Thursday, March 5, 2020

I Know What You're Looking at, But What Are You Seeing? (Reflections on Lent 2, Year A)

“And 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.” (John 3:14-15)

My wife says—and with alarming frequency—that I don’t know her. Considering we’ve been married for twenty years, that sounds a little strange; nevertheless, it might just be the truth. I think sometimes that, however long we might be looking at someone else, we’re really only seeing ourselves. Do you know what I mean?

Here’s another example: I was talking on the phone to my brother-in-law a few years ago just after my sister died of cancer. “I never knew,” he told me, “that she had gone to Julliard.” Now, if you knew my late sis, her Julliard education wasn’t something she was inclined to keep buried as a shameful stain on her reputation. I’m sure she told her husband about her experience at the famous academy many times, but he’d just forgotten she’d mentioned it—as we husbands are wont to do upon occasion.

Isn’t it funny how we can see the same people every day of our lives yet never really see them?

In our all-too-famous gospel lesson assigned for Lent 2, Year A (John 3:1-17) we have this lovely fellow, Nicodemus, sneaking around by night to see the controversial Jesus. He tells him, “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.” Clearly, Nick is looking to learn something from this prophet, but maybe he doesn’t know exactly what it is he’s looking for.

Jesus, as Jesus loves to do, starts to mess with Nicodemus’ head a little. He tells him he must be “born from above,” which really gets the old guy confused.[i]  Maybe it’s just Jesus’ way of reminding us that we’re all pretty confused much of the time. There’s no mystery in the fact that we don’t understand heavenly things. Most of the time we don’t understand earthly things either, even though we encounter them every day.

But maybe the way to the heavenly is through the earthly. Maybe the way to the divine is through the human. In John’s gospel, Jesus is just a bit more superhuman than he appears in the synoptics. He’s a little more God-like. I think this is John’s way of telling us that, if we really want to see God, we should first start by looking at the man. This same author (or so it is believed) will also write, “…those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20b). So do you want to see God? Start by looking at the man.

What do we see when we look at Jesus? He himself tells Nicodemus that he must be “lifted up.” I always thought that meant to look at Jesus on the cross. Notice that he compares himself with Moses in the wilderness. Moses lifted up an effigy of a poisonous snake in order to heal the sickness of his impatient and whining people.[ii] God afflicted the Israelites with snakebite because of their bitchy disobedience and ingratitude. God made the punishment fit the crime because the Israelites were acting like snakes—wounding and weakening themselves with poison from their mouths. When one of them looked at the image of the snake on the pole they might recognize their own sin, come to repentance, and be spared. In the same way, when we look at Jesus on the cross, we see just how rotten and depraved humans can be. It’s awful hard to be proud of being part of the human race when you realize we thought up a means of execution as sick and sadistic as crucifixion.

But on the cross we also see a man willing to undergo unspeakable torture out of love for people he has not even physically met. Can anything be more divine than that? We see crosses everywhere, but we might not recognize that we are looking at the darkest sin and the deepest love all in the same place.

If we can see this in Jesus, perhaps we can also see it in each other. Such a vison would certainly make us “born again.”

Thanks again for coming by! I always appreciate your time!

[i] “Born from above” can also be translated “born again.” The word in Greek is gennhqu. It can be translated either way—probably as Jesus intended!
[ii] See Numbers 21:4-9

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