A Lectionary Reflection on John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9 for Lent 4B

When my wife first began to speak about her call to ministry, I found it harder than I had expected to accept. While she had a clear call, she was also committed to ensuring that, should anything happen to me, she and our boys would be secure and provided for. This was the really tough part for me, and I found myself challenging her. “What happens if, when you no longer need me, you no longer want me?” The insecurity and lack of trust that this revealed was a darkness in my soul that it took quite some time to own. But, it was only when I finally recognised it, confessed it to her and committed to trust her and release my fear that I was able to be the celebrative and supportive husband that I should have been from the beginning.

Until we are willing to acknowledge our darkness, we can never find our way to the light. This is a truth as ancient as the human race, and it is strikingly highlighted in the Lectionary readings for Lent 4 this year. The Gospel reading from John 3 flows out Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, and the hidden setting creates a visual parable of Jesus’ teaching. While we love to focus on John 3:16, it is really verses 18-21 that carry the “weight” of this discourse. Here Jesus speaks about judgment, light and darkness. The essence of the message is this: when we love darkness, we refuse to come into the light and so we are “judged” in that we are unable to find the healing, forgiveness and restoration that would bring us life and connection.

This loving of darkness is, at its heart, about denial. When we are willing to “come into the light” – to be open and honest about ourselves and the brokenness within – we can be healed and liberated from our sin, brokenness and self-centredness. However, when we insist on pretending that we’re fine, that we have no “stuff” to deal with, and that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of others, we leave ourselves trapped in our darkness, and no liberation can find us.

This is exactly the same truth that is expressed through the Old Testament story to which Jesus refers at the beginning of this week’s pericope. Here the Israelites, who are now on the border of the Promised Land after 40 years, once again complain about their circumstances and hearken back to Egypt. What is ironic here, is that few, if any, of this generation had ever lived in Egypt! In response, a plague of “fiery” venomous snakes attacks the Israelite camp. The word can also mean “winged” snakes, and could imply a connection with the Egyptian winged goddess that would represent the world their parents had left and which they were now longing for. When the people cry out to Moses for help, God instructs Moses to erect a bronze replica of a snake on a pole. Anyone who was bitten had only to look up to the bronze snake and be healed. What is implied in this instruction is that the very act of looking up at the pole was an act of confession – admitting that they had complained and been bitten – and of repentance – choosing to trust God both for their healing and for what they needed for their journey to the Promised Land.

For many of us denial feels like the easier option – hiding those parts of us that we would prefer not to acknowledge and blaming people and circumstances outside of us for all the evil we experience. But, our darkness, our poison, is not so easily ignored, and inevitably it comes back to bite us in some way. That’s why we so desperately need Jesus’ invitation to come to the light. The decision to accept this invitation is made possible for us by Jesus’ promise that he has come into the world not to condemn us but to save us. If we can only believe this, we will step into the light and allow our darkness and poison to be revealed in order that it can be healed. And then, not only are we liberated from all that would rob us of life, but our connections and relationships are healed as well, and we become those who bring light, healing and liberation to others. It’s a simple choice – light or darkness – but it’s one of the most important decisions we will ever make.

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