United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 11, 2018

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B

Lectionary citations:
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21


Worship resources for the Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B are at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Additional reflection on Numbers 21:4-9

Focus Theme:
God's Love is Steadfast

by Kathryn Matthews

While we may be familiar with the idea of the "Five Books" of the Torah, or Pentateuch, we might not know that the psalms are also divided into five books, and this psalm begins the final book, containing psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 107 is a good choice for the lectionary in the midst of Lent, when we live in keen awareness of the tension between suffering and the expectation of new life that Easter promises.

Suffering may be undeserved, unexpected, unavoidable. Or it may be the consequence of things we've done and choices we've made. It's part of the human condition not only to suffer, but to cry out for relief, even if we've caused our own distress. This week's reading, our third psalm focus text in four weeks of Lent, is a litany that repeats certain phrases key to the meaning of the whole psalm, and to the meaning of the life of worship, to the meaning of our whole lives.

A song of distress

Reading the entire psalm and not just the selected verses from the lectionary, we hear the psalmist recount the distress of several groups of people, followed each time by, "Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and [God] delivered them from their distress," and a description of the wonderful works of God in response to a cry of human need. In turn, those who have been "redeemed from trouble" are called by the psalmist to thank God: "Let them thank the Lord for [God's] steadfast love, for [God's] wonderful works to humankind."

Those two verses appear four times throughout the psalm, illustrating what the psalmist was talking about when he began the psalm (and this Book Five of all the psalms) with a call to give thanks to God for God's steadfast love that endures forever.

The question of suffering

Suffering, of course, is a mystery much of the time, but sometimes it isn't. In our scientific age, we have experts in all things physical and psychological (and most everything else!) who can rather accurately predict the consequences of our culture's emphasis on success, consumption, and acquisition. For all of our many advances, we haven't figured out how to live happy and wholesome lives much of the time.

We work too much, eat too much, perhaps drink too much or take drugs or shop or even spend too much time gazing or listening to one electronic device or another. Our relationships are damaged, our experience of intimacy is diminished, and our health is weakened if not destroyed. These individual, personal sufferings are mirrored in the wider community, where injustice and greed fuel the distress of many more of God's children.

"Well, they brought it on themselves..."

In the midst of all this anguish, we cry out to God in our distress. Today's passage describes the suffering of those who have brought on their own suffering, "through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities." Ironically, the very progress that enables us to predict consequences like illness and injury and dysfunction puts us in a position to judge those who are in distress. "Well, they brought that on themselves," we so easily say.

However, Thomas Edward McGrath reminds us that, "while some people have little margin for error when they choose unwisely, most of us have insulating margins of friends, resources, family, and sometimes dumb luck that protect us against the full consequences of our iniquities" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). In a way, we're backing into gratitude, reflecting on the many gifts and blessings that insulate us from suffering the full effect of our mistakes, a different approach, perhaps, to Lenten self-examination, but also--possibly--leading to greater generosity of spirit toward others.

Time in the wilderness and time together

Lent, of course, is a time to repent, to turn away, to begin again. Time alone in the wilderness, metaphorically or literally, and time in quiet prayer and reflection (one way to experience emptiness in an overloaded culture) helps us to focus our thoughts and expand our awareness of God at work in our lives.

Time together in worship and learning, in hearing the story and joining in the song of praise and thanksgiving, increases our awareness of God at work in the lives of the people in every age, the God, as Eugene Peterson renders this in The Message, who "rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas." This is indeed the God whose love is steadfast in every age. But that time in worship also offers us the opportunity to cry out to God, together, about our own individual and communal distress.

What's the church for, in a suffering world?

As people of faith, we have seen and heard of God doing great things, healing and delivering the people from slavery, from disease, from death. As the Body of Christ alive in the world that God loves, our Lenten reflections include the question: How will we participate in God's mighty work? How will our congregations and the whole United Church of Christ, and each of us individually, engage in ministry that is healing for a world full of hurting people?

Is church here just for me, for us only, or is the church the Body of Christ at work in the world, healing and delivering and making right the things that bring anguish and suffering? Or is the church (are we) too busy judging the sins of others who, in some subtle way or another, "deserve" what has befallen them? (We also can't help remembering the efforts of religious voices who tried to fix blame for 9/11 or various natural disasters on the sins of one group or another--an embarrassment for people of faith everywhere.)

The gift of the psalms

This psalm of praise is about just that: praise of God and thanksgiving for God's steadfast love in every age. But it is a psalm, which means it's not only a prayer, but, significantly, it's poetry, too. And we all know that poetry is not something to dissect or analyze, although a little background may be helpful. While the psalmist sings of suffering and deliverance in a time and place long ago, we cry out today for God's deliverance and mercy in our time of anguish and pain, and this poem expresses something deeply human, deeply faithful in our own spiritual lives.

Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful chapter on praying the psalms in her book, The Cloister Walk. During her time in a Benedictine abbey, she learned to pray the psalms regularly and often, and that provided insight into their power much more than reading an excerpt here or there. "The psalms are poetry," she writes, "and poetry's function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives." A friend of mine once returned from a worship conference, with his face so full of joy as he said, "We prayed the psalms for three days: what a gift!"

Poems and prayers

In the season of Lent, from which we hope to emerge somehow better, stronger, more faithful--we might even say, "converted," and even "transformed"--the psalms are most helpful. Praying these poems each day, regularly and even throughout the day, has a certain power, and a certain power is required if we're going to be transformed. How else to receive the gifts of God if we don't open ourselves to them? Norris sees great value in committing to "being changed by the words of the psalms, allowing them to work on you, and sometimes to work you over."

We don't need to waste time analyzing these poems, or even arguing with them; if we simply pray them, and connect with people long ago and right now, right around us, we can live with the questions, even "dwell" on them, as Norris says. "The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche," she writes. "They ask us to consider our true situation, and to pray over it…it can come to seem as if the psalms are reading and writing us."

When we move out from reflection and emptiness and time apart, back into the world to be the Body of Christ, to participate in God's mighty actions, we do so with praise. And Norris offers a lovely image for us as we go, reminding us that the Hebrew word for praise not only means that "but primarily means 'to radiate' or 'to reflect'" (The Cloister Walk).

The work of divine creativity

Annie Dillard offers a perspective on what God is about here, drawing on the thought of Paul Tillich: "For Tillich, God's activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity--the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger." But Dillard acknowledges her own awe in the face of the mystery of God at work: "I don't know. I don't know beans about God."

Still, she writes, "Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world's necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile." Healing does not always take the form we expect (or want), but in any and every case, God is with us, "suffering the world's necessities" with us (For the Time Being).

A world silent and cold

Finally, Walter Brueggemann offers yet another approach, inviting us to "imagine a world without Psalm 107...without cry, without the public processing of pain….Imagine a world that has grown silent and cold of human pain. Imagine a world totally silenced, no prayers uttered, no hopes voiced, no hosting of the human condition and, consequently, no miracles of newness or healing." The cry of our hearts is not just a solitary one, but one that we share together in worship.

"For that reason," Brueggemann writes, "our worship must not be too happy, too well ordered, or too symmetrically serene, for at the heart of our worship is asking in need, being answered, and being taken seriously" (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church). What a radical concept, this acknowledgment of our need and our pain, especially in our culture of self-reliance and independence! Perhaps radical enough to lead to conversion, and transformation, in this season of Lent.


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Philip Melancthon, 16th century
"Trouble and perplexity drive me to prayer and prayer drives away perplexity and trouble."

Victor Hugo, 19th century (in Les Miserables)
"Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees."

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you,' that would suffice."

Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child's prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God."

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

Additional Reflection on Numbers 21:4-9:

This exceedingly difficult text for the pulpit warrants a closer look and a different angle of view. A simplistic reading offers a God who temperamentally sends snakes to kill the very people that God has delivered from bondage, guided through the wilderness, and claimed as God's own. That same God, definitely emphasizing the "all-powerful" in this story, turns "on a dime" once Moses prays for the people: God offers a solution to the snakebite epidemic in the form of a graven image, that of a bronze snake.

Fashioning this bronze serpent clearly appears to violate the Second Commandment, and the image of such a vengeful God violates our belief in an all-loving God. Both are challenges to the preacher. There are fascinating historical notes here that may be helpful for a congregation not well-versed in the Bible, including the possibility that this story explains a later reference to Hezekiah's purification of the temple by destroying Moses' bronze serpent.

The strange power of healing

Forty years (or even one!) in the desert most certainly includes experiences of hunger, thirst, and danger from animals such as snakes, including poisonous ones. The possibility that the Hebrew people suffered from a rash of snakebites is strong, and, like so many stories in the Bible, this one may be an attempt to explain such a disaster. Why did the snakes attack us? It must have been all that complaining we did. In any case, the power of healing overcomes the grip of suffering and, more importantly, the sense of being lost in the wilderness and without hope.

Keeping one's heart and mind trained on the gifts of God, even in a bronze replica of what has brought us pain, and living our lives in trust and humble obedience, are a path through any wilderness that lies before us, in any age and any place. This is Lent, and the themes of sin, repentance, and self-examination are certainly in the foreground of our attention.

Looking up to healing

How and when do we recognize the consequences of our sins, the effects that our sins have on others, near to us or far away? What wilderness lies before or behind you, and how has God's presence led you, and comforted you, along the way? God commands Moses to put the bronze serpent "on a pole." In what ways have you and your congregation needed to "look up" from your sin or brokenness toward a higher goal, a higher value, a higher vision?

When have you found healing and hope from the most unexpected sources? In what ways does this remind you of looking up, at the cross, a sign of the consequences of sin, but also of God's triumph?

For further reflection:

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
"Miracles...seem to me to rest not so much upon...healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources. If I trust You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven...."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation--either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course."

William Paul Young, The Shack, 21st century
"I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships so will our healing, and I know that grace rarely makes sense for those looking in from the outside."

Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, 21st century
"In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others."

Marcel Proust, 20th century
"We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full."

Lectionary texts

Numbers 21:4-9

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. 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." Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. 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." 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.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

O give thanks to God,
   for God is good;
for God's steadfast love endures

Let the redeemed of God
   say so,
those whom God redeemed
   from trouble

and gathered in
   from the lands,
from the east and
   from the west,
from the north and
   from the south.

Some were sick
   through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities
   endured affliction;

they loathed any kind
   of food,
and they drew near
   to the gates of death.

Then they cried to God
   in their trouble,
and God saved them
   from their distress;

God sent out God's word
   and healed them,
and delivered them
   from destruction.

Let them thank God
   for God's steadfast love,
for God's wonderful works
   to humankind.

And let them offer sacrifices
   of thanksgiving,
and tell of God's deeds
   with songs of joy.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even 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, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21

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." 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. 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!

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