Harrowing Of Hell
March 18, 2012

Rain and Irritability

Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The other day Doyt and I were talking about the people in our lives. We were commenting on the increase of late in overall crabbiness, arguments, and general irritability – ourselves included. “What is this about?” Doyt asked me.

I had been thinking about this for a few weeks and had my answer ready. “It’s March in Seattle” I replied. “That’s what’s going on.” We are tired of the clouds, tired of the rain, vitamin D deficient, and ready for some sunshine. Road rage is always worse this time of year. People are cranky in the grocery store and patience is at an all time low. Add to that the recent time change and you have already grumpy people who are now sleep deprived as well.

It’s no coincidence that the liturgical cycle follows the weather pattern each year. As we make our way along the Lenten journey, we transition from winter’s cold/dark nights and days, to a promise of spring and new birth at Eastertide. Each passing day brings a little more daylight and the hint of better things to come.

John’s gospel is notorious for delving into theological themes — of darkness and light in regards to the divinity of Christ. Darkness and light appear five times in John’s gospel.The first two times, the author identifies Jesus with the light and the other times, Jesus names himself as the light.

It appears first in the prologue to the gospel. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….”The poem goes on to say, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:4-5).

Jesus comes into the world as God’s logos, the word, the light of the world. As the psalmist writes, God is our light and our salvation.

The gospel next paints the picture of Jesus as light in the portion we just heard. The light has come into the world, and yet, the people preferred the darkness because their deeds were evil. Change comes slowly, especially when the darkness is all encompassing. We often become consumed with the busyness of our lives and cease to even the realize the darkness all around. It may not be that we “hate the light” as the gospel writer says, but rather we are so self-absorbed we don’t even see the light.

Lent is this special time for fasting, praying, and reflecting. It is a time for stepping outside of ourselves and being true – a time for seeking the mind of Christ. For as the gospel says, “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:21).

The Israelites wandering in the desert seemed to be utterly self-absorbed which is odd given their circumstances. If ever there were a forced time in the wilderness for self-reflection this was it.

Today’s snippet of the story is full of serpents and impatience. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and they are once again hungry, thirsty, and whiny. The text says they are “impatient,” but a more literal translation of the Hebrew would say, “the people’s souls were getting short.” Isn’t that nice? “The people’s souls were getting short” with all of this wandering in the wilderness. They were ready for something to happen to end the endless wandering.

But for the first time, they are beginning to understand on a new level. Instead of just whining to Moses, they now direct their complaints to both Moses and God. Then the strangeness begins. God sends down serpents on the whiny people who bite and kill them with their venom. The people repent their complaining to both Moses and God, so Moses helps them by praying to God to take away the serpents.

Then the most bizarre part of the whole story occurs, God tells Moses to make a serpent and hang it on a pole so that people may look upon it when they have been bitten and they will live. And thus we come to the end of this odd story. There is speculation and inference surrounding the meaning of this magical tale based on rumor of serpent worship in ancient times and a possible belief in snakes to have healing powers, but we will overlook that for now while we see how this curious story ties in with today’s gospel.

People in general know very little about the Bible, but for some reason, many in popular culture can quote one verse from today’s gospel, “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.” It says something about our culture that this is what people remember and know.

This is a vitally important piece of our faith, that God loves the world and we will have eternal life. But, I would like to know how many people who spout John 3:16 know about John 3:14 and 15. “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.”

Suddenly, we are back to Moses’ serpent. And we are jumping into a conversation in the middle with this gospel. It is the middle of the night and Jesus has been up for hours talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who has many questions for Jesus. They have been discussing baptism and rebirth, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and now this. They are now talking about what it will mean when Jesus dies. It won’t be an ordinary death. Jesus being lifted up, like the serpent, will save the lives of the people who are willing to simply look up, like the Israelites with snakebites in the wilderness. They just needed to look up and they were saved.

Nicodemus isn’t a single person, Nicodemus’ character represents a kind of believer, the skeptic, the questioner, the person who isn’t satisfied with answers and needs to explore. I think most of us can identify with Nicodemus on some level.

Nicodemus saw the light and engaged it. He wrestled with the truth and reached deep within himself to summon his soul to the light. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness were lost in darkness, succumbing to the serpents, but they too were lifted up.

St. Augustine brought these things together in this way. “What is this?” he writes. “A death is gazed on, that death may have no power. But whose death? The death of life….Is not Christ the life? And yet Christ hung on the cross….But in Christ’s death, death died. Dead life slew death…. Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites, so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sin.”

Perhaps the bigger question for us is to identify the sins and the serpents in our lives.

We must put our finger on those things which suck us into the darkness on these long winter days and discern how we can seek the light as spring draws near.