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There Be Dragons

nicodemusJohn 3: 1-17
Numbers 21: 4-9
Introduction to the reading

We begin with a well-known story - the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee and teacher, Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the dark of night for some private instruction. Jesus lets Nicodemus know that he is in the dark in more ways than one.

Verse 14 is a reference to the story from Numbers that you heard earlier. Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to bring healing to people of Israel who had been bitten by one of the poisonous snakes (a reference to the serpent in Genesis, no doubt), so the lifting up of Jesus on the cross will bring healing, restoration and eternal life to all people.

At the beginning of the second century – and so, not long after the apostle Paul was writing his letters to the early churches trying to explain Jesus - the Greek scholar Plutarch wrote his famous Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. This work was a series of biographies of famous men - soldiers, legislators, orators and statesmen – in which he sought to show the influence of their character – good or bad – upon social history in the ancient world.
Plutarch’s work is a treasure trove of information about that ancient world. He writes what he knows to be real facts about real people. He definitely does not want to venture into any area of uncertainty. “Beyond this probable reasoning and real history,” he writes, “there is nothing but… fictions; the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” (Wikipedia)

Plutarch writes biography like the mapmakers of his time drew maps. The “geographers,” he says, “crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or frozen sea”. There be dragons in places not yet explored. And Plutarch, like the mapmakers, did not go there.

The custom of labeling uncharted territory as the place where dragons live persisted well into the 16th century. On those early maps, once the cartographer got to the edge of what he knew, you would see images of sea monsters and mythical creatures with the notation: Here be dragons.

Here be dragons – unexplored, uncharted, dangerous chaotic waters. Dark and fearsome places. Not anymore, of course. We now know all the places on earth there are to know. Some are more forbidding, harder to get to, harder to live in, but we know the earth now. And so we explore outward into the universe, downward into the oceans, and inward into the human body with a spirit of adventure and awesome wonder. But we know better than to mark any place with “there be dragons.”

But Jesus ventures into this dragon world. Because Jesus knows that on the maps of our individual lives, there are places where “there be dragons.” Places we don’t understand and that we’re afraid of; places we don’t want to go, dark places of suffering and pain, anxiety and distress; places of evil and places of sinfulness; places of dark despair and loneliness: the emergency room, the operating table; the courtroom, the jail; the battlefield, the back alley; the unemployment office, the confessional, the AA meeting; even something like There be dragons for our time.

Just one side note here. I do not believe that all suffering is God’s punishment for evil ways, as happened in the story in Numbers: First, The people spoke against God and against Moses… Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people so that many Israelites died.

I believe that suffering and evil exist, period. Sometimes we are punished for causing it to happen, for we do impose evil upon one another. We do, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. That’s why we have a justice system and that’s why we have a Prayer of Confession.

But not always. For everyone undergoes some kind of suffering in their lifetime. Everyone knows there be dragons.

But I think what the story in Numbers does tell us is that deliverance from dragons is found by looking at the image of the very thing that frightens us and threatens to do us in. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” The dragon is brought out into the light for everyone to see; and everyone who is brave enough to look at it face-on is healed and thereby also forgiven.

You can see the connection to Jesus on the cross. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross for all to see offers healing, forgiveness, hope, comfort, restoration and eternal life to everyone who is brave enough to shine light into the places where there be dragons. As John writes in the very beginning of his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

Because, you see, God has loved us all from the very beginning – those Israelites who complained all the way across the wilderness; down through all the centuries as we kept on discovering and mapping the created world and our human place in it; until us, in this place on this very day.

It comes down to that familiar passage that ended the reading for today:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Even from those places where there be dragons. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
March 11, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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