Mar 14 – Worship Service – Lent 4

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Mar 14 – Worship Service – Lent 4

Rev Lohnes

Sunday, March 14th    Lent 4 

Acknowledging the Territory

As we gather this morning let us remember that we gather on lands that are, by law, the unceded territories of the Mi’kmaq people.  We gratefully acknowledge this and respectfully honour their traditions and spirituality.

Time of Quiet Centering

As we prepare to worship this morning, let us take a moment of silence to gather ourselves together as we enter this sacred time.

Service of Lenten Candles

During the season of Advent, we light candles as we prepare to receive the Light of Christ at Christmas.  During Lent, we extinguish candles as we prepare for the day that Light was snuffed out.

Today our journey begins to exhaust us.  We have been traveling long enough.  Our footsteps grow heavy.  Our shoulders and back begin to ache. We need help.  We need something to lean on.  We need a walking stick.  We need something that will give us support when our strength gives out, something that will help us keep our balance when the way gets rough.  We need a walking stick that we can rely on and that will never let us down.  We need to remember that as the darkness creeps in we have strong and solid support upon which we can lean.  As we extinguish our fourth candle, we lean on Christ.

Lean walking stick against the table and extinguish the fourth Lenten candle.

Call to Worship

We like the idea of walking our Lenten Journey with Christ.

We like the idea of stepping out alongside someone we love and admire.

But our Lenten Journey demands more than admiration.  It demands that, as we travel, we ask ourselves some important questions.

What does Lent mean to our faith?

What does it mean to walk this journey in Jesus’ footsteps?

Are we strong enough to stay with Jesus when we come to the unbearably painful parts of the story?

In worship, we seek to face these difficult questions.

In worship, we seek to listen for the answers.

So come let us worship, as together, we seek the Christ of our Lenten Journey.

Opening Prayer (in unison)

Divine Caregiver, John tells us that you love us so much that you sent Jesus to live among us and teach us your ways.  But we admit that there are times we don’t feel all that loveable.  John tells us that Jesus came not to judge us but to save us.  But we admit that when we compare our own lives to the life of Jesus, we often judge ourselves harshly.  John tells us that light came into the world, but that the people often preferred the darkness.   Lead us to your light we pray, and help us to know we are loved and accepted.  Amen.

Gift of Music

Scripture Readings            

Numbers 21:4-9                  

The story you are about to hear from the book of Numbers is one of those stories that I don’t think I have ever actually used in worship, mainly because I’ve never been really sure what to do with it!  In fact, I debated switching the scriptures with the ones listed for last week, because they are much easier to deal with.  But I think there is always a lesson to be learned in any scripture we read, so today we’re going to hear the story of the Bronze serpent.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Psalm 107 contains the reassuring words, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

Ephesians 2:1-10                

The letter to the Ephesians talks about death through sin and life through faith in Christ and through the grace of God.

John 3:14-21    

Perhaps the most famous verse in all the Christian scriptures is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…”  Unfortunately this single verse has often been used to claim that ONLY Christians are loved by God and that ONLY Christians have any hope of eternal life.  But this chapter begins by recalling the story of the Bronze Snake, a story of the salvation of the Hebrew people, and it speaks of Jesus as being ‘lifted up in the same manner, as a symbol of hope.  It goes on with the reassuring words that “God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but its savior.”

The Many Uses of a Walking Stick

It might seem strange to use the symbol of a walking stick for this week given the scriptures we just heard.  Somehow, while wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel end up finding themselves in the middle of an area overrun by deadly snakes.  Many people have been bitten and died.  The people turn again to Moses and Moses turns to God.  On God’s instructions, Moses fashions an image of a snake out of bronze holds it up in the air on the end of a pole and all those who look upon it are saved from the deadly snakes.  So what is that all about?

Well, despite the somewhat problematic idea that God would send deadly snakes to punish the people, there are some very interesting things to think about in this passage.  Just before this incident, the Israelite people had faced a serious attack by the Canaanite people and had begged God to save them.  They were able to defeat the Canaanites and rescue those who had been taken, hostage.

Yet no sooner were the celebrations of that victory over than the Israelite people began to complain again, this time because they were tired of eating nothing but manna.  This is an ongoing pattern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  The people complain, God answers their complaints giving them what they need, the people praise God, and then they find something else to complain about!

And this is hardly a problem unique to the Hebrew people.  How many times have we looked into a refrigerator full of food and complain that there is nothing to eat or looked into a closet full of clothes and complain we have nothing to wear?  It seems that like the Israelites, we can always find something to complain about.

So today we read how the Israelite people complain about snakes and beg God to save them.  God told Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and all who looked directly at it were saved.  Now I don’t believe that God sent snakes as a punishment for the Israelite people for their complaining, their impatience, or their lack of faith any more than I believe that God sent Covid-19 is a punishment for our modern world for our complaining, impatience, and lack of faith.

Despite all of that, there are some interesting comparisons between the Israelites dealing with snakes and our modern world dealing with Covid.  In both cases, it seems that the solution for the problem is found within the problem itself.  I don’t know why a bronze snake would cure a snake bite, but a vaccine can only be produced by studying the virus that causes the illness itself.

So perhaps we need to look at the story of the bronze snake, not so much as a warning to fear God’s punishment as about holding on to the hope and promise that, no matter how bad a situation might be, in the balance of God’s wondrous creation, there is always a way through.  No matter what the problem, there is always hope if we are only willing to look up to find it.

I believe this same lesson can be found in our gospel reading from today.  This passage contains one of the most well-known quotes in all of scripture.  “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son”.  The problem is that so many people seem to concentrate on John 3 verse16 that they completely forget about John 3 verse17; “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.”

If we take this verse seriously, then Jesus did not come to limit those who were acceptable to God to only those who believe that Jesus is God’s one and only son.  Instead, Jesus comes to show that all people are acceptable to God.  This acceptance is because of, as we are reminded in the letter to the Ephesians, “the extraordinary greatness of [God’s] grace” and love.

The image of a bronze serpent that Moses held up in the desert, offered the Israelite people a reminder of that “extraordinary greatness of [God’s] grace”.  And this is certainly not something new that they had never experienced before.  Many times, they had seen God’s grace demonstrated for them throughout their escape from Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness.  When they found their way blocked by the Red Sea, a way through was provided for them.  When they were close to starvation, they were provided manna in the desert.  When they feared they would die of thirst, they were provided streams of water coming from a stone.  And when they were sure they would be defeated and conquered by those whose lands they passed through, they were given a victory and safe passage.

So many times the Israelite people had already experienced God’s grace, and yet somehow, every time things started to go wrong and they faced new and unexpected challenges, they seemed to forget.  They complained and thought only of what was happening at that particular moment.  They forgot to trust “the extraordinary greatness of [God’s] grace” and love.

And the Israelite people were not alone in this.  How often do we forget all the ways in which we have experienced Divine grace and love?  How often do we get so caught up in the unexpected challenges of life that we forget to trust God?

According to John’s gospel, just like the bronze snake was lifted up to remind the Israelite people to remember God’s care in the past and to trust in God’s grace, Christ is lifted up to remind us that we too can also trust God’s grace and love.  As Christians, we claim to see God’s grace and love demonstrated in physical form in the life of Christ.  It is his example that we need to look to when our lives become complicated and uncertain, just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.”

But what does all this have to do with a walking stick?  Well, a walking stick is something you lean on that helps you get through a long journey.  It can take some of the weight of a heavy load, making it easier to carry.  It is something that can help provide balance, especially on rough terrain.

But a walking stick can do much more.  Did you ever notice that in almost all depictions of Moses, he is carrying a staff which, in some versions of the bible, is referred to as a walking stick?  It was Moses’ staff that God turned into a serpent to challenge Pharaoh when he refused to set the people free.  It was his staff that Moses held up in the air so that the waters of the Red Sea would part to allow the Israelite people to pass through.  It was his staff that Moses used to strike the rock in order to provide water for the people.  It was his staff that Moses held up throughout the battle with the Amalekites in order to win a victory.  And it was on the top of a pole, or long staff, that Moses mounted the Bronze Serpent so that everyone who had been bitten by the snakes could look at it and be healed.

So perhaps, as we continue on our Lenten journey this year, we need to ask ourselves what we need our walking stick to represent for us?  What uses do we need it to serve?

Well, first of all, we need it to serve as a reminder of “the extraordinary greatness of [God’s] grace” and love.  When the way gets difficult and we wonder how we are going to continue, our walking stick, or staff, can serve to remind us to trust God.  It can remind us that, just as we lean on a walking stick when we get tired and struggle to keep moving on a difficult hike, we can lean on God when we need rest during our Lenten journey.

But there are other uses of a walking stick as well.  It can be used to protect us and drive away unfriendly animals you might encounter in the wilderness.  It can be used to extend your reach when something is just beyond your ability to grasp.  You can use it to test the ground in front of us to make sure we are walking on a solid foundation.  We could even tie something to the top and lift it up and wave it so that others will see us if we happen to get lost along the way.

During our Lenten journey, the walking stick we lean on is the God we trust and the Christ we follow.  Like the walking stick we take with us on a journey, it is of no use to us unless we lean on it and learn to use it.  We must learn to trust God and lean on God’s grace.  We must learn to follow Christ wherever that leads us, trusting that, like a water bottle, we will be provided with what we need, like a compass, we will be pointed in the right direction, like a map, we will be given a path to follow and like a walking stick, we will always be able to lean and trust in Divine Help.

So as we continue our Lenten Journey today, let us remember to take time out to lean on and rest within “the extraordinary greatness of [God’s] grace” and love.  Amen.

Gift of Music

We Offer Our Gifts

We believe that God has called and continues to call each of us.  One of the ways in which we answer is through the gifts that we offer back to God.  Those gifts may be the offering that we place on the offering plates at the back of the church, they may be offerings we make through Par or through online donations, they may be donations we give to others beyond the walls of this church.  Or they may be the offerings of our time, our abilities, and our commitment.  But whatever it is that we offer God this day, let us asks God’s blessing upon it.

Let us pray; Loving God, bless and grow these gifts that we offer you today for whatever purpose and whatever journey they may be needed to serve.  Amen.

We Offer Our Prayers

And now let us take a moment now to offer our silent prayers for all those named in our prayer jar and all those in our thoughts, our minds, and our hearts … Amen.

 Minute for Mission

 Prayers of the People 

Diven Source of all love and all hope, we know that all too often it is easy for us to focus on the worst aspects of our world.  We see the huge numbers of people who cannot find meaningful work or who cannot find any work at all.  Yet we miss seeing and recognizing the opportunities that might arise if we looked for possibilities instead of seeing only what is present in the here and now.

We see the huge number of people in refugee camps and those struggling to find their way in a new country that is strange to them, often living in poverty and uncertainty.  Yet we miss seeing and honouring the gifts and contributions that each one of your beloved children can make in our world.

We see the destruction of forests and the paving over of good agricultural land.  Yet we miss seeing or we dismiss as ineffective, the faithful efforts of those who are willing to risk standing up for the environment.

All too often we seem to focus on the worst aspects of our church.

We see the conflict, divisions, decreasing numbers, lack of leaders, lack of future planning and vision and lack of financial security.  Yet we miss the vibrant faith and commitment of so many faithful members.

We see decreasing interest in church attendance in the wider community and worry that as the age of those in regular attendance rises, we will simply die out as an institution.  Yet we miss the huge impact that churches have when they reach out beyond their walls and touch the communities around them, following the example of Christ.

And all too often we seem to focus on the worst aspects of ourselves.

We see our tendency to selfishness and our often uncaring response to need.  But we miss or dismiss the many clear examples of generosity and compassion we exhibit each day.

We see the part of ourselves that is reluctant to change and move forward.  But we miss the part that is ready to journey into the unknown, trusting in you.

We see how fleeting and superficial our relationships with others often are.  But we miss the deep caring and connection we have with family and friends when our caring is based on your love.

All too often we seem to focus on the negative parts of our lives.  Yet Jesus calls us to follow a path that is filled with your love and purpose and that guides us through your eternal grace.  Lead on, O God, and grant us the grace to follow.  Amen.

Gift of Music    

Sending Forth

And so we go out from here knowing that in the desert places of our lives, God will be there keeping us company.  In the places of self-doubt and criticism, God will be there restoring our hope and our vision.  In the places of failure and confession, God will be there offering forgiveness.  In the places of testing and uncertainty, God will be there offering patience and courage.  And no matter where we go or what we do, we go knowing that the extraordinary greatness of God’s grace and love go with us.  Go with God.

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