Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: "Up, Up, and Away!" Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 (March 15, 2015)


Like a good movie director, our faith tradition makes generous use of symbolism. We talk about so many complex ideas that it’s virtually impossible to understand our faith without drawing parallels to our everyday life. When we appeal to our human senses, we’re able to convey aspects of the divine that don’t necessarily translate directly. For example, as I’ve said in the past, every single phrase that we use to describe God is necessarily a metaphor, because we can only truly understand the totality of God’s identity through human approximation. Describing God as a mother hen in Matthew 23, for example, goes a lot farther towards our understanding than just saying that God protects and loves us.

We also use metaphors and symbols to describe our relationship with God. Because honestly, how the heck are we supposed to describe our proximity to an incorporeal being? Obviously by appealing to our experiences in our everyday life! The dichotomy of distance from or nearness to the divine is most frequently portrayed in terms of light and darkness. (Since God is constant, what we’re actually discussing is where we are with respect to God.) In our gospel reading today, John chapter 3 describes people who do evil as “hating the light,” because the light exposes their evil deeds. This is what makes it such a great metaphor for our purpose—in our experience of light, we’re able to see things more clearly when they’re illuminated; likewise, when we draw near to God, Truth becomes clear and all things, good and bad, are laid bare.

There are other ways that Scripture describes human proximity to God, too. We read about water versus thirst when Jesus talks to the woman at the well in John 4, and new life versus death in Ephesians: “…Even when we were dead through our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ”. These types of dichotomous metaphors are scattered all around the scripture, often practically beating us over the head. They can be pretty easy to pick out individually, since they’re laid out so plainly.

Some of these metaphors, however, are a little trickier to recognize. In fact, some of them can’t be discerned by combing through scripture verse by verse, but can only be seen in the context of the bigger picture. Frankly, even the most seasoned preacher is sometimes at risk of missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. I happened to have had that experience this week. Sometimes, we can only find God’s Word if we try to see things from a new perspective.

This isn’t necessarily a skill that comes naturally. The first time I remember looking for God from a new perspective was on a youth retreat in 8th or 9th grade. One of our youth advisors challenged us to see if we could hear God’s voice in secular pop music. This absolutely blew my mind. It had never occurred to me to look for God in a place that was neither my own private thoughts nor a church building. This was God out in the open! And while the songs we discussed weren’t intentionally “Christian” or “Religious,” I was suddenly able to hear the Good News in stereo, having been given permission to think about the familiar—the commonplace—from an entirely different perspective. That day, I learned that God speaks to us in the mundane and secular every bit as often as in the sacred. (For those of you who are interested, that first song that impacted my theology so profoundly was called “Roll To Me” by the band Del Amitri.)

So I was prepared, albeit still surprised, when this week’s scripture readings called to mind not some profound theological insight, not the words of St. Augustine or John Calvin or John Wesley or C.S. Lewis or some other great Christian thinker of the past, but a sappy pop song from 1982. Yes, I spent the better part of this week with the chorus of Joe Cocker’s song “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong” running through my brain on repeat. Because I couldn’t think about anything for more than two minutes without this melody elbowing its way to the front of my consciousness, I decided to stick with it and see where it took me. To see what kind of perspective I might miss by trying to ignore it.

When I reread the scripture, this time allowing Mr. Cocker’s impassioned voice to permeate my understanding, I found something that I might not have stumbled upon otherwise: another way to understand our relationship with God. As Joe sang about eagles and mountains and the world below, I began to notice the language of upward movement throughout the readings. In Numbers, the people lift their eyes to the serpent and are healed. In Ephesians, we’re told that God raises us up to be seated in heaven. In John, the Son of Man is lifted up in order to give us eternal life. Up, up, up! It was everywhere!

I considered how drawing nearer to God is like being lifted up. If you think about it, we actually appeal to this imagery all the time. What do we say at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving? After, “The Lord be with you,” I say, “Lift up your hearts!” And you respond…[“We lift them to the Lord.”] As we read last week, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to encounter God and receive the Ten Commandments. And of course, although most theologians would balk at the idea that heaven is a physical place, we commonly refer to heaven as being “up there” or “up above.” With our understanding of God as transcendent, above and beyond all things, the contrast of “up” vs. “down” serves well as another symbol of our movement towards—or away from—God.

This is a pretty fitting metaphor, I think. I mean, when you climb up high, when you observe the world from a mountaintop, you’re able to see things differently, things that you weren’t aware of before, connections that weren’t immediately obvious. Being nearer to God allows us not only to see the things around us more clearly, as the metaphor of light suggests, but it allows us to see more things, and to see them in different ways.

Unfortunately, we it’s not so easy to simply “lift our hearts to the Lord”. In fact, it’s tough for us to even realize that we need to be lifted up in the first place. We’re like the Hebrew people in the wilderness, complaining about our finite (and incorrect) perceptions. We’re so entrenched in our concerns down here at sea level that we can’t even imagine that it’s possible to see things differently. We know facts, we know details, we think we know what it all means, but we are so stuck in our immediate context that we can’t look at the bigger picture. We can’t see things the way God sees things.

This is the human condition; this is sin. Our stubborn insistence on staying put where we are. The choices we make that turn us away from God. And if you think about it, when we talk about the very first sin, referring to the events that transpired in the Garden of Eden, we call it the FALL. A descent. Since the beginning of time, we have been refusing the mountain.

This human condition keeps us apart from God. We don’t even know how far down below the mountain we are. So God helps us to recognize our need by pointing us in the right direction. We’re shown where to look, given somewhere to start. In the Old Testament, this was a serpent on a stick. In the New Testament, this is Christ.

There are a lot of different ways that people explain the crucifixion. Some say that humanity’s sin was so great that we had a debt to God that we were unable to fulfill, and the divine Christ paid the debt on our behalf. Others say that a truly just God needed to punish humanity for its grievous sins, so the human Jesus took our punishment for us. Some say that the crucifixion is nothing more than an example for humanity of real love and sacrifice. Some see it as the undoing of Adam’s original mistake. Now, given that atonement is one of the most complex and mysterious concepts in Christianity, I’m not going to spend my time today telling you which interpretation is right and which is wrong, because I’m convinced that this is one of those things that we will only understand when we finally reach the very tippy-top of that mountain. And honestly, knowing the specifics of the how and why really isn’t important. It’s the result, what happens because of it, that matters. Through his sacrifice on the cross, Christ draws our hearts upward toward the relationship that God intends for us.

In that moment, and every time we approach the cross, we can no longer keep our eyes glued to the ground. We can no longer ignore the muck and mud of our fallen world and the mountain that we’re neglecting. Lent is a time for us to practice raising our eyes to the serpent in the wilderness—raising our eyes to the cross—so that God can heal us and prepare us to be lifted up in the resurrection.

Because, let’s face it: although we are the ones, entrenched in our own sins, that are standing in the way of our ascent, only God can actually do the lifting. It is not our own doing, but GOD’S LOVE that lifts us up, where we belong—with God, exactly where God wants us to be.

The Lord doesn’t want us stuck in the quagmire. God doesn’t want us to languish from poisonous snakebites, and God certainly doesn’t want us to be separated from Godself. When Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” he’s talking about our relationship with the divine. “Salvation” is our deliverance from sin, that very thing that keeps us apart from the Lord. When we talk about salvation, what can we be talking about but our nearness to God?

In a way, “Love lifts us up where we belong” could be translated into more traditional language: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life". An old verse seen from a new perspective.

So, brothers and sisters, the good news is that Love does truly lift us up where we belong. The book of Ephesians tells us, “…this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” But, then, if it’s not our doing, if it is only through God’s will that we are lifted up, does what we do even matter? Can we even make a difference? Yes, of course it does and of course we can. Because, see, we still have a job. Our job, when God points us in the right direction and lifts us up, when God draws us in towards Godself, is to open our eyes, look around, and take some time to really see. Really internalize the view as God has shown it to us, not as we wish it was. We need to turn away from what we decide is important, what we prioritize, and towards this new way of seeing things. This is what we can do to accept God’s gracious gift.

Ascending to the mountaintop can be difficult and painful—there’s a reason more than 200 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest. It can be hard to acclimate to a new atmosphere, and the view can be overwhelming. We might see things that we wish we hadn’t. But without choosing to open our eyes, we’ll never be able to live out the plans that God has for us.

So how do we do it? How do we open our eyes if it’s so counter-intuitive to our sense of self-preservation? Well…if it’s love that lifts us up, maybe it’s love that opens our eyes, too. Loving ourselves enough to be honest about what we see. Loving those farther on down the path enough to help them. Loving those already above us enough to listen to them. Loving Christ enough to hear what he really is saying to us. Loving God enough to trust God’s plan, even when we don’t understand it.

If it’s love that lifts us up where we belong, then friends, let’s embrace the climb. Amen.

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