4th Sunday in Lent

April 2, 2000
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Numbers 21:4b-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 2:1-10
Reading 4: 
John 3:14-21
By David Roy

Looking at these texts though the lens of process theology reveals some intriguing themes for both preaching and pastoral care and counseling. My experience as a pastoral counselor also will be reflected in what catches my attention.

The verses in Numbers reflect the position we all find ourselves in when we are hit hard with destructive challenges. Our tendency is to feel powerless, afraid, and to blame others – in this case, Moses and God. We lose sight of our purpose, of our goals. The view of a punitive God in these passages is, however, in direct contrast with the process view of God’s nature. It reflects, instead, a tendency to interpret events to fit our mindset. The people dared to complain and then believed that this made them bad enough to be punished for it. Today, in general, we encourage people to express their honest feelings, even if their perceptions are inaccurate or incomplete. Yet even with this older view expressed in Numbers, this somewhat tribal God is moved to protect the people. The loving, caring, creative God of process theology can be found in that shift.

The passages from Psalm take these understands a step further. Instead of the blame being on a God who would send poisonous snakes, some of the people have made themselves ill because of what we today would call life-style habits. There still is the other understanding, of course, but this is being joined with this different perspective. More importantly, these verses stress over and over the understanding that when we reach out to God for help, that God responds to us in a healing, redeeming, life-giving fashion. The notion of a caring, life-giving, responsive God is at the heart of process theology.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author takes a similar view as the author of the psalm. We are ill, stuck, miserable, due to our own actions. We are responsible for our acts, for our decisions, for our conclusions. This is a key process view based upon the ontological understanding that each event is self-caused in the final analysis. Yet even though we are making serious mistakes, God does not abandon us. Instead, God is constantly reaching out to us to help us correct our mistakes, change our sinful ways. This is grace. This is unearned and in that sense, undeserved. This passage also reflects the unfortunate perspective that the body (flesh) is bad, a view which has had disastrous consequences for many generations of people. If this view is altered to assume that the concern is with immaturity, impulse control, lack of empathy, then it makes more sense and does not cause people to hate their bodies and their bodies’ many wonderful activities.

The Gospel of John hearkens back to the verses from Numbers, reminding the listeners how God came to the rescue in a time of great need. The redemptive, salvific nature of God is again emphasized. This clearly is in the spirit of the process view of God who works continuously to take the incompleteness of the given and offer new possibilities which will further God’s aim for the Common Good.

Yet, there are serious problems embedded in the perspective of these verses. From the perspective of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, these words reflect the view of the early Christian Church interpreting its understanding of Jesus’ prophetic ministry to an audience who had never met him. This results in an emphasis on Jesus as the only way to God instead of the nature of God as revealed through Jesus. This shift is witness to the powerful claim that Jesus had on these early followers. However, this also has resulted in a in a form of Jesus idolatry, where he is portrayed as God and worshiped as though he were God. This ends up being a barrier to our relationship with God while simultaneously making it much more difficult to personally identify with Jesus as a powerful model of ones relationship with God.

The distortion introduced by this shift also has contributed tragically to a powerful religious exclusiveness. This exclusiveness has been quite destructive in the relationship between Christians and followers of other faith traditions, not to mention destructive of the lives of countless human beings. This destructiveness unfortunately has climaxed around the Easter events with very negative repercussions toward the Jewish faith in particular. Yet the God who is revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus clearly is one who would oppose this bitterness and hatred. We in the Christian Church need to confess our sins at this time of year and to seek forgiveness from this loving and forgiving God.