Posted on Wed, Mar 18, 2015
March 15, 2015
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gospel Text: John 3:14-21 “The Problem is DOWN Here”
14 And just 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, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
If you were going to ask someone on the street to name any Bible verse from memory, more often than not, John 3:16 would be the verse they would remember. If you asked someone about the meaning for symbol for the American Medical Association, a serpent wrapped around a staff, they would most likely stand silent, or just ask, “what is the relationship between a serpent wrapped around a staff, and the art of healing?” After today, you will be able to answer that question and look real smart.
Israel is on the move in today’s Old Testament text, and they have taken a rather circuitous route around the land of Edom. At this time in the story, Israel has been traveling all over and they have been the recipients of God’s faithfulness and have witnessed, military victories and also in providing Moses to be their intermediate. And in today’s text, they seem to find something to complain about, after they have been brought out of slavery in Egypt and God has done for them everything and more than they seem to realize.
But the text seems feels far removed from twenty-first-century life. Surely God does not send poisonous snakes to punish human beings for their mistakes? Certainly just looking at a bronze snake does not cure a person from a poisonous snakebite. Where is the God with whom we feel safe and comfortable?
The Hebrews who wandered through the wilderness did not experience God as a safe and comfortable companion. In the great showdown with Pharaoh in Exodus 1-14, God sends ten vicious plagues to show the superiority of the God of Israel over Egypt’s gods, including Pharaoh, who made his own claims to divinity. On the way out of Egypt, God appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night, a sight that incites panic in the Egyptians (Exodus 13:21, 14:24). At Sinai, God thunders on the mountain in fire and smoke, terrifying the Israelites (Exodus 19:18, 20:18-1). These are not the images of God that call us to snuggle up in God’s everlasting arms, “safe and secure from all alarms,” as the old hymn goes.
Despite these great displays of God’s power, the Israelites seem to lack confidence that God will, in fact, deliver them into the Promised Land. It only takes three verses to move from their songs of triumph (Exodus 15:1-21) to their first grumbling (Exodus 15:24). In this week’s text from Numbers, the peoples’ complaint goes, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food (lechem) and no water, and we detest this miserable food (lechem)” (v. 5). In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too!
In the text of Numbers 21, the utterance of the complaint is immediately followed by the statement, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). Neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes BECAUSE the people complained. That causality does seem to be implied, especially because the people themselves name their “speaking against” God and Moses as the ultimate source of their suffering (v. 7). The narrative specifies that God sends the snakes, but never does either God or the narrator call the snakes a punishment; the people themselves draw that conclusion. The snakes aren’t the problem, the snakes were probably always there; the problem is the people BLAMING THE SNAKES FOR THEIR OWN PROBLEMS and faithlessness, even though God has blessed them time and time again.
God did not send the snakes because of their quarreling. Crying out to God in complaint is not usually condemned in Scripture; there is a whole genre of psalms that centers on complaint or lament! Of course, there are times in Scripture when “speaking against” God or God’s messenger does bring catastrophe. When Miriam and Aaron “speak against” Moses’ Cushite wife, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease (Numbers 12:1-16), and God’s anger is clearly described as the cause.
Even so, in this week’s reading, like the Israelites themselves, we are left to draw our own conclusions regarding our own snakes that seem to bite us everyday. Is God punishing the people or us with “snakes?” If God sent the snakes, then surely the people deserved it?! Otherwise there was no discernible reason, and if so, now this God is much less predictable, much less safe, than we ever could have imagined.
You can make any inference you want, but that is all you are doing, inferring something OR SOMEONE else is to blame for our brokenness, our suffering or other maladies. The snakes in our lives, the problems whether self generated or truly something that just attacks from the outside us like a job loss, cancer or broken relationship, these things happen. But God never intends these times of suffering because we sinned or complained against God. The question is, “to whom shall we go?” and it continues, “For you have Words of Eternal life, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”
The people in the text however, name their sin and then ask Moses to pray for them. This role as intermediary is what Moses does best: facilitating communication between God and God’s people. In this story, God does not give the people what they ask for. They want Moses to get God to “take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7); But the serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting, BECAUSE THE SNAKES ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. Instead, God instructs Moses on how to heal the people who are bitten; they are still bitten, but they live. Deliverance does not come in the way that they expect.
As twenty-first-century Christians it may take us out of our comfort zones to imagine God as a dangerous, unpredictable presence in our lives. Yet, if we claim that we’ve got God all figured out, then we have ignored the mystery and divine freedom with which God is characterized throughout much of Scripture. A domesticated, unmoving God does not pull a people out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land; no, we need a God who is, “on the loose!”
Moses “lifts up” a pole with a serpent on it and the people were healed. The snakes were still there, people are still bitten, but there is a path to healing and it is given through the instruction of God to Moses; they were healed when they look up at this raise serpent raised up.
The serpents of today, take on all kinds of colors, doubts, pains, disappointments, and fears. But as Jesus was raised, and subsequently raised from the dead, all who look upon Christ as the faithful one can find healing, grace or at least hope.
If there is a person, group or entity that you think is a serpent in your life, remember that God did not take them away, and the Gospel text reminds us “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. 17 ‘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.” This includes the serpents in our lives… Those people we may call snakes or serpents, are covered under the Good News that “God so love THE WORLD.” The question is, “What do we do with such love and the gift of God’s faithfulness?”
The Jesus that was raised up for our forgiveness and healing, is a promise for all people for all situations. Do we look upon the actions of our faithful God as a means of being healed or made whole again, or do we just continue to blame snakes, that are sometimes just part of God’s Creation.
One thing we do not do is to judge, reject and run away from our snakes. Through the Cross of Christ we have received blessing upon blessing, we have received the Spirit of Reconciliation and Hope, the problem is not the snakes, the problem is from within, and those issues may be very personal, but God is willing to take them to the cross, lift them up, and cast them away forever.
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