To help or to harm


Hurry up and wait



John 3:1-17

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode′mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


To help or to harm

Sermon given on 20 March 2011 by The Rev. Jon Roberts

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Venice, Florida

Moses raises the serpent on the Cross,

Stained glass at St. Marks Gillingham, Kent 1864

To help or to harm, O Lord,

Who is to say?

Having power to cure and to kill,

Teach us your Law wisely,

So that we may not go astray.

A minister parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city because he was short of time and couldn’t find a space with a meter. So he put a note under the windshield wiper that read: “I have circled the block 10 times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment.


When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note. “I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket, I’ll lose my job.


Last week was the first Sunday in Lent and we recited the Decalogue, those ten lawful commandments, brought down by Moses so long ago. Together, they are considered to be the "Law." All of them relate to trespasses and temptations. So long ago, Moses brought the Law down. Today we see a picture of him raising it up. By looking at it, one might wonder if the Law is portrayed as something intended to cure or to kill.

On the southeastern shoreline of England, there is a church in Gillingham, Kent and there you will see this picture. The church is St. Marks; It is the evangelical church in Gillingham. After circling the block a few times, you park your car. You look up and marvel at the brick exterior buttresses, slated roof and stained glass windows. You anticipate going inside where you hear the music, but of the kind quite different than what you'd expect. Inside, you hear drums and electric guitars. There are rhythmic vocalists and people swaying back and forth. Many have their hands raised and some speak out in random. Casually dressed hosts warmly greet you. Walking a third of the way down the aisle you can see video projections of the music on two of the walls ahead.

Magnificent archways are lined to the left and right all the way up to the beautiful altar rail. Behind the rail, and up two steps, is a magnificent altar with an engraving of the Bethlehem scene. After your senses have taken it all in, after the opening hymns and readings; after the lengthy sermon, you catch a glimpse of the picture in the stained glass window on the far wall behind the altar. It is the picture of Moses holding up a staff, with a large serpent affixed onto a wooden cross. One person with lesions is portrayed lying on the ground, reaching up with his hand towards the serpent. Another person is turned away and holds a live snake in his hand, about to strike. There is a mother holding her child and reaching out as well. A snake is on the ground threatening them. This is the scene of the Israelites who were led out of Egypt. What is the significance of those snakes? Why does it seem one is there to help yet another is there to hurt?

Anyone who makes a Holy Lent is all too familiar with their sinfulness. We feel the pain like the man with the lesions. We feel fear like the man in danger. We feel helpless like the mother and child in harm's way. We are tempted to give in to our pain, fear and helplessness, but these are like the snakes, striking at our heels. Some, whose venom, penetrates and poisons; All consuming. Moses had the image of the thing, which consumed the people, raised up so that they would not lose hope. He raised it up as if to say God's law has conquered the very thing that causes their death. With the ark of the commandments in front of the procession, followed by the serpent staff, the visual was the Law would lead them out of death. Hundreds of thousands would physically be led through the wilderness by these two images.

Picture if you will, that you were like one who followed Abram or one who followed Moses or even yet, one who followed Jesus. Called to leave your comfort zone, to leave your home country, all that you really have packed is your faith, as you set your eyes on God. Everything is new terrain and a little scary. How will you survive? How will you tarry? What can we lift up when in the low country of our life? Where is our hope? Is it in a graven image? Is it in the Ten Commandments? This is where Nicodemus may help. He is our contemporary example of one who taught all hope was in the image and commands of the Torah. He had written too many tickets to those who failed to keep God's commands and feared of losing his job. He knew there was a disconnect. That is why he went to find Jesus in the cloak of night. "I don't understand, how can the law be broken and yet someone still be saved? How can a person be born again?" Perhaps we are one like Nicodemus, well- stocked with knowing the letter of the Law, yet forgetting to live by the Spirit of the Law, which is of greater consequence. We may circle the block many times, hoping to be forgiven for our weaknesses, but we trespass when consumed by our sin, and fail to live by faith.

By faith in God, Abram built and raised the image of an altar; It was intended to teach us about making sacrifice. By faith in God, Moses fashioned and raised the image of a snake; It was intended to teach us life can be painful. By faith in God, Jesus lived and died, and was raised up on a Cross. This was intended that we might be born again; That we will not perish but have everlasting life.

God's Law is always raised up in Jesus Christ. Set forth to help and not to harm. so that we do not go astray.


Hurry up and wait

Sermon given on 17 February 2008 by The Rev. Jon Roberts

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Venice, Florida

Visit of Nicodemus to Christ by John La Farge, 1880

“Hurry up and Wait” is one way in which to characterize our life on earth.

It’s also an old army slogan, used to describe what happens in the service. You march along quickly to one position, only to be told once you get there, to wait, until further notice. You do not have to serve in the army to realize life is a series of hurrying up and waiting moments; pointing to a future expectation and yet placed in a present reality.   


When arriving in a southwest Florida, coastal town, a parishioner approached a newly ordained deacon, wishing him well, and welcoming him to what he called, “God’s waiting room.” It takes time for a statement like this to really take hold. One could say this is an expectation of what lies ahead. Or, one could say the emphasis is what lies on the surface. Why does this have to be an either/or situation? How come it can’t be both as the parishioner suggests? Hurrying to get somewhere, yet figuring out what to do in the meantime, is something all of us go through at one time or another.

Once there was a man named Patrick who experienced this. He lived in the foothills of the cascade mountains, in the small town of Yacolt, Washington. The scenery was picturesque. From his bed, Patrick could see across the meadows and every day he watched the horses he and his wife owned, as they tromped and grazed through the lush grass. But for a long time he felt that this place was a waiting room. He felt this way because of a forklift accident he suffered a few years before his planned retirement. On top of this, a pair of strokes worsened his situation. Life, before, seemed to be on a fast course until all of this happened. Now, he didn’t care much about anything. Living had become an effort, not a joy. Living had become a dreary chore.

A sharp pain shot through his leg at that moment, and that is when he heard the car pull up. He didn’t bother to look because he just assumed it was his wife Marilyn, and it was. With a big smile on her face, she popped into the bedroom, not even bothering to ask him how he was feeling. Instead she said, “Hi honey” and thrust in front of him a big hunk of wood. “Make me a fish”, she said. “A what,” Patrick asked. “Lord, I think you have lost your mind.” She went on. “I was in town and came across this man who carved things out of wood.”; birds, people, fish, you name it. This piece of wood cost me nearly forty dollars. We’re tight with money, but the thought just came to me. I know how much you always wanted to go fishing, now make me a fish.” Unrelenting, she put it on his bed. It just stared at him for days. He began to wonder, “How am I going to carve anything, when I can’t even get out of bed?”

The next day he finally mustered up the strength, and made it all the way to his garage, finding his sander. Taking the wood in his hands, he put it in the vice and went to work. He followed the grain, enjoying the sense of its smooth touch; the smell of the sanded off dust. Suddenly he found something he could do a little bit at a time. By the end of the week he found his pace. Hurrying up when he had the strength and waiting as he needed breath, he found a new chore in life; one that wasn’t so dreary. Watching the horses out of his window for the longest time from his waiting room, he never thought or dreamed he would ever earn a living with his arms and legs again. He once thought, “What good am I?” Now, three years later, his highly prized and sought after carved salmon, gives him a different kind of living. He believes these carvings are just outward and visible signs, of something that is inward and spiritual. They give him an understanding of who he is, and to whom he belongs. Like the fish he is reminded that sometimes you will have to swim upstream, against the current, against all the forces that can weaken you.

We all wish to feel what it is like to truly live; to be alive, as if we were just born, coming into something new for the first time. People don’t always understand life’s difficulties, like depression, until they’ve gone through it themselves. People like Patrick who knew what it was like to live an active life, may suddenly have a difficult choice, learning “How to wait” once again.

Like it can be for the newborn baby, first beginnings can come with great fear, as we are reminded by the Psalmist, “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him on those who wait upon his love.”[1] We should come to realize that the fear is not about what the Lord will take away from us now or the future expectation of what lies ahead in heaven. The fear comes from forgetting to live by faith. By our faith, God carves us out, shapes us upon his promise. That big hunk of wood thrust out in front of us, is that promise. It is the shape of the cross.

In the hurry up and wait of our own lives, what do we see through the window of our own waiting room? Does life spring out of us, imagining what is beneath the purple veil of a long-fasting, long-suffering period of Lent? Faith brings forth the expectation of what is to come and what can be; the shape and outline of Christ who takes his time with us, without hurry, and then calls us to follow him, without wait.

We hurry to the words, “For God so loved the world”, believing in Him, but we wait for that promise, “you shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” On that hunk of wood, thrust before us, is the pain and suffering that he too had to endure just like ours, collectively; entirely. When Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” He was giving notice for what was to come.[2] To be born again is something that should be ongoing in each of us every day. We should choose to believe in the future promise, as well as to live in the present reality with a holy patience and a ready, “can-do” approach to life. This position is most helpful in the midst of our pain and suffering.

Like Abraham, we are to make our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for what we have; asking God to shape us through the moments when we get stuck, idling in our woes. God leads us through the dark valleys; through the shadow lands of our personal wilderness. Find joy by allowing him to fashion you, shaping and carving your heart’s desire to be born again; to be fully loved.

Always know where you’re going, put your trust in Jesus to lead you, and always be prepared to hurry up and wait.


[1] Psalm 33:18

[2] John 3:1-17

© 2012. Black & White Chi Rho Ministries 

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