Lifting Up Our Contradictions – A Sermon On John 3:14-21

Sermon, John 3:14-21, Numbers 21:4-9, Contradictions, Lent 4B
By JoTB - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28773391

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Sermon, John 3:14-21, Numbers 21:4-9, Contradictions, Lent 4B
Brass Serpent Monument, Mt. Nebo, by JoTB – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the funniest and most terrifying aspects of my life are my self-contradictions – the contradictions with which I live, the contradictions that live within me. My wife would probably say they are more aggravating and frustrating than funny.

Most days my life is a living contradiction between what I say and what I do, what I think and what I say, the values I claim to hold in my life and the way I live my life. 

Let me give you some examples.

  • My wife and I are starting a diet. We want to eat better and lose a little weight but, I don’t want to be hungry and I want to eat what I want. 
  • I claim my marriage is a priority and I want to have more time with my wife but I still work the same hours and my calendar is as full as it’s ever been.
  • Sometime I pray with deep faith and commitment, and other times I don’t know why or to whom I pray.
  • Sometimes I preach the truth of the gospel with courage and conviction holding nothing back. Other times I back off the truth because I‘m afraid and I want to be liked and approved of by you. 
  • Too often, as St. Paul puts it, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) 
  • There are days when I believe Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, and other days when I’m not so sure. I’m like that guy who cries out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
  • Do you remember the rich young man who asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to sell everything and give the money to the poor. But he was unwilling or unable to do that and left grieving. Sometimes I want my life to change and be different but I don’t want to do the work, be uncomfortable, or actually have to change.

My guess is you know these kind of contradictions in your life too. I don’t think they’re unique to me. Have you ever told a lie and then felt terrible because you know that’s not who you are or how you want to live? You knew you had contradicted your own values. 

How many of us have said one thing and then done the very opposite? We teach our kids the golden rule and then speak about or treat another in ways we would never want for ourselves. And sometimes we post it on Facebook so others can comment on and like our self-contradictions. 

How many times have you said, “On the one hand … but on the other hand …” and you just didn’t know which you wanted or was right? You were divided, of two minds. Have you ever continued living your life as it was knowing it was not the life you wanted, that it lacked meaning, that there was more?

What other contradictions do you live with? What other contradictions live within you? In what ways is your life today a living contradiction? 

If you recognize contradictions in your life then today’s scriptures are for you. They present us with several images of living contradictions. 

Do you remember the contradiction in our reading from the Old Testament (Numbers 21:4-9)? It’s the snake. Does the snake take life or does it give life? Yes. The venom and the anti-venom, the poison and the medicine, are both present. The snake that bites and kills is also the snake that heals and gives life. We all know that snake in our lives. 

Think about a time or circumstance in your life about which you’ve said, “I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, and I never want to go through that again.” They are times and experiences our life falls apart and is put back together again in ways we never could or would have imagined. It’s hitting bottom only to discover the bottom is a spring board back up. It’s those times when we say, “It’s killing me to do this,” and yet we somehow trust that killing is not the end but the start of new life and the possibility of more life. 

And in today’s gospel (John 3:14-21) Jesus sets out contradictions between those who believe and those who do not, those who come to the light and those who love darkness, those who do what is true and those who do evil.

I want us to be careful here. I don’t think Jesus is setting out those contradictions with the idea that we are to categorize ourselves and others. Which ones are you? Which ones am I? Aren’t we really both at the same time? That’s my experience. What about you?

I used to think those contradictions were a simple choice, an either/or situation, this or that. I no longer think that. I think it’s about more than simply making the right moral choice. It’s more a both/and reality and less an either/or reality, more this and that and less this or that. 

The truth is sometimes I believe and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I seek the light and other times I want the darkness. Sometime I do the truth and other times I don’t. And I wonder if that’s true for you too. I wonder if it’s both at the same time in your life too.

Most of the time I want to deny, ignore, or turn away from the contradictions in my life. They are not easy to look at. They remind me what really matters and is most important to me, and the ways I’ve forgotten that. They let me know I’ve gotten off track. They’re often painful. They hold things before me I don’t want to see. They ask changes of me I don’t want to make. They reveal my wounds, fears, and limitations. They remind me that sometimes I settle for easy and superficial solutions. 

But what if contradictions are the tension in which we all live? And what if that tension isn’t what pulls us apart but what holds us together? What if every contradiction is a sacrament with outward and visible signs or actions pointing to inward and spiritual graces? What if every contradiction is a messenger telling us about a deeper truth?

What if we were to lift up the contradictions in our lives and take a look at them? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). This lifting up is about more than a snake on a pole or Jesus on the cross. This is the lifting up our contradictions.  

Whatever forms our contradictions might take they are ultimately about the contradiction between life and death. Each contains the other. The serpent that poisons also heals. The cross that kills is also the tree of life. Every life will end in death and every death holds a new life. That’s the contradiction lifted up before us today.

And I wonder what that looks like in your life today? I’ve told you some of my self-contractions, what are yours? What if we used Lent as a time to lift up our contradictions – to listen, pay attention, and look deeper? What might the contradictions in your life be asking of you today? What new ways of seeing and living are they offering you?

13 comments

  1. Our lives, especially mine, are full of contradictions. Like the saying “Damn if you do..damn if you don’t ” . Your reflection on this area is very eye opening. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aleth, we are all full of contradictions. Maybe contradictions are the way of God – humans were created with the breath of God and mud of the earth, God causes the great flood and then promises to never do that again, Jesus is divine and human, Mary is virgin and mother, the Trinity is one and three.

      God’s peace and blessings be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  2. Your words are just what my reality needed during this time of “celebrating” the one year anniversary of a quarantine lock down in my senior independent living community. Safe yet stifling, necessary yet frightening, trying to be grateful yet falling into despair, living yet dying. The both/and concepts give me hope and I am so grateful for your message.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Beautifully said Bonnie, thank you. I am so glad the sermon gave you hope. It sounds like you are doing good work with your contradictions and that they are doing good work in your – holy Easter kind of work.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  3. Fr. Michael, this sermon, as so many over the last years, has given me pause as it fed my spirit. I understand this “living in between” and the toll it can take if one thinks he/she has to be the forger of their salvation. I’ve accepted and settled on trying to do the best I can with what I have, to work within this moment, at this time, in this place and to trust in God’s mercy, gifts and graces to let the act of Salvation play out in my life. I can’t script the path to Salvation because I’ve never written a script that turned out in my life as I wanted it to. Your openhearted sermons help me to put the pen in my head down and just l live as I can best love. Don’t always succeed, but I believe God lives with that. Thank you for the gift of your shared life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Frank, there is so much grace and space in your words. Thank you. I too know about that script writing. “To put the pen in my head down and just live as I can best love.” That’s a phrase and insight I’ll hang on to. Thank you for that.

      God’s peace and blessings be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  4. I always see myself in your self-revelations. Just this week, I talked with my sister, who rarely calls and usually says something hurtful about my kids or me. Instead of calling her out, I try to say just a little bit about what she says, like “I guess that’s another way to approach it”, and leave it there. It’s more important to me to get the occasional call, or return call, than to get into an argument and lose those calls. And when we hang up, I’m angry that I let her get away with it, but relieved that I didn’t say something that would have her decide it’s not worth calling anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our self-contradictions come in so many ways. And always they are revealing something to us even as they ask for something from us. They often push us to look deeper and see what really matters.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  5. Father Mike,
    I have so much to say about this but the words defeat me!! 😉
    Thank you for once again preaching to the heart of MY matters and giving me pause. Your reflections inspired a bit of self-compassion along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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