Fourth Sunday in Lent–Sick of Manna

Good morning! I have to admit to you all that this week’s readings gave me difficulties as I considered about what to write my sermon. After all, the Gospel, especially, has been discussed so often that I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the conversation; and so I ask you to imagine that you have just survived a devastating natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tsunami, or tornado. One minute you’re living a comfortable life—you have a nice home with nice furnishings, on which you can rest; appliances with which you can cook your favorites foods; and some luxuries, such as a television, possibly with cable or satellite programming. In the next instant, you have nothing of that left—it’s been taken away by winds, rain, floods. What happens next? What do you do? Well, in most cases, recently, the government and other agencies, such as the Red Cross, step in to help find temporary shelter and provide needed sustenance for those afflicted. Do you refuse it?
Yesterday, I was working at the Food Bank, in the salvage area, which means shelving items that have been donated by various stores, churches, and other places. The shopping carts that we unloaded contained a whole bunch of MREs—Meals, Ready to Eat. Have you heard of these before? If not, they are ready-to-go meals, in plain—actually ugly–brown, sturdy plastic packaging. They are survival packs—containing not only food, such as chili and beans, chicken and dumplings, or tuna—but also water, tableware, and the means with which to heat up the food. Many survivalists stock up on them so that they’re prepared—not for natural disasters so much, but for the next big war they’re sure is coming soon or for the end of the world, again, which they’re sure is near at end. The MREs also given out, in many cases, to survivors of natural disasters.
Seeing them reminded me of a conversation concerning Hurricane Katrina among members of my EfM class. One of the members related a story, telling of the sense of entitlement that some survivors seemed to have—some refused the MREs offered to them, saying that it wasn’t good enough—they wouldn’t eat that. These folks were used to being able to satisfy their appetites with food of their choosing, prepared how they wanted it, when they wanted it, in the amounts they wanted. And because they weren’t able to gratify their needs exactly as they desired, they refused the gifts offered to them freely by those wishing to help. These folks then complained and moaned about the lack of help they were receiving.
This EfM conversation reminded me of the Israelites in our Old Testament reading today. MREs are not manna, which according to post-Biblical legend took on whatever flavor the consumer desired, and the circumstances are different, but not quite so much. The Israelites become impatient with God and with Moses on their way to Mount Hor, asking why God had brought them out of Egypt, only to let them die in the wilderness. They moan about the lack of water, and they are sick of manna—all they can think about is the comforts they had in Egypt, while forgetting the oppression they suffered. This is actually about the tenth time since being delivered that they have complained in this way, not counting Miriam’s and Aaron’s rebellion; I reread both Exodus and Numbers this past week. And if you read the entire book of Numbers, it becomes apparent that God is getting frustrated with this. He has given them the gift of freedom and has been providing them with food in the wilderness, and water, when they asked for it, though sometimes with consequences. Now, he afflicts the people by sending poisonous serpents, which bite them, causing death for many. In the pattern repeated throughout the forty years of wandering (and indeed throughout salvation history) as we have heard, the people confess their sins, in this case to Moses, and ask him to intercede with the Lord on their behalf. And so YHWH has mercy and instructs Moses to make the image of a serpent in bronze, then lift it up before the people so that all who see it might be saved and not die.
Tied in with this reading, then, is the Gospel reading from John which contains the verse that is arguably the most famous quotation from Scripture, known to Christians and non-Christians alike, if for no other reason than Tim Tebow’s placing of it on his cheeks; or the signs at sporting events—do you remember that guy with the rainbow-colored wig–which predate Tebow: “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.” Often folks look at this verse in a vacuum and not at the circumstances in which Christ says this.
As we heard today, Christ is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus is not one of the disciples, rather he is a Pharisee. I love that this scene is so vividly set by John—Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews. He comes to Jesus by night—so it’s in relative darkness that they are speaking. This is not a daytime conversation in front of a large crowd, it is most likely a secret discussion, with perhaps the disciples present, spoken quietly. It is God offering a gift through Jesus—needed sustenance, even for the Pharisee, who is from a group rejecting this gift of “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”, to use today’s words from the letter to the Ephesians.
And so, I think that’s why Jesus makes the allusion to Moses and the raising up of the serpent. He’s reminding Nicodemus and through him, the Jews, about what happened to the Israelites in that story. He hopes they will accept this gift, even if it takes them out of their comfort zones―Christ is not the food they’re used to, but he is necessary for not simply survival, but for life everlasting. Jesus urges Nicodemus, the Pharisees, and all of us to come to the light out of the darkness.
Christ and Ephesians reminds us that like the Israelites, we were dead “through our trespasses and our sins”―a natural disaster of sorts, since we, as humans, tend to follow our nature and look for those comforts and instant pleasures―but that God loves us, despite any frustrations, enough to have send his light, his son into the world. Christ asks us to follow him, to believe and have faith in God’s grace, which saves us. It is a gift, one which brings us into the light, but that may take away from comfort and all that we have known. Through Christ’s gift we gain comfort of another sort. My prayer for us is that we accept it, gracefully. Amen.
                                              –given at St. James Episcopal Church
                                                                 Independence, Iowa

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