“Lift up your heads.”
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
A sermon preached by the Reverend Donna J. Larson, Interim Priest
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
You heard what the man (Moses) said, “Lift up your heads,” people. Look up. God has a message of love and mercy for us today. It’s a message we need to hear on this fourth Sunday in Lent, because we are in pretty deep now. We have been hearing hard lessons about our need for repentance, not just in our scriptures but in my sermons, as well. And those of us who are participating in Lenten disciplines are feeling the weight of it all. Our planning for the many worship services and other activities from Ash Wednesday to Easter Vigil is feeling so heavy and dense. This is why the church has long established this fourth Sunday in Lent as “refreshment” Sunday. To give us a time to relax our rigorous disciplines; a time to lighten up a little; a time to take a few breaths before we move into Holy Week when we walk with Jesus in his Passion to his death on the cross.
Nevertheless, I must confess that since I have been a priest I am not often able to relax and lighten up during this season. But I remember one Wednesday night in Lent, a few years ago, when parishioners from the church I was serving walked with me to the rectory right after doing our Stations of the Cross for our regular Lenten book study group. The chapter we read that evening was all about food. Everybody seemed particularly eager to talk about this chapter—we all love food. However, the exercises we were asked to do after our discussion led us into uncontrollable laughter. We were asked to name foods we like the best and the foods we dislike the most. And I can’t remember when I have witnessed people become so passionate about food. We took great delight in lining up behind those whose food choices we agreed with, and we were quick to make faces and funny noises over food choices we thought were disgusting. We seemed to be most passionate about the food we hated. We were inclined to cast blame on people (usually our mothers) who made us eat such hateful foods, and we showed great gratitude for those (usually our mothers) who fed us the food we loved. And it seemed that the more passionate we were about our food choices, the more we laughed. At one point I told the eight people gathered that we should keep our session a well-kept secret from others because it was Lent and we were having entirely too much fun. They agreed. Nevertheless, we could not stop laughing.
But there really was a point to all our fun in this exercise; and we all got it. We came to realize that our passion for food came from the fact that all our lives we had been forming a relationship with food. A relationship which not only formed our eating habits, but also evoked our visceral memories about particular foods with the people and places and events connected with them. And that brought us to the most important realization we gleaned from this exercise—that when we come to this communion table to be fed by the precious body and blood of Jesus, we are also being formed in relationship with God and with each other. This was the one food we could all agree on; the one meal we were all passionate about. Because it is the meal we love to eat, with people we love to be with, in an event we love to share—holy communion with fellow parishioners. It is the food which satisfies so completely. And it is the food which invites us into the most gratifying relationships we can have in this world: our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus, and our relationship with each other. It soon became clear to me that our conversation around the food of eucharistic thanksgiving was turning our frivolous laughter into joy-filled gratitude.
I was glad to have experienced both laughter and joy that Wednesday evening. Because they both lift my spirit. I feel the joy of a church that gives us this fourth Sunday of Lent as a reprieve from the dark and difficult themes of Lent. And I am happy to say that my sermon is a little less demanding today, a little lighter—even seriously joyful. Because our scripture lessons take us out of themes of repentance and forgiveness into mercy and grace. Out of our darkness into light. Out of condemnation into salvation. So, I invite you to lift up your heads, people. See what God is doing for us in today’s scripture. It is sure to increase our joy, so that as we approach the joyless days of Jesus’ suffering and death we will not forget that our joy will come back to us at Easter. We will laugh again and, as Paul reminds us, our joy will be made complete.
Lift up your heads, says Moses to his people in today’s reading from Nehemiah. Look at that serpent. Moses is speaking to a people who have been wandering for some time now in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. And they don’t like it. They are people who lack food and water and the many pleasures of living in Egypt. And they don’t like that. They are beginning to believe their leader has brought them into this desert to die. They really don’t like that, either. Now they are being tortured by snakes that bite them and make their miserable lives even more miserable. And they don’t like that at all. To add injury to insult, they believe that God has sent these ravenous snakes to punish them for their sinfulness; punish them for complaining against God and against Moses. And now they desperately want to repent of those sins in the hope that God will spare them from these snakes. So they ask Moses to pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from them. God answers Moses’ request. God commands Moses to construct a life-like replica of a poison serpent and place it high on a pole. Now, all these snake-bitten Israelites need to do is lift up their heads and look at that serpent, and they will be healed of their wounds and this particular misery.
What a wonderful story for us to hear on this fourth Sunday of Lent; this Sunday of refreshment. Because I believe this story is telling us something about the dangers of dwelling in the miserable and snake bitten places of our own life for too long. Because if we stay there the snakes we harbor in our heart and mind and soul will continue to bite us. We can even die from snakes that continue to poison us; poison that can kill our mind and spirit, our body and soul slowly, over time. If we never look up and outside our snake bitten selves, if we never seek God’s healing, the snakes we harbor can make us die many times before our death.
Moses tells his people to look up at the symbol of that serpent because they must confront their own the snakes. And what do they see in that poisonous serpent? They see the power of God to heal them. God does not rid them of their snakes, but he takes away their power to poison and kill his people. As long as they keep looking up. As long as they keep seeking God and God’s power to heal them. So it occurs to me we shouldn’t be surprised that that the snake is a common symbol for the medical profession. A symbol which represents the power and gift of healing over the power of sickness and death.
So then, when Jesus makes reference to Moses lifting the snake in the wilderness, he makes the same promise of healing and redemption to his disciples. Jesus makes it clear that God does not want us to suffer and die from the consequences of our sinful, snake-bitten lives. God loves us too much for that. We hear the beautiful and often quoted words in this passage from John: “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.” God assures us that he does not send us snakes to punish us. God “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” For John, healing and redemption are all about the ways God can lift us out of the darkness and misery of our life to experience the light and life of God’s healing love and redemption. We need only to lift up our heads, lift up our eyes, lift up our hearts to God’s possibilities for healing and renewal in our life.
Our reading from Ephesians tells us these unconditional gifts of healing and renewal do not come to us by our own merit. We cannot save ourselves from the snakes which bite us. It is only by God’s grace that we are saved; it is only by God’s grace that we can be lifted out of sin and death and raised to life in Christ. All we have to do is lift up our heads and open our eyes to see the God who lifted his Son, just as Moses lifted the snake.
In our gospel lesson Jesus tells Nicodemus, “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.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that the joys of eternal life can begin now, in this life. But we have to be willing to lift up our heads; to look up and believe in the God who loves us so much he is wants to save us from our snake-bitten selves. God wants to create our life anew so that he can accomplish his purpose in us.
So, lift up your heads, people. Look up. These are good words to hear on this fourth Sunday of Lent. Because they remind us that we hear these uplifting words at every celebration of the Eucharist at the beginning of our eucharistic prayer: “Lift up your hearts.” And our response is, “We lift them to the Lord.” We lift up our heads at the end of the eucharistic prayer to watch as the celebrant lifts the cup of of Jesus’ blood and the bread of Jesus’ body. And when you come for communion today, and even if you are kneeling, you will lift up your heads and your hands to receive.
Today we remember why Moses lifts a serpent high on a pole. We remember why God lifts Jesus into heaven. And we remember why we come to this communion table. God invites us to lift up our heads. This is our moment, when we get a glimpse of heaven and see new possibilities for living our life. And our grateful response to God is “THANK YOU.” This is why we call our Eucharistic Prayer “The Great Thanksgiving.” Because our prayers remind us to be thankful. Thankful that by God’s grace we, too, can find forgiveness for our sins and healing from our wounds. Thankful that by God’s unconditional love we can be restored to new life and a new way of living it. And may I add, a life where we can be completely passionate about the foods we eat, and thoroughly enjoy a hearty laugh as often as we can. Even during Lent.