March 14 2021 – Fourth Sunday of Lent

Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“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.” ~John 3:16

River, Rocks, Stack, Stacked Rocks, Stacked Stones

Do you know your neighbor?  One act of kindness that you can do this Lent is get to know your neighbor.  Check in on your neighbors regularly.  Especially if they do not get out much, they might appreciate a phone call or a knock on the door.  For those who are alone, the need for them to see others is even greater.  I love hearing about how neighbors take care of each other in our community.  Neighbors bring each other meals to be sure that they have enough to eat.  Neighbors have plowed each other’s driveways.  These are all acts of kindness for another that really do bless someone else.  I usually tell people to be blessed and a blessing, which is a phrase I picked up along the way somewhere.  Part of being a blessing is doing kind things for another.  It is praying for another, but it is doing more than that.  If you have done something kind for a neighbor this week, you have done the work of Jesus.  You could even find a new friend, just by reaching out, and what harm is there in that?  We all need a friend.  What else can you do to get to know your neighbors, or to help your neighbor?  Do you need to reconcile with a neighbor first?

Another action is to write a note of encouragement to a public school teacher.  I just read a Facebook post from one of my teacher friends that read the following: “I have gone above and beyond to adapt my teaching style to this new environment and yet when a student does not do the work it is my fault.  I am tired of being accused of not doing my job when all I focus on is my job.”  Teachers are facing a lot of stress, anger, and anxiety.  How can we show that we care for what they do?  They are the ones who change the world.  Students remember their best teachers for a lifetime; they will be a lifelong inspiration to at least a couple of kids in their classes.  Just think of those teachers who you yourself are still guided by today.  They are forming those who will be our nation’s future.  Whenever I talk to a customer service worker or anyone for that matter, I try to thank them for what they do.  They face so much negative energy, and what is stopping us from sharing the positive, uplifting energy that they need?

Last week, we began our task of renewing our minds.  We learned that we have to ask God to search our heart and break our sinful habits in order to create room for something better.  The next step is to fill the space created from what has been removed.  If we do not fill it with something else, our old habits will return quite quickly.  Therefore, we ask God to fill us with that which is from God, which results with wisdom, so that we might have a “clean heart,” and a “new and right spirit” (Psalm 51:10).  Again, I believe that there are many good things about each of our spirits which we can rejoice for.  Yet, if we do not continually return to our various spiritual advisors, the things that distract us from God can build up, perhaps at a rate that we do not even notice.  We need to keep recognizing our transgressions – or, our debts – and ask God to forgive them, so that our souls remain healthy.  We fill ourselves with good things so that we can be drawn closer to God.  Then, we will ask God to send us, which is what God did that first Easter, because we have spent this time with Jesus to become renewed, and true Disciples of Christ.  Our Easter theme will be how we understand our role as disciples of Jesus in a world following the resurrection.

Assuming that you did this week’s homework, and prayed to God to search you and break you, you are ready to be filled with something new.  Perhaps you are eager as was the writer of the book of Lamentations: “Why have you forgotten us completely?  Why have you forsaken us these many days?  Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lam. 5:20-22).  This is a prayer of loneliness, from those who feel as if God has left this world behind to be filled with evil.  Yet, Paul in Romans tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  We can fill ourselves with good things so that we might have a positive influence on this world.  God is still working in and through us.

The first way to fill ourselves is by accepting the movements of the Holy Spirit.  In Titus, we read, “God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  We are renewed by the Holy Spirit.  In many Communion settings, we talk about how the Spirit moves us to drink the cup.  Perhaps the Spirit has moved you to come to church today.  Perhaps the Spirit moved you to check in on your neighbor or write that letter to brighten someone’s day.  We do things at times that do not seem like us, but they fall in line with what Christ would want us to do.  Without the Holy Spirit, we could be hearers of the word but not doers.  The scriptures talk of being filled with the Spirit quite often as told to Mary, when the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and as the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit in order that they might “speak the word of God with boldness” (Luke 1:35, Acts 4:8, 4:31).  Romans tells us, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).  Paul preached that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.  …  If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:22-26).  If we seek to be models of these good habits, and to be considered children of God, the Bible tells us that we must rely on the Holy Spirit coming to us, and that we must receive that Spirit.

Once we have received the Holy Spirit, the rest begins to unfold from there.  We must fill ourselves with love.  Jake Owensby, an Episcopal bishop in Louisiana and an author, wrote that love is what keeps us going in a messy world.  He writes in his article, “What Keeps Us Going,” that “love is the only power that can save this world.  Jesus … was about restoring the world with love.”  He notes that we were taught to feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, reconcile with our neighbor, and so much more that are founded on themes of love.  “This,” he writes, “is how God is mending the world.”  The Bellevue Ministerial Association is sponsoring the Serve Bellevue project again this year, where we love each other by completing small projects around the homes of our neighbors.  The Gospel of John asks us to believe in this power of love, which God has shown for us by giving God’s only Son in order to save us from our sins (and our debts).  God told us that whoever believes in this power, which is the gift of Jesus Christ, will have eternal life (John 3:16).  In the meantime, we are tasked with continuing to spread love instead of bitterness, kindness rather than hate.  John affirms, “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21).  We need to fill ourselves with love because this is how we come to the light.

In the wilderness, the people did not have much trust in God.  They continuously spoke out against Moses and God, saying that they would prefer to be slaves in Egypt than to be free in the wilderness.  They complained about what they had to eat and about how hard their lives were.  But when they realized this, and came to Moses saying that they had spoken out against God, God gave them a way to live: “That person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9).  W. Eugene March, a professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, noted that the basic issue here is a lack of trust in God.  March wrote, “The aim of Moses was for the people to move forward trusting that God would keep the divine commitment to lead the people to a new land” (Feasting on the Word, B.2.100).  Do we have the same trust issues today?  Do we trust that God will keep God’s commitment to lead us away from suffering and into a new land?  We need to fill ourselves with faith, or trust in God, as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Christians who live dispersed from one another are comforted by a brief visit of another Christian, a prayer together, and another Christian’s blessing. Indeed, they are strengthened by letters written by the hand of other Christians” (Life Together, 30).  We are dispersed.  But we can still visit one another, we can still pray together, and we can still bless one another.  The Holy Spirit gives us each the ability to be a blessing through each of our own gifts.

What really keeps us going?  We live in a world where we are afraid.  The snake in the wilderness was a symbol of fear, but it stood as a testament to God being able to keep God’s promises, and get us through, for five hundred years until the time of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4).  The symbol of fear became a symbol of strength.  We are not kept going by continuing on in our old habits, conquered by fear and worry, sin and doubt.  We must ask God to help us purge these things.  And when we turn to God, we find that the very things which brought us discomfort in this world now become a symbol of strength because God is greater than these things.  When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are renewed.  In order to stay faithful to what we have committed to this Lent, we must then fill our minds with trust in God and with love for those around us.  We trust that God will keep God’s promise to us, and bring us to a place beyond this world.  And while we are here in this world, it is our call to let love flow through us, even in the smallest act of kindness.

Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so that the people might look on it and live.  As John tells us, the Son of Man must also be lifted up (John 3:14).  What can we do to lift up Jesus?  We become disciples.  We are learning how to follow Jesus.  And we have renewed our minds.  Jesus trusted God.  Jesus loved everyone He met.  When we model our lives after Jesus, Jesus is lifted up in this world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Numbers 21:4-9
21:4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
21:6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
21:7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

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