destroy our preconceived notions of what (and who) is holy, and to break down barriers of inequality. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to wait patiently and a time to stand up and lovingly proclaim that we will follow the model of a Christ who actively loved all, turning this world upside down and inside out.
May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in the world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
~ Franciscan benediction
The passage for today’s reflection from I Corinthians is jam-packed with truths that are life changing. The truth it contains that has been most impactful to me is what it highlights about God’s plan for human faith. The text pits human wisdom against what it calls the “foolishness” of the message of the cross. It is fascinating to me that it was God’s plan that our belief in our Creator would not be borne out of our own human wisdom and understanding; rather it would instead require a genuine step of faith.
Our challenge as those who have taken the step of faith to believe in the message of the cross is to relinquish control of our lives to God. We too often believe that we have the power to make things happen by the force of our will or efforts. We believe things will not get done “without us.” We believe that we are indispensable. The reality is that God is the one with all the power and wisdom, and we are weak and fragile. When we rely on our own wisdom, we deny the power of God, thinking that we know better. We in effect take on the place of God, and in our pride fail to humbly yield to God his rightful place.
Isaiah 29:16 (NRSV) points out the flaw in this way of thinking and highlights our Lenten theme (“upside down and inside out”), noting: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, “He has no understanding?”
When I have fully grasped this truth, that my wisdom, my power and my abilities are not enough to produce lasting peace, I have recognized that humbling myself before God requires a daily admission of my need and of my lack of understanding. When I can I cast my burdens on my Savior, the peace comes rushing in. God can handle it, he is in the business of bearing burdens and his resources are limitless.
Lord Jesus, I admit my weakness, my lack of wisdom, my lack of understanding, and my need for you each and every day. Fill me with your peace, with your love, with your compassion, with your mercy, and with your grace. Thank you for being a relational God on whom I can cast my burdens daily.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 (NIV)
When I think about simplicity, I am reminded of my childhood. Not only did I have less inhibitions and worries, but I grew up in an environment that valued the simple. At a very young age, I began attending a summer camp in the Adirondacks. There was a lot of swimming, hiking and singing that was done with the intention of worshipping God on the home field – Creation. My parents and the staff there taught me to appreciate nature and God’s presence in it.
The first part of today’s verse reminds me of life. “Reviving” often means giving life to something that lacks it. This connects me to how spring brings life out of the death of winter. And, in other ways, we see this same thing in all the seasons. Today’s passage calls the Lord’s statutes and laws “perfect” and “trustworthy,” reminding me of nature’s systems and how they exist and seem to work quite smoothly even when my human mind cannot conceive why.
We have a lot to learn about God through nature. The seasons come and go as do our joys and sorrows. Winter storms are deadly but decorate the air and ground most beautifully. Death and decay are life processes, occurring regularly, but so are birth and renewal. In the same way, God changes and yet is constant.
When we next look at a songbird, a fallen tree or a patch of green earth amidst the snow, I hope we can find it in ourselves to think upon what God might be revealing about The Divine through creation. It is indeed simple, but perhaps, as the psalmist writes, we are made wise through it. I often find myself in awe as I walk quietly through the Adirondack woods. I am not sure if what I hear is the trickling of a creek or something more. Either way, I am grateful for the quiet Spirit that I find there and the things I might learn from it.
Lately I have found myself searching for a way to set the season of Lent apart: to make it significant, to honor the centuries-old tradition of this 40-day period of discipline. I must admit, sometimes it’s far too easy to let the days pass without giving a thought to any extra rituals. Sure, I have good intentions. Some years I come up with creative ideas for foods to give up, habits to change or daily spiritual practices to begin. But more often than not, when Ash Wednesday rolls around, I wrack my brain for ways to make Lent special – for a few minutes. Then, with a faint feeling of guilt, I think, “Ah, well, there’s always next year.”
How often does that apply to Christian faith in general? With the best of intentions, we try to observe traditions and follow the rules – but if we fall short, sometimes it seems easier to just give up. There are many reasons to become overwhelmed trying to live out our faith: Christianity has too much baggage, it’s too bureaucratic, too broken, too complicated. And on top of that, we’re supposed to take 40 whole days to contemplate our commitment to Christ?
In Goshen College’s Anabaptist-Mennonite History class with John Roth last semester, a word that came up over and over was renewal. Sometimes renewing our faith commitment means radical new ideas. But other times, it is in looking to more ancient traditions that we find our sense of identity and a refreshed energy. The Ten Commandments may seem like old news – but perhaps examining these verses with new eyes can bring the renewal we need. At its core, practicing faith means remembering our covenant with God: our mortal end of the deal is to keep these commandments. During this time of Lent, I invite us to return to this most ancient of disciplines – and God will show us steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Goshen College’s Study-Service Term (SST) can be a simultaneously difficult and eye-opening experience. On SST, students spend three months in a developing country, where they live with host families, study language and history, and serve those in their host nation. During the 6-week service portion of my SST experience in Peru last summer, I found myself in the Andean city of Tarma, teaching math and English to sixth grade students. It was an assignment that often required all of my patience, but it was also perhaps the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
I believe ‘wisdom’ is a fitting word to describe what I gained on my SST. This wisdom, however, was unlike anything I had learned in a classroom. It was a far cry from the physics formulas and programming syntax that usually fill my textbooks, and it was the kind of knowledge that required more than just my brain. The wisdom I found on SST was a wisdom gained through new experiences and unfamiliar situations. It was the result of careful observations and countless mistakes. It was wisdom bundled with love, patience and compassion.
This week’s theme is “Making wise the simple.” The Scripture verses this week show us a variety of ways that God reveals wisdom. This wisdom can come in the form of rules for our relationship with God or for our relationships with others. We are reminded that God’s wisdom is trustworthy and refreshing, even though it may be radically different from the wisdom that we encounter in the world around us. Like what I experienced on SST, it is wisdom that is intertwined with love and compassion. My simple notions of what it would be like to live in another country were transformed by the wisdom my experiences offered. As we approach Easter, this week’s Scripture prepares us to be transformed by the refreshing wisdom of God.
One year at summer camp, the theme was “take up your cross and follow me.” Cabins full of boys took turns carrying around a heavy, 10-foot cross wherever they went. Lugging it around was a challenge and it was fun.
As an adult looking back, the concept itself and the fun we had doing it makes me cringe. But what does Jesus really mean when he said “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?” Should we strap giant crucifixes to our backs?
A friend recently sent me a prayer written by a student at St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa, northern Iraq, where Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provides English teachers. The student is among the Christians who fled from Karamlesh, in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, as the Islamic State group advanced.
“As you carried your cross, O Lord, we carried it too.
We lost everything except the cross hanging around our necks and in our cars.
We looked at this cross when we were forced to leave our houses.
It is the cross of the pain and the hope,
the cross of the sadness and the hope,
the cross of the resistance and the steadiness
of those who endure injustice but respond to it in love,
even when we feel that the injustice is increasing.
We carried this cross from our lands in Nineveh to other lands
and we still hang on to it.
In spite of all this, you can see the smiles on our faces;
you feel the goodness of our neighbors.
We are full of hope and trust in you O Lord.”
Here is a person whose life has been turned upside-down, yet still finds something to hold on to. But when our lives are comfortable, what cross do we bear? Maybe taking up our cross means a daily choice to remember those whose lives are upended by conflict, to love those who are hard to love, to serve others over ourselves, and to seek justice in an unjust world.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“The law brings wrath.” It’s seems so harsh that Paul would say these words about commandments that Christians today carry as good and Godly things:
1) I am the Lord thy God.
2) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
5) Honor thy Father and Mother.
6) Thou shalt not murder.
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8) Thou shalt not steal.
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
10) Thou shalt not covet.
Really? If I try and do all these things, it will bring wrath upon me?
Listen. These things are Godly, and they are good; however, not one person can live them out perfectly. Not one! And the only way to reconcile to God is through perfection!
This is what Jesus was talking about when he went up on the mountain to preach: “Not only should you not murder, if you’re angry with someone, you’re breaking that commandment! Also, if you even look at someone lustfully, you’re committing adultery!” Jesus understood that no human can live up to the standards of the law (Matthew 5).
Listen. So many people try to earn God’s favor, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Many Christians read the bible, go to church, pray, etc. but inwardly they’re still looking to the next thing to “rid themselves of.” “I just need to stop viewing pornography,” or, “I just need to start telling people about Jesus,” or, “I just need tell my wife I love her more.” These are things we think that will help “improve our Christian walk.”
Please! People! Stop! It’s not making your burden lighter! Remember. Jesus’ burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
Paul wraps up this passage in a very profound way: he brings it back to Abraham. This was the first man that God counted as righteous. Why? Because he had faith in God. Not because he didn’t sin. Abraham trusted God. When God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham agreed to do it, and was counted as righteous for it! Now that’s faith!
Some Christians preach: “If you stop doing these things… then you’ll have a better Christian life.” However, God simply says that if you start believing and trusting him, then his grace will save you because of Jesus Christ’s death. See!? Jesus lived a perfect life under the law, so that we don’t have to. We are now perfect, because we’re a part of Jesus’ perfection! This is living by faith.
Stop making rules!
Instead, recognize your perfection in Christ! Recognize that though your flesh is sinful and doomed for death, you are now living in the spirit—a child of God. Now that God is your heavenly father who loves you, all you have to do is love him right back! Isn’t that relieving? Rather than get in a daily routine, simply find ways to show your love for God, and he will be responsive, just like a loving Father would help his child in any way he possibly can.
Praise be to God!
The moment I would pinpoint as the most challenging of my entire life would be my first day as a camp counselor. It had been a very hot day with my group of nine 4th-6th graders, which included complaints, constant fighting for attention, and a quickly spreading epidemic of homesickness. Making one difficult decision after another left me exhausted. My friends, whom I had grown to rely on during orientation, were preoccupied with their cabins, all of which seemed to have relatively few issues. By the time “lights out” finally came, I curled up on my bunk and the pressure of my insecurity and doubts as a leader filled my chest.
It seemed like I had barely fallen asleep when a deep, building-shaking boom of thunder woke me up. Before I knew it, every girl was crying and yelling my name. I’m not sure how I figured out what to do or what I ended up saying, but after a few minutes the storm had passed and everyone calmly fell asleep. God heard my prayers and was there to give me the strength I needed to comfort my cabin. From that day on, I had a renewed confidence in my decisions and my abilities through the awesome power of God, making me successful and grateful as I continued to learn and lead throughout the summer.
Even when we are in difficult situations and feeling “upside down and inside out”, God is there to give us strength we don’t know we have. The fulfillment and joy as a result of these experiences are wonderful reminders of God’s presence. Praise be to God.