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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

A man decided to join a monastery where silence was very strictly observed and enforced. When he entered the monastery, the abbot told him, “Well, you have come to the right place. Here you must take a vow of silence and you can only break that silence every two years and even then, you can only say two words."

The man agreed and after the first two years, the abbot came to him and asked, "It’s your day to speak. What are your two words?" "Awful food!" the man replied.


Two more years went by and the abbot came to him and said "What are your two words?" "Hard mattress!" the man exclaimed. Two more years went by and the abbot again came to him and asked, "What are your two words?" "I quit!" "Well, no surprise here,” the Abbot replied, All you’ve done since you got here was complain!”


We all do it sometimes, don’t we—complain? We don’t like the cold weather or the humidity or the traffic or the price of gas. There is always something we can find to complain about without much effort and, truth be told, we can often find one.


The passage from the Book of Numbers tells about the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It was a time of great discontent, during which the people complained about the lack of food and water, had conflicts over leadership, and were in general rebellion against God.  The Hebrews wanted their freedom but on their own terms and were unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with it.


As the story unfolds, God sends poisonous snakes to rattle their cages and remind them that they have been delivered from slavery at God’s hands. As a remedy for those who were dying, Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole. Those who were bitten by a snake and then looked at the bronze serpent would be cured.


Although this may appear to boarder on sorcery, it was really a demonstration of their faith in God when their life was in danger. That faith saved them. The deadly serpent becomes the symbol of healing just as the cross—the instrument of Christ’s death—becomes a sign of salvation. 

Salvation. Here is a buzz word that we find either explicitly or implicitly woven into all three Scripture readings today. The Hebrews are saved from the poisonous serpents. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that they have been saved by grace and not through works. The Gospel offers the good news that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it and that God sent Jesus to do this work out of God’s enormous love for us.


I need to go off on a bit of a tangent here because that next statement that “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” can cause some confusion and discomfort. What about my Jewish uncle Joe Brenner? Does this exclude him from eternal life? Or what about my two lovely Buddhist clients? Or our agnostic family members and friends? No eternal life for them?

Here we want to revisit the text. The “everyone” refers to us who have chosen to follow Jesus because we believe that he is God’s Son and our Savior. What it does not say is that only those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life.” That is not the will of God for any of God’s beloved. Consider the encounter between the rich young lawyer and Jesus. Jesus tells him what it will take be his disciple and the young man walks away in sadness. And the gospel “and Jesus loved him.”


Jesus also reminds us of the fondness humankind has for darkness over light. History bears witness to this truth. The ancient world was filled with human sacrifice, conquests after conquest, ethnic bigotry, persecutions, tyrants, and class rule. That darkness still reigns.


Theologian Frederick Buechner says it plainly: “If there is a terror about darkness because we cannot see, there is also a terror about light because we can see. There is a terror about light because much of what we see in the light about ourselves and our world we would rather not see.


The good news today is that God loves the world enormously and that God refuses to let our darkness overcome the light that shines through the healing rays of God’s mercy. God welcomes us just as we are—warts and all. And therein lies the wonderful gift of grace and the promise of new life.


Theologian Paul Tillich preached a classic sermon that brings that truth to us in a rather profound way: “Grace strikes us,” said Tillich, “when we are in great pain and restlessness.

It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.


“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything. Simply accept the fact that



Douglas Hall is a Canadian theologian who has written a lot about what Christianity means in the United States and Canada. He believes that one of the reasons that the church exists is so that God has a community in which to save people from meaninglessness, by reminding them who they are and what they are for.


Today, on this Refreshment Sunday, at the mid-point of Lent, we can take a deep breath and be assured that God sees us as we are, not as we ought to be; that we are loved in spite of everything we may not love about ourselves. So let’s relax a bit on this Refreshment Sunday and simply accept the fact that you and I…are…accepted! Surely, we won’t complain about that.

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