03/11/18 – Loving Dangerously


March 11, 2018
4th Sunday in Lent
Num.21:4-9; Ps. 107:1-3,17-22; Eph. 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


If you’ve ever seen the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know Indiana Jones was fearless. Played by Harrison Ford, he carried a whip in his hand and wore a jaunty black wool fedora. He hunted for treasures of antiquity and bested Nazis on his trail. There is a scene in this first of the Indiana Jones trilogy in which Jones lowers his torch down into the Well of Souls and sees that the floor is moving with wall to wall snakes. His reaction: “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes!” It seems Indiana Jones was afraid on one thing – snakes. I have a few more fears, but snakes are up near the top of my list too.

I had some scary encounters with snakes as a child, so when at age nine, my best friend, who by the way was the only girl in a family of boys, helped me overcome my fear. Well, briefly. She introduced me to ground snakes, which were not poisonous and resembled big brown worms. It was liberating to hold a snake and not feel frightened. I was so taken with the idea of having a pet snake that I put one in a coffee can with holes punched in the top and brought it home. I didn’t tell my parents that I had it in my room. I fed the snake and played with it twirling around my hands. That lasted for a few days. But, then I went to let the snake out one afternoon after school and found that it had escaped. I went to my mother and explained about my having the snake and asked her to be on the lookout for it. In today’s parlance, I would say she “freaked out.” For two weeks, she stripped her bed every night and checked her room with the diligence of a forensic scientist to make sure the snake wasn’t there. She finally came to the conclusion that the snake must have escaped to its usual environs in the great outdoors and let down her guard. Later, an encounter with a rattlesnake on my grandparents’ farm re-ignited my fear of snakes.

Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings today reference snakes. In the story from Numbers, the Israelites were wandering in the desert. If you remember the Exodus saga, the Israelites endured slavery in Egypt and were freed by God to travel to a Promised Land. Led by God’s chosen leader, Moses, the Israelites had barely left Egypt when they started complaining. After several gracious gifts to ease their discomfort on their journey, God got fed up with their ingratitude. This time God sent them something no one would want – snakes. Then the Israelites had something to complain about. People were dying and again they cried out to God to save them.

God answered their cries for deliverance directing Moses to a strange cure.

                      “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole: and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”— Num. 21:8

How odd for God to make the image of death the source of salvation.

Today, modern medicine has taught us that the cure for a disease can be accomplished, in some cases, by introducing disease into the already diseased body. The remedy for a snake bite is taking in some of the same poison that the snake put in its victim in the first place. This healing occurs in much the same way as chemotherapy poisons the body to rid the body of deathly cancer cells.

For the Israelites, the cure for the snake poison in their bodies was to look upon the very source of their death. In the same way, during Lent we are to take out the sin and shame we want to hide in the dark and shine the light of truth upon them.  All those things that inflict death upon our communities and our very selves must be raised up and revealed. Death-dealers such as racism, poverty, inequality, sexism, violence, addiction, mental illness and so on, must be raised up in our consciousness and the light of Christ shined on them.

When power becomes corrupted by self-interest and injustice it does so quietly and in the dark of back room collusions. Peoria didn’t earn its reputation for being one of the worst cities in the country for black people to live by public decree that people of color were not wanted. The disparity of wealth and job, educational and housing opportunities between whites and blacks was widened insidiously by banks, realtors, political appointments, city council votes by majority white council persons, white flight from the city and the city schools and even public transportation routes and grocery stores.  Injustices, which were once codified with the Jim Crow laws became entrenched so that even when these laws were abolished, the machinery for inequality continued to hum along and build exponentially upon itself. It may be painful, but it is only by speaking truth to the powers that profit by injustice that justice has a chance to win.

When we look at modern history we see that democracies are destroyed, or not allowed to take hold, when authoritarian power takes control. The final nail in the coffin of democracy is when the opposition is silenced, and the free press is abolished.  The only cure for this national threat is lifting up and shining the light on injustice.

Our reading from John’s Gospel opens with Jesus alluding to the Old Testament reading from Numbers. Jesus is continuing his conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who was intrigued by Jesus, but would only come to him in the cover of darkness for fear of being found out by his peers. Jesus told Nicodemus and the disciples listening in:

“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.  ‘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. 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.” –  John 3:14-17

The Apostle Paul explains that Jesus, who knew no sin, was made sin for our sake. The disease became the cure – Jesus became Sin. When we raise our sight to the cross we see our sin and shame lifted up for our sake. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness that the people might look on the source of their pain, so the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross that we might look and live.

God’s love, demonstrated through the gift of Jesus Christ to the world, has rescued us from the sin and death brought on by Adam and Eve’s disobedience. The biblical image of evil, the snake, and the promise of God’s lavish love in the Gospel of John, join these stories together. These stories demonstrate that love can be dangerous. Christ knew the danger and journeyed to the cross out of love for us.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” — Eph.2:6

We are halfway in our journey to the cross this Lenten season. The cross shines before us a light to guide us to the truth that will set us free.  If we are willing to look on it, we will see more than Christ’s suffering and death. We will see love. It is in that light, the light of God’s love, that our sin and pain is held up for us to see and be healed. The cross is the ultimate example of God’s foolish grace.  Our condemnation would make sense, given our perpetual disobedience, but instead, God chose love and challenges us to do the same.


All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois