Second Sunday in Lent 2011

(John 3. 1-17)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope.” 

That would probably not be a bad description of Lent: we struggle with self-denial, we take up our Cross, in order to know and love Christ more nearly.  But it is not a description of Lent at all.  The line actually opens up Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.  That novel is a gripping tale of two cities, London and Paris, at the time of the French Revolution.  The vision that haunts both the characters of London and Paris is the guillotine, the tool of torture and beheading.  To where would you look, the novel asks, when faced with death?  The Christian faith, focused on the torture and violence of Jesus’ Cross every Lent, asks the same question: to where or what would you look as you take up your own cross?
One answer to the question of both the novel and Lent comes from an unsuspecting source in A Tale of Two Cities.  For me, the most enduring character of the novel is Sydney Carton.  Where Sydney looks when faced with death can say a lot to us. 
Sydney begins as a somewhat unappealing foil to the hero, Charles Darnay: while Charles is a virtuous French aristocrat, Sydney is a dissolute English barrister steeped more in alcohol than virtue.  Yet, both Charles and Sydney love the same woman, Lucie. 
As the novel unwraps, Charles finds himself facing death at the guillotine, his very own cross.  Through several dramatic turns, Sydney helps Charles escape but stays in his place so that no-one will discover that Charles is gone.  He does so because he knows that Lucie loves Charles; Sydney is willing to face death for her happiness. 
In the final pages of the novel, Sydney lines up, one of many who face the dreaded guillotine.  A young woman with him cannot bear to look at the instrument of their death.  Sydney tells her, “Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.”  As the line slowly passes through the murderous guillotine, as they get closer and closer to death, Sydney comforts the young girl with the hope of Christ and heaven.  As she too dies, Sydney hears this as he faces his own death, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord.”  Sydney sees and shares the life of Jesus as he faces the object of his death and dread, the guillotine, his cross. It may seem the worst of times, but it is also the best of times through God’s love, present even in the midst of death.  Sydney accepts and repeats the selfless love of Jesus’ Cross.
            What does A Tale of Two Cities have to say to us in light of today’s Gospel and this season of Lent?  Well, the key is in our opening line and the heroism of Sydney: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  That phrase can speak into our individual and communal circumstances.  To where or what do we look when faced with our cross, our guillotine, that which threatens our life?  How do we find the ‘best’ amidst the ‘worst’?  I would like to briefly think about our individual and communal lives in turn in light of these questions and today’s Gospel.
            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  We all have poisons in our individual lives that threaten to hurt us or those around us, to prevent the fullness of life that God wills for us.  These poisons can be anything: bad habits, depression, worry, unrelenting grief, negative emotions, or broken relationships.  For Sydney it was alcohol and despair. 
Jesus refers in the Gospel to his own death as a response to these poisons: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  The story Jesus refers to is from Numbers 21. 4-9: the Israelites feel stuck in the wilderness, rebel against God, and find themselves plagued by poisonous snakes.  In the story, Moses erects an image of that which threatens death – a copper snake -- and it miraculously saves their lives.  Confronting what hurts them actually heals them.  So too, when Jesus refers to this story, he says something like, ‘I will die for you, I will suffer with you, but I will also heal you’.  This Lent, Jesus encourages us to take up our cross, to face what poisons are in our lives and let them be transformed by his healing presence and Cross.  The best of times come out of facing the worst.
            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  All churches experience fear about their faith and identity, and modern social pressures can make us want to retreat from a public affirmation of faith.  We all get a sense from the press that faith is becoming marginalised.  Elsewhere, we feel squeezed.  Economic cuts have put tremendous, if not insurmountable pressure, on small business, libraries, university students, and beyond.   Dreams and desires of social mobility and personal development threaten to be squashed by political ideology.  Yet, so few Christians dare to speak of a different vision, a vision of God’s kingdom, the fullness of life, for fear of seeming foolish. 
In the Gospel today, Nicodemus, “a Pharisee…and leader of the Jews” comes to Jesus “by night.”  In other words, Nicodemus tries to escape the attention of others as he comes to Jesus.  Most probably Nicodemus is afraid, of ridicule, of misunderstanding, even of violence or death.  Jesus nudges Nicodemus along: we must be born “of water and the Spirit” to “enter the kingdom of God”.  Nothing else matters but receiving God’s power and unleashing it in the world.  Through baptism we become part of a beautiful story that lifts us up out of fear and into life: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  It may seem the worst of times to be public about our faith, but Jesus shows us that it is the best of times.  Be bold, be confident, be alive, Jesus seems to say.
            Where do we look, then, this Lent, amidst the good and bad of our lives?  Jesus, with his life and teaching, directs us to look at the Cross.  The Cross may seem to be about torture, death, and violence, but Jesus shows it to be about the release of gifts, life, and wholeness.  In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney has the confidence to look at his cross, the guillotine, and face it because of love and God.  May we be like Sydney.  This Lent, let the Cross of Jesus transform whatever poisons you, whatever fear holds you back, and whatever you do to others.  Amen.