March 16, 2014 “ 2 Lent, Year A
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
When I was in college, my father had lung surgery and lay recovering in the intensive care unit. The surgery had gone well but the incision required was very large, extending down his chest, around his side and up his back. The surgeons had to break open the rib cage, bring the lung out of the chest cavity, repair it, and then return it and re-inflate it, kind of like an innertube. All was successful but my father’s insides got moved around a good bit and he lay in recovery with the expected pain, the only complication being a bad case of the hiccups.
Intensive care is a frightening place in many ways. The patient is surrounded by highly technical machines. The life situation of those in the surrounding cubicles is typically critical. Often someone on the unit dies and tension pervades the atmosphere. It’s noisy and one doesn’t get much rest. In such a situation lay my father after his surgery and into that arena entered his parish priest. The priest stayed only a couple of minutes, said prayers for healing and left. As he said the prayers for healing, he anointed my father with oil, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. All of that is very typical but what caught my father’s attention was that the oil was scented.
For hours and hours, my father still remembers, his focus became the aroma of that tiny amount of oil left as a cross on his forehead. To that scent, and all that it represented, he clung. Whether he closed his eyes or opened them, whether his pain was searing or easing, whether those around him died or were heroically revived, no matter what else was going on, the scent of the holy oil remained. It became, for my father, a sign of hope and healing. His circumstances didn’t change but they became merely circumstances while his focus came to be the healing power of God. In a time when he was tempted to give into the pain and fear, a powerful symbol was introduced, a symbol which took the gaze of his soul to a higher place.
In the gospel lesson – the story of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus as a member of the court of the Sanhedrin, the body which set the laws for the faithful religious, the story of this man caught up in the law but yearning to know more deeply what the kingdom of God was all about, the story which sees Jesus trying to explain that the focus of our heart is even more important than our actions – in this gospel lesson, reference is made to the fiery serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness.
The fiery serpent was not unlike the holy scent of the oil on my father’s head. The people of Israel, Jesus is referencing, had been rescued from Pharaoh and now were traveling in the wilderness. A number of trials had presented themselves, the most recent of which was poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites are bitten and die and naturally complaints are brought to their leader, Moses, who takes their complaint to God. God tells him to take one of the serpents and put in on a pole. As Moses does this, the serpent is set afire by God’s power. Set the fiery serpent in the midst of the people, God says, and tell everyone that is bitten to cast his gaze on the fiery serpent. It will remind them that I am here and that I will protect them.
Moses did just that and, while many more were bitten, none who cast their gaze on the fiery serpent died. It became, for them, a symbol of God’s power and grace. When they focussed on God’s presence, that is where they ascribed power and that gave them life. When they focussed on the ordeals before them, that is where they ascribed power and that gave them death. It is that place where we focus the gaze of our heart that will determine our life.
That’s what it’s all about, Jesus tells Nicodemus. It’s not the rules you follow but the focus of your heart and soul that puts you in the kingdom. The kingdom is right here, already put before us. The kingdom has to do with God’s power. But Nicodemus was more focussed on his actions than God’s actions. You need to start over, Nicodemus. Your focus is more on your earthly ordeals than the spiritual presence of God in your life. You need to be born from above, born anew. It is that place where we focus the gaze of our heart that will determine our life. Our life is not determined by what we go through but by what we worship, that upon which we focus the gaze of our hearts.
We are created by a God who comes to us and then asks us to be aware, to focus our hearts on him, to worship him rather than the outcome of our circumstances or our abilities. The extent to which you experience the kingdom of God, healing and wholeness, salvation, is the extent to which you are able to focus your heart on God.
Very often life is an intensive care unit. We’re surrounded by suffering and death and tension. We’re in our own pain, our insides in great turmoil. Yet the holy scent of God is right there, available to you, sometimes even as close as your forehead, right between your eyes.
Very often, life is mass of poisonous serpents. Each way we turn seems worse than the other way. The more you look, the more snakes you see. Yet the fiery serpent of the Lord is right there, available to us, if we will look.
Sometimes, like Nicodemus, we reduce life to the learning of rules and skills which will bring us what we think we want. Though we find we can’t quite create what we truly need, we continue to press to find the answer. Maybe if I just learn how to do one more thing, then I’ll have what I’m after. But the harder we run, the further behind we get. And there God comes to remind us that it’s him not us that gives true life. Rather than pressing yourself to give birth to all the meaning, let me give birth to you.
Life is a series of problems, that much is true, but it is not the truth. The truth is that life is a series of opportunities to experience God. The truth is that God comes to us in a saving way, that he expresses himself to us in the unity of the Trinity, that he creates us, redeems us, sustains us. The truth is that God makes himself known to us, that he is the one who is almighty and everlasting. Neither we nor our problems are almighty or everlasting yet it is usually our problems or our ability to solve problems which becomes that to which we ascribe power and that upon which we focus the gaze of our hearts.
Today I beseech you to approach life as more than a series of problems. Cast your gaze on the holy scent of God’s oil, on the fiery serpent, on the cross of Christ. Cast your gaze on what is of God and you will find yourself slap dap in the kingdom no matter what your circumstances may be. Cast your gaze on what is of God and you will be born from above. Life will new and worth living.