Sunday, March 22, 2009

God's Intervention

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 22, 2009

Year B: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
(Ephesians 2:1-10)
John 3:14-21

God’s Intervention

A number of years ago a friend of ours who is an alcoholic went through what’s known as an intervention. We didn’t know him back then, but we’ve heard his story many times. His drinking had gotten out of control. His addiction was destroying his life and the lives of those around him. Finally one day, his friends and family gathered and had an intervention. They told him this was the chance for his life to be saved. This was his chance to choose light over shadow, life over death. He went into rehab and began his life of sobriety that has continued through all the ups and downs of life to this very day.

Our friend has often said to Sue and me that he was a very different person when he was drinking and that we wouldn’t have liked him very much back in those days. I’ve never been part of an intervention, but one of the TV shows I occasionally watch is a reality show on A&E called Intervention. Has anyone ever seen it? It’s fascinating and disturbing television.

Each episode follows pretty much the same format. We are introduced to the addict. Their addictions range from alcohol to drugs to food to gambling – you name it. The addicts have agreed to participate in the filming because they think they are in a documentary about addiction. Supposedly they don’t know that as part of the documentary they will face an intervention.

So the cameras – and we viewers - follow these poor souls through their nightmarish lives of addiction.

Each episode follows a predictable formula. Next the producers switch gears. Next we see photos and sometimes video of the person before addiction overwhelmed their lives. Almost always a parent or a sibling will say something like, “he was such a wonderful child, so outgoing, so much fun, so beautiful…”

And then, almost always, we find out that something terrible went wrong in their lives. Maybe it was the death of a parent. Or maybe it was some kind of child abuse. Or maybe they just fell in with the “wrong crowd” and the downward spiral began.

Next we see the interventionist meeting with the family and friends of the addict. The interventionist emphasizes that they must be firm with him or her. They are going to be offered the gift of treatment. Since the addict is free to refuse this gift, they have to know that if they refuse treatment there will be real consequences – no more money, no more free room and board, no more contact.

Obviously the point is not be cruel, but to convince the person to seek treatment – to accept the gift.

Anyway, the show reaches its dramatic high point when the addict arrives for what he or she thinks is the final interview for the show and is surprised to discover a room full of family and friends.

Each person takes their turn talking about how this addiction has negatively affected their lives. Then they always say, please accept this gift. But, if you don’t accept this gift, these will be the consequences…

Please accept this gift…

And then it’s up to the addicted person. Accept the gift or not? In the language of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson – choose light or darkness? Choose life or choose death?

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent – sometimes called Laetare Sunday. It’s one of the two Sundays when we wear the rose vestments, symbolizing a little break from - a little lightening of - the penance of Lent. It’s a day when we are to remind ourselves of the joyfulness of being a Christian.

So imagine my surprise when looked ahead to today’s lessons and saw the reading from Numbers. On Laetare Sunday – when Lauren and I are wearing our rose vestments, not to mention it’s Pajama Sunday! – we are given this somewhat bizarre story of God getting fed up by the complaints of the people and sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. Um, OK. And then, the story continues, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and use it in a way that sounds suspiciously like… idolatry. Hmmm…

Now, obviously we are given this lesson because in the gospel Jesus says to 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.”

The story about the snakes is in the Book of Numbers. And it comes at the end of the first section of that book that retells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. You know the story. This so-called “wilderness generation” has repeatedly complained about leaving Egypt and the leadership of Moses. They are caught up in a seemingly unbreakable, seemingly hopeless pattern of complaint, ingratitude and selfishness.

And so, through Moses, God once again offers the Israelites an intervention. While in the Bible snakes are usually negative symbols, in this story the bronze snake idol becomes a symbol of God’s healing power.

In this story Moses puts the bronze snake on a pole and if a person bitten by the snake chose to look at it, they would live.

If a person bitten by a snake chose to accept the gift they were given, they would live.

In this old and strange story God offered a kind of intervention. But it was up to the Israelites to accept this gift or not accept this gift. It was up to them to choose the light or to choose the darkness, to choose life or choose death.

Of course, God’s ultimate intervention is Jesus.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
God’s ultimate gift is coming and living as one of us, facing rejection and death, so that, as Jesus tells Nicodemus the Pharisee, “everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

The Evangelist John is careful to note that Nicodemus has come to see Jesus by night. Nicodemus the Pharisee is not quite ready to accept the gift that is being offered in Jesus. Nicodemus is not quite willing to accept God’s intervention. Nicodemus is not yet willing to come out into the light.

Not surprisingly, in the TV show Intervention the addicts are very often reluctant to accept the gift that is offered to them. Even after hearing the pleading from their family and friends, even after hearing what the consequences will be if they say no to treatment, often they are still reluctant to choose light over darkness.

Obviously much of that resistance comes from the power of physical addiction and the fear of withdrawal.

Yet, very often the same kind of resistance happens in our spiritual life. In this conversation Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus knows enough to say Jesus has come from God. Nicodemus recognizes the gift being offered in Jesus and yet at least for now he is not yet willing to accept God’s intervention.

How about us?

In our hearts we know that we need God’s help. We know that when we do it our way, when we try to go it alone, we end up in a dead end.

And we also know the gift that is being offered to us in Jesus. What prevents us from accepting the gift? Is it fear? Is it fear of what it would mean to really live as a Christian? Is it fear of the hard work of really facing up to our own sinfulness, our own turning away from God?

We have a choice. We can accept the gift we are being given in Jesus – or not.

On the TV show, most of the time the person accepts the intervention. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems and challenges ahead. All of us face the ups and downs of life. But very often the producers interview the person weeks or months later – and the physical, emotional and, yes, spiritual transformation is remarkable. They usually look like different people. Looking back, often they can hardly believe they lived such lives of darkness.

We have a choice. We can accept the gift we are being offered – or not.

As for Nicodemus, he appears twice more in John’s gospel. First, he speaks up for Jesus – in broad daylight apparently – to the chief priests and his fellow Pharisees. And finally, he appears one more time anointing Jesus’ crucified body and helping Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in the tomb.

It seems that Nicodemus was making his way from shadow to light. It seems that he was accepting God’s intervention, accepting the gift given to us in Jesus.

How about us? Will we accept the gift given to us in Jesus?