When You Mess Up Big Time
(Lectionary Starters)

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
March 30, 2003
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
Jim Killen, Aminister of the United Methodist Church, Beaumont, TX

Have you ever realized that you have really messed up big time? If you have, you may be able to understand what is behind all of the Bible stories about Israel breaking their covenant with God and God renewing it. You see, those stories are really the stories of our lives.

I. Can you remember a time when everything in your life seemed to be falling apart because of something that was wrong in your life?

Don’t think now about a time when you said a cuss word or had a bad thought or played hooky from church and felt guilty about it. That is little stuff and the Christian Faith is about big stuff. Unless that little stuff is really a symptom of something bigger, you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

And don’t think about a time when your commitment to something right put you into conflict with something that was wrong. That is supposed to happen. Just be sure that is really what is happening and that you have not just hung that explanation on something else.

Think about the big, really bad, things that have happened in your life. Have you found yourself being chronically dissatisfied and unhappy because you have bought into our materialistic culture’s value system and forgotten how to be grateful for the gift of life that God has given you? Have you ever found yourself being constantly driven and frustrated and angry because of an obsession with some selfish ambition? Has that obsession caused you to neglect family and community and church and other things you know you ought to value? Have you chosen to cherish the bitterness of some past bad experience in a way that has soured your attitude toward everything – and everyone? Has your inability to give yourself in love caused you to hurt or to neglect those who need love from you – or has it caused you to impoverish your life by keeping all of your relationships shallow. That is the kind of wrongness that really does represent a violation of your covenant with God.

It is a little bit futile to ask those questions. Most of us keep pretending to ourselves about what is going on in our lives until some really big, bad experience forces us to reckon with the fact that we have really messed up – big time! So, unless you are already suspecting yourself of messing up and are on the verge of being ready to deal with it, just file the things we are going to say today away and remember them in case, or until, you realize that you need them.

Pay attention and be ready to recognize the times when the things that go wrong in your life are the results of your failure to let your life be shaped by a trusting and obedient relationship with God who loves you. That is what it means to “break the covenant”.

II. Much of the Bible’s story of God’s covenant with His people is a story of people breaking the covenant and God renewing it.

Our Old Testament lesson for today tells a story of a time when the people of Israel realized that they had messed up in a big way. God had set them free from slavery and God was leading them to nationhood in a new promised land of their own. God was guiding them and providing for them as they traveled through the wilderness. But instead of being grateful for what God had done and excited about what God had promised, they fell into complaining about the inconvenience and rebelling against the leadership. Then they found themselves being plagued by poisonous snakes. Somehow they realized that the plague was the result of their attitude – or at least that their attitude was cutting them off from the source of help. They repented and asked Moses to intercede with God. God provided a way through the crisis, a way that had to do with a symbolic bronze serpent lifted up on a staff. Time and again in the history of the people of Israel, the people broke their covenant and suffered the consequences but God reached out to forgive and to offer a new possibility.

This symbol of a serpent lifted up on a staff turns up again in the Bible in a surprising place. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of that symbol just before he gave a profound summary of the saving work that God was doing in Jesus, “God so loved the world…”.

III. What does all of that have to do with us?

If (or when) you realize that you have “messed up big time” by not letting your life be shaped by a trusting and obedient relationship with God, remember these things.

Even though you have turned away from God, God has not turned away from you. God forgives. God still loves you. God absorbs the cost of your wrongness. God is still reaching out to you as He reached out to the whole world in Jesus Christ.

Everything is not lost. You may not be able to undo the results of your wrongness, but God still holds out to you the possibility of a new life that is truly good.

It will not come easily or cheaply. It will require a total reorganization of your life. But the Spirit of the one who came in Jesus can lead you into a new kind of life shaped by trust for God’s love and obedience to God’s purpose – the life of the covenant.

At the end of that process, we will understand what the letter to the Ephesians means when it says, “By Grace you are saved through faith. . .” (Ephesians 2:1-10).

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