St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

“Snakes In the Dark”: Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

In the name of God, our Creator, His Son, our Redeemer and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer.  Amen.  +


As long as I can remember, I have been sensitive to the sunlight.  Not sensitive in that I burn easily, or it affects my vision.  I have always been sensitive to the changes in daylight, no matter how subtle, throughout a day or throughout a year; where the shadows fall, how long the shadows are, and where in the sky the sun shines.  Because of this sensitivity to sunlight, I have two favorite days on the calendar – the Winter Solstice on December 21 - as the shortest day of the year, and the amount of daylight starts getting longer; and today, the start of Daylight Savings Time, when we spring our clocks forward one hour to shift an hour of daylight further in the day.  So with that said, I commend you watchers of the clock and the sun for making it to church an hour early today! 


I love the irony in that this is the first day of Daylight Savings Time, and how the lessons today vividly contrast darkness and light.  We are a little more than half way through this season of Lent, a season that takes us from the darkness of winter into the light of spring, from the darkness of examining our sinful nature into the light of forgiveness and redemption, from the darkness of Jesus temptation, torture and death into the Great Light of the Resurrection.


I don’t know about you, but I find the Old Testament lesson sort of creepy and confusing, actually.  The Israelites are continuing on their desert journey, and once again do what they (and we!) are so good at doing – being ungrateful and complaining.  To the point, they even complain in Yogi Berra fashion, “there is no food to eat, and it tastes bad, too!”  As they have so many times before, they lament they would rather be back enslaved in Egypt than be drug around the dusty desert toward some fairy tale of a promised land.  I guess you can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take the Egypt out of the people!  I once had a wise priest tell me that there is comfort in the familiar, even when the familiar isn’t good for us. 


God seems to have had enough whining and complaining and sends a bunch of snakes that bite many of the Israelites and die.  Suddenly realizing their sinful nature, they beg of Moses to intercede for them, and he does so.  And strangely God commands Moses to fashion a snake on a pole and raise it up so that those who have been bitten and look up at the pole will live.  It’s not that the snakes go away, or even stop biting, but the people are offered a way out of their pain and near death to life.  And they go on to live the rest of their lives with the scars from those snakebites as a reminder of their sin, and also that their lives were saved by a compassionate and loving God. What only starts to become clear when we read the Gospel lesson in John, is Moses’ lifting up of the serpent on the pole foreshadows the raising of Jesus on the cross.  Just like the Israelites, we are offered a way out of our pain and near death by looking upon Jesus so that we may live.


In today’s gospel reading, we have probably one of the most widely memorized and recognized verses in the New Testament.  John 3:16 – “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”.  I remember when my well-meaning Christian friends would quote John 3:16 and ask me if I was saved, as if mere belief in those few words somehow assured me of going to heaven with them.  It felt shallow to me.  


“For God SO loved the world” – isolating that one verse SO misses the greater message and good news of the Gospel.  Jesus goes on to say that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the WORLD might be saved through him.”  This sentence alone turns the seemingly exclusive club of salvation of John 3:16 completely on its head to say that eternal life is available for EVERYONE!  And what’s more, eternal life isn’t just about going to heaven.  We are living in the eternal life today, in this infinite continuum of life that is God’s time.  His hand is outstretched, offering this life to us, if only we are willing to take it. 


So why wouldn’t we take it?  Jesus explains further, “… this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”  Once again, I hear my wise priest’s words, there is comfort in the familiar even when the familiar isn’t good for us, like the comfort of living in the familiar darkness rather than risking the unfamiliar life in the light.


Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the darkness as being dead through the trespasses and sins in which we once lived, following the course of the world and the desires of our flesh, rather than living in the light which is the grace by which we have been saved by Jesus Christ through no works or effort on our part – it is a gift freely given, only for the taking. 


How does the darkness manifest itself in our life today?  Is it in the daily decisions we make that are selfish and self-centered, perhaps harming those closest to us?  Is it our self-absorption in the idea that what we have is ours because we earned and deserve it, while those who don’t have, deserve to be poor and without?  Is it in the isolation of our addictive behaviors or depression that separates us from God and each other?  Isn’t darkness lurking in the larger systems of racism, hate, exploitation, and the social divides today? 


While we may be more than half way through this Lenten season, maybe we’ve given up on fasting from our pleasure of choice or the given up on the discipline we wanted to take on.  Just as the adage says we can choose to start our day over at any time, we can choose to start our Lent over at any time, and so maybe that is today.  It takes courage and brute honesty to look at the darkness in our individual and collective lives, and often we must travel through darkness and pain to obtain healing and see the light of Christ.  Just like those snakes, our sins don’t go away or even stop biting us, but the dead state of darkness and sin was never where we were intended to stay.  And while we, too, may still carry the scars of our sin, it is not a reminder for shame, but rather a reminder of the source of our healing and salvation.


It may feel a bit selfish and uncomfortable to take this Lenten time to examine our lives, look deep into our darkness, and wrestle with our own snakes.  But it is holy work.  It is work of self-care.  Beyond those doors is a hurting world that, like the Israelites is desperate to hear that there is light and life.  So many of our brothers and sisters “out there” have never even heard the good news of the Gospel, or that there are words of comfort beyond John 3:16.  It’s not that we have never experienced the darkness they have, we have been willing to accept the gift so freely offered to us that is Grace.  We are called, as Jesus’ followers, having been transformed in His light, to become the light for those who continue to live in the darkness.  We MUST answer that call – the world is depending upon us!  Amen. 




Wilson, Paul Scott, Editor (2014).  Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary - Preaching Year B.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press


Wright, N. T. (2004).  John for Everyone – Part 1 Chapters 1-10.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press


Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors (2008).  Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press


Barton, John and Muddiman John, Editors (2001).  The Oxford Bible Commentary.  New York:  Oxford University Press

Read More