Lent 4

March 10, 2024

Lectionary Texts

Numbers 21. 4-9. The Israelites who are escaping from Egypt complain about their suffering. To give them some perspective, God sends poisonous snakes, but also provides a means of healing, in the form of a curative bronze serpent.

Psalm 107. Thanks to God for leading the people through the desert, and feeding and healing them, with special care for the hungry, the powerless and the needy.

Ephesians 2. 1-10. You were dead through sins but God made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

John 3. 14-21. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…. For God so loved the world that they gave their only Son…. This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world…

Preaching Thoughts

       The story is rooted in an image of a God who, like an abusive human being, asserts control, demands loyalty, rejects criticism, prohibits disobedience and punishes it. And God doesn’t even punish people for misdeeds, but simply “speaking against the Lord.” They’re punished for feeling bad! Taking this story literally leaves us with a testy, hurtful, vindictive God. Sure, God gives the Israelites an escape, in the form of magic. But the hurt can’t be undone. Further, for God to offer a way to counteract God’s own punishment is both logically and spiritually silly. Instead, let’s find some morsel of grace in this story. Maybe God doesn’t “send” poisonous snakes. Maybe the consequences of our choices bite us. God invites us to examine our choices —to “look upon the snake.” God invites us into the painful but curative work of self-awareness.

    Here’s the gospel in a nutshell. Out of harmony with God, we’re subject to the chaotic pushing and pulling of our fears and desires. Believing ourselves to be separate from God, we cut ourselves off from life, like an astronaut cutting their lifeline to the spaceship. We’re as good as dead. But even in that mess God loves us, sets us free and gives us new life, as dramatically and miraculously and profoundly as God raises Jesus. Now we can be the true, good selves God creates us to be, and live in love. This is all God’s gift, not our doing.

   This is clearly John talking, not Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus talks a lot about himself— in pretty high terms. In real life I bet Jesus talked about God’s love, not about himself. John really wants people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God; Jesus really wants people to love each other. This doesn’t mean we should discount these words, but be aware of the Johanine context. In John’s gospel we need to look behind the doctrinal assertion that Jesus is God’s Son to what such a belief means for our lives, our trust, and our choices. It’s not what we think, but what we do, that matters. John says in love God gives us Christ, who is like Moses’ bronze serpent: a source of healing and hope, a cure for what ails us. What ailed the Israelites in the wilderness was lack of trust in God. For John it’s lack of belief in Jesus. Publicly good old John 3.16 is used more often as a coercion to get people to be among a select group of “those who believe in him” than a promise that God loves the whole world. The implication is that God’s grace comes to us only if we “believe,” while “those who do not believe are condemned.” But a “grace” that conditional isn’t really grace, which makes it even harder to trust! I don’t trust myself to believe enough, nor God to accept me when my belief falters. And the fragility of our trust is the issue. Because we are self-aware we see ourselves as “selves,” separate from God and others. It leads us to distrust God. (This is sin: not that we’re bad people but that we are alienated from God. It’s inherent in human nature; in that way—not because Adam did it first— it is indeed “original.”)
       When we distrust God it’s not God who condemns us, but our own distrust: we cut ourselves off from God, and doom ourselves to selfishness and anxiety. What saves us from our deep, inherent distrust? A love that reaches across our distrust, that loves us precisely when we don’t trust. Like for instance when we see Jesus “lifted up”—not glorified and exalted, but lifted up on a cross: condemned, despised, abused, and still loving and forgiving us. We behold a love we can trust even when we can’t trust our own hearts. When we see Jesus “lifted up,”crucified and yet forgiving, it’s like the poisoned Israelites looking at the bronze serpent: it heals our fear and overcomes our distrust. It saves us. There is no condemnation, only salvation. We come to trust God’s love. That trust is actually what we mean by “believing.” John 3.16 means God so loves the world that God embodies God’s love, and whoever trusts it connects with real life and won’t die of loneliness, selfishness and anxiety.
       There is no condemnation, only salvation. God’s judgment is not condemnation, but light. God doesn’t issue an opinion about our lives, but simply shines the light of truth on them and reveals them as they are. Then we can see clearly and live lives of love instead of hiding in delusion and falsehood. John’s words about darkness and light are rally about delusion and self-awareness:
“This is the judgment, that the truth has come into the world. We love delusion rather than self-awareness because our deeds are evil. For when we do evil we hate self-awareness and do not come to it, so that our deeds may not be exposed. But when we do what is true we live in awareness, so that it may be clearly seen that our deeds have been done in God.”

Call to Worship

Leader: Creator God, in the beginning you said, “Let there be light.”
All: We come into the light of your glory.
Loving Christ, your judgment is the light of mercy and grace.
We come into the light of your love.
Holy Spirit, by your grace in us we are light for the world.
We come into the light of your presence.
Fill us, that we may always live in your light. Amen.

Leader: God of all being, in the beginning — Light!
All: In your light is the life of all. Praise!
The light was coming into the world.
And we have beheld his grace. Grateful thanks!
Out of hiddenness we come into the clarity of day.
You fill us with your radiance. Blessing!
We open our hearts to your grace.
Fill us with your Spirit. Make us yours once again. Amen.

Leader: God, you so love the world that you give your Beloved,
that in giving our hearts to him we might find eternal life.
All: Great is your mercy, God! By your grace we are saved.
Come, shed your light upon us, so that we may live in you.

Leader: God, you love the world so much!
You give us your deep, embodied love.
All: Help us to trust, to break free of our fears,
and receive life that can’t be taken from us.
You shine the light of your mercy in our lives,
so that we may see and live truthfully.
Help us walk in your light.
Shine your Word upon us.

Collect / Prayer of the Day

Divine Beloved, you shine in all Creation, with the light of your love. Your Word shines in scripture and song. We open the windows of our hearts, to let your light stream in and change us. Fill us with the light of Christ. Amen.

God of love, we have been lost in the chaos of fears and desires, wrapped in death in our self-defined selves. But you have saved us by your grace; this is your doing, not ours. We want the faith to trust this grace. So we open our hearts to you, to hear your Word, to be filled with your light, to breathe in your Spirit. You who are eternally present within us, we give you our hearts, our minds, our souls, our bodies. In your light, we are listening. Amen.

Gracious God, you so love the world that you gave your Only Begotten, so that whoever will give their heart to him will know eternal life. And so we give our hearts to your living Christ now, to hear your Word, to be freed from all that destroys life, and to know life that is deep and holy, blessed and infinite. Bring us into the light of your truth, and give us life. Amen.

God of gentle mercy, your light has come into the world. By your Word spoken among us, and your grace working within us, bring us into your light. May it fill us, transform us, delight us, and guide us. We pray in the name of Christ, our light, who gave himself for us so that we might know your love. Amen.

Listening Prayer

(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)

God of grace,
what is in darkness is not bad,
but only hidden.
Shine your light into our hearts’ dark places
so that we may see in the light of your grace,
both the tragedy and treasure there.
Shine the light of your mercy,
so that we may see ourselves clearly. Amen.

Loving God, we want to know your truth;
we want to trust your love.
By your grace in Christ Jesus,
shine your light on us.
Remind us of your love.
Deepen our trust.

Light of God,
shine in my heart
and transfigure my darkness,
that I may become your light,
radiant with your presence.

Prayer of Confession

Pastor: The grace of God is with you.
All: And also with you.
Trusting in God’s tender mercy, let us confess our sin to God with one another.
Loving God, in your light is the life of all beings;
your judgment is light.
Out of the shadows, from dark, unseen places within us,
we come into your light.
We open our hearts, to let in your light.
Help us see what has been hidden,
the good and the bad,
and shine your mercy upon it.
May your light embrace us, forgive us, heal us,
and show us the way. Amen.
       Silent prayer… the word of grace

Gracious god,
our sins are too heavy to carry,
too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name,
what our hearts no longer can bear,
and what has become for us
a consuming fire of judgment.
Set us free from a past we cannot change;
open us to a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace
to grow more and more into your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Holy and loving God,
you have created me to live in harmony with you and with all Creation;
but I have not always lived in harmony.
Some of my sin I can see; but some only you know.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I ask you to forgive my disharmony,
and deliver me from the forces that distort my life;
heal the fear that leads me away from you.
and change my heart,
so that I may truly live in harmony with you and all Creation,
in the love of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor: The grace of God be with you.
All: And also with you.
Dear friends, the sin in our hearts hides in the darkness of unseen places.But by the grace of Christ we may let them open to the light of God’s mercy, confessing our sin before God and one another.
Eternal God, we confess that we do not love you perfectly, nor do we love our neighbors as ourselves. We confess that our sin is hidden from us, and that only by your grace do we see truly. Forgive our sin, heal our hearts, and bring us into the light of your Spirit, that by your grace we may see ourselves clearly and live honestly, so that we may be light for the world in the name of Christ.

         Silence for reflection and self-examination… The Word of Grace


Ephesians 2.1-10. A paraphrase.
        [Click here for a paraphrase of the entire book,
        including an alternative of this passage.]

Once you were drowning in a chaos of fear and desire
that sucked all the life out of you.
You were tyrannized by voices outside of you,
enslaved by the Prince of Expectations,
indebted to The Corporation,
obediently oblivious.
All of us have been there,
slaves to our ego’s fearful desires,
children of anxiety, shards of ourselves,
desperate for our own lives.
But the Loving One, who is pure tenderness,
with this huge, heartbreaking love
gets beneath us in our mass graves
and rises to life in us,
and pushes us out and makes us alive,
arm in arm with Christ,
restoring our belonging at the heart of life
us as part of God’s great, holy presence on earth.
By pure gift—no reason but love!—you’ve been salvaged,
pulled right out of the wreckage of your life.

God’s gentle kindness—you get a taste of it in Jesus—
blossoms within us with blessings beyond our knowing,
blessings that outlast everything you see.
God has saved your life—trust it.
And be grateful, not smug:
this is not your doing, but God’s.
It’s pure gift, unconditional and absolute;
nothing you do can influence it.

God created you good, and nothing can undo that.
You are part of God’s love made real in this life:
that’s your true self.
Who you are, and the reason you exist,
is beautiful love.

Response / Creed / Affirmation

1. [Ephesians 2.1-10, a paraphrase]

We were dead in our sin, cut off from life
by the tangle of fears and desires and forces that strangle everyone.
But God, rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loves us,
even when we were dead in our sin, made us alive together with Christ.
By grace we have been saved!
God raised us up so our lives shine with power and purpose alongside God.
We are a part of Christ Jesus!
This will be evident forever: the immeasurable riches of God’s grace
in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
By grace we have been saved, through faith!
This is not the result of our doing or believing; it is simply a gift from God.
We are who God made us, not who we make ourselves out to be:
we are created in Christ, for lives of love,
which God laid out like clothes for us to step into, all our lives
Come, let us live in the light!

Eucharistic Prayer

[After the introduction, the body of the prayer may be read responsively with the presiding leader(s) and congregation, or by the leader(s) alone.]

God is with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks to the Holy One, our God.
It is good and beautiful to give God our praise.

Creating God, in the beginning you said, “Let there be light.”
And still your light shines in us.
You are present in the darkness of the unknown,
a pillar of fire in the night of our wandering.
You come among us in Jesus, light of the world, to illumine our darkness.
In this meal we take your light into ourselves,
that we may shine with your love.
We come, singing your praise.

            [Sanctus, spoken or sung:]
        Holy, holy, holy One, God of power and might,
        heaven and earth are full of your glory.
        Hosanna in the highest.
        Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.
        Hosanna in the highest.
               [or alternate version]

Blessed are all who come in your name,
and blessed is Jesus, your Christ,
who embodied your love.
He brought not condemnation but salvation.
The people who had been pushed into the shadows
he brought into the light.
The thoughts of people’s hearts he exposed with his truth.
When he was crucified, still he forgave us
with your infinite love.
When we look upon him we are healed of our fear.
The light of his love is our truth;
the light of his grace is our judgment.
In this meal we come again to receive your grace
and renew our trust in your Covenant of love.

     (The Blessing and Covenant)
Blessed are all who come in your name,
and blessed is Jesus, your Christ—
your Beloved, the light of the world,
in whom we see our salvation.

In this meal Jesus draws all people to himself.
In this meal love casts out the powers of the world.
In this meal Jesus brings to light the grace that is hidden in our lives.
In this meal Jesus heals and teaches us,
feeds the hungry and lifts up the heartbroken.

In this meal we remember Jesus’ life and ministry,
his self-giving love, and his death.
And in this meal Christ is raised from the dead in us.
So we proclaim this mystery of our faith:

             [Memorial Acclamation, spoken or sung:]
        Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
        Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restores our life.
        Christ will come again in glory.
             [or alternative]
Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and cup,
that they may be for us the body and blood of Christ.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us,
that we may be for the world the Body of Christ.
Eating this bread we enter into the darkness of death;
drinking this cup your light is poured out into us.
This is your judgment: that your light has come into our hearts.
Bless us that we may live in your light,
and all our deeds be done in you.

     [Spoken or sung]

* The Blessing and Covenant
[I usually don’t print the words. I want people to be looking at the bread, not their bulletins.]

On the night in which he gave himself for us
Jesus took bread, blessed it,. broke it, and gave it to his disciples,saying,
“Take and eat; this is my body.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup,
blessed it with thanks and gave it to them, saying,
“Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood,
poured out for you and for many, in a new Covenant,
which is the forgiveness of sin.”
As long as we break this bread and share this cup
we remember his death and resurrection, until he comes again.

Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion

[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) You have filled us with your light. Send us into the world to live truthfully, to see clearly, to bear your light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, in the name and Spirit of Christ. Amen.

Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) We have looked upon the miracle of your love, and it has broken the fever of our fear. We have seen the light of your mercy, and it has given us new life. Send us out into the world in trust and gratitude, to walk in your light, to live with your mercy, to love in the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) Grant that in our hearts we may always feast upon your immeasurable kindness toward us. Send us into the world in the power of your Spirit, to live lives of grace reflecting your love, to share your good news with others, and to be people of healing in a world that yearns for redemption. We pray in the name of Christ. Amen.

God of love, bless us that we may live with the love of Christ, so that those who look upon us may be healed of their fear. Bless us that we may live with such light that others may see and rejoice. E pray for the sake of your delight and the healing of the world in the name and the Spirit and the company of Christ. Amen.

Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) You have filled us with your light. Send us into the world to live truthfully, to see clearly, to bear your light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, in the name and Spirit of Christ. Amen.

Suggested Songs

(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)

Kyrie, Six Versions (Six original versions. Some are part of Eucharistic settings.)
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
(Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.)

In Your Light       (Tune: What Wondrous Love Is This

What wondrous love is this O my soul, O my soul,
what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
that you so freely give the bread by which we live,
that you revive our soul, by your Word, by your Word,
and by your life in us make us whole.

Our lives we give to you, by your grace, by your grace,
our lives we give to you, by your grace.
Lord, use the gifts we give to help your children live,
that all may come and feast by your grace, by your grace,
the greatest and the least, by your grace.

O, Savior, let us live in your light, in your light,
your mercy’s gentle light from above.
May we live by such light that we give others sight
to see your wondrous love for the world, for the world,
to trust with deep delight your great love.

Into the Light
     (Original song)

God, I come into the light of your mercy and grace:
may I receive your forgiveness, your loving embrace.
You know my brokenness better than I, and my sin.
You love me perfectly, setting me free once again.

All of myself I now humbly bring into your light:
wash me, renew me, forgive me and set me aright.
God, I surrender myself to your life-giving love:
may I be born by your Spirit, anew, from above.

God, you have loved us so much that you even would give
Jesus, your Son, the Beloved, so that we would live.
Help us to live so we bring your good news into sight.
Help us to trust in your grace and come into the light.

Shine In Me      (Tune: Breathe on Me Breath of God)

Shine in me, light of God: into my shadows shine,
all that is dark and hidden, show; reveal with your light divine.

Open the window, Love, into my heart’s abyss:
fears and desires, all wants and wounds bring into your light and bless.

What is unseen reveal; give me the gift of sight,
lighten the shadows deep within and, Love, make my darkness light.

Shine in me, light of God, your mercy gleaming bright.
I am the lantern, you the flame. Love, let me live in your light.

Wake Us From Our Sleep (Original song)

God of mercy, wake us with your light.
Rouse our sleeping hearts and give us sight.
Raise us up from death; fill us with your breath.
Wake us from our sleep to live new lives in you.

Life comes only from the Word you give.
You alone have power to make us live.
Seeking what is True, Love, we turn to you:
springs of living water flow, and so we live.

Christ, you touch our hearts and heal our fear.
Even in our pain your grace is near.
Spirit, you who save, raise us from our grave.
Born again, dry bones who rise, we live in you.

Christ, light of the world, your radiance bright
wakens us to day out of our night:
shining in, it heals; shining out, reveals.
Help us all to live as children of the light.

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