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The Still Point: A Time of Meditation and Reflection
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
… At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance…
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Peace on each one who comes in need;
Peace on each one who comes in joy.
Peace on each one who offers prayers;
Peace on each one who offers song.
Peace of the Maker, Peace of the Son,
Peace of the Spirit, the Triune One.
Lord, help us to see:
to see what is eternally good and true,
and having seen, to go on searching
until we come to the joys of heaven.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Gospel John 3:14-21
Jesus said, “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.”
Poem: “Snake Oil, Snake Bite” By Dilruba Ahmed
They staunched the wound with a stone.
They drew blue venom from his blood
until there was none.
When his veins ran true his face remained
Lifeless and all the mothers of the village
wept and pounded their chests until the sky
had little choice
but to grant their supplications.
God made the boy breathe again.
God breathes life into us, it is said,
only once. But this case was an exception.
God drew back in a giant gust and blew life into the boy
and like a stranded fish, he shuddered, oceanless.
It was true: the boy lived.
He lived for a very long time.
The toxins were an oil slick: contaminated, cleaned.
But just as soon as the women
kissed redness back into his cheeks
the boy began to die again.
He continued to die for the rest of his life.
The dying took place slowly, sweetly.
The dying took a very long time.
This passage from John contains one of the strangest moments in all the gospels, followed immediately by perhaps the most famous. “John 3:16” has become shorthand for the triumphant, universal proclamation of God’s act of love: giving eternal life through the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. In John, the ultimate revelation of God’s glory is the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross; those who can “see” this mystery and trust its truth receive the gift of salvation.
The sentence preceding it is not often remembered, and seldom understood, but it might offer an unexpected way of reflecting on the mystery of the cross. It refers back to a moment in the story of the desert (Numbers 21:4-9), when the children of Israel complain so much that God sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. When Moses prays on their behalf, God tells him to lift up an image of a snake as a sign. This is an example of what is known as “sympathetic apotropaic magic,” meaning that like protects against like, and wards off the harm. Magic is almost always condemned in Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but there is really no other way to understand this strange bit of scripture.
The poem offers another oblique way of reflecting on the mystery of God’s gift of life. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, the boy dies from a snake bite, and God answers prayer and restores him to life – not with sympathetic magic, but with a huge gust of wind like that of creation. Just like the rest of us the boy continues to move, for the rest of his life, towards death – but his life is sweet.
Questions for Reflection:
What is your own history with John 3:16? Has it been important to your faith life? Or off-putting? When you see it on billboards, or faces, how do you respond? Might you find, in this season of our common life, an invitation to revisit these words?
What images or moments in the poem do you find most gracious? How would you integrate the poem’s description of the boy’s restored life, “the dying took place slowly, sweetly,” with the inheritance of eternal life proclaimed by the gospel?
Does the strange comparison of the serpent in the wilderness with Jesus on the cross enhance your faith life in any way?
We bring before God someone whom we have met or remembered today
We bring to God someone who is hurting tonight and needs our prayer
We bring to God a troubled situation in our world
We bring to God, silently, someone whom we find hard to forgive or trust
We bring ourselves to God that we might grow in generosity of spirit, clarity of mind, and warmth of affection
We offer our thanks to God for the blessings in our lives
We name before God those who have died.
Gracious God, you hear all our prayers: those we speak aloud, those we hold in our hearts, and those prayers for which we have no words. Hear the prayers of your people, and grant them as may be best for us, for the sake of your holy name. Amen.
Accept our thanks for all you have done, O God. Our hands were empty, and you filled them.
May Christ’s holy, healing, enabling Spirit be with us every step of the way, and be our guide as our road changes and turns, and the blessing of God our Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life be among us now and remain with us forever. Amen.
Poem choice and reflections by Elizabeth Randall