Today’s second and first readings are so familiar that commenting
upon them brings a special challenge. The passage from Philippians has been
one of the foundational texts in the development of the classic understanding
of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. The passage from John is
a favorite of Evangelical Christians who often display references to it on
banners at major sporting events. The first reading is less known, but the
connection is made clear by John: Jesus has in his very person healed humanity
victimized by its own sin and rebellion.
Like so many things that are familiar, it is easy to hear these texts without
hearing and to understand them without understanding. As I read them
I wonder what it would have been like for Nicodemus. As a Jew, he knew
the story of Moses lifting up the serpent, but Jesus asks him to listen to
it in a new way. How can we who know the story of Jesus’ redemptive
purpose, hear it again and again and not become dulled to its power.
As I read through the texts again, I am struck this time by the first sentence
of the first reading: “with their patience worn out by the journey, the people
complained against God and Moses.” I can relate to this. The
life of faith often seems like a long trip in the desert. At times
it can seem to bring very little reward, and in the midst of the struggle,
the memory of slavery in “Egypt” can seem more attractive than God’s promise
of freedom. All who walk the path of discipleship will pass through
this desert. Indeed, the experience of wandering in a desert bereft
of God’s presence is so common in the Christian life that our tradition has
a name for it. The desert fathers called it the “noon-day demon.” The
demon was not so much a little devil with horns as it was a description of
the powerful temptation to leave the path to holiness. The temptation
can take many forms, and if we yield to it, we risk becoming bitter and alienated
from God. How odd it is that following God can lead to bitterness and
alienation, but it can.
The only real response to the noon-day demon is prayer and patience.
We must focus our gaze upon Jesus and what he has done. We need to
remember the cross and the resurrection and resist becoming dulled to its
power and promise. I will try to keep these things in mind if I see John
3:16 displayed during this week’s game.