4th Sunday in Lent, year B, 2015 (preached 3/15/15)
first reading: Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
second reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
gospel reading: John 3:14-21
Some people have the mistaken belief that people in the Bible were all righteous and wonderful, always doing the right thing. That our heroes of faith were beyond reproach. They would be WRONG. The truth is that the people of the Bible, with very few exceptions, were seriously flawed, just like you and me.
In our first reading we have Moses and the people, freed from bondage in Egypt, but still wandering in the wilderness looking for their new home.
Moses is NOT the Charlton Heston of the “Ten Commandments.” Moses was not full of himself, confident to the point of arrogance. Moses grew up persecuting his own people, though he didn’t know it at the time. He was an exiled murderer, who when called back to free his people, begged not to go.
And the nation that ultimately followed him out of Egypt was certainly no better. They were impatient, sick of traveling, sick of the food God was providing, sick of Moses and sick of God.
The people start openly complaining. And in their complaints they sound like children. In one breath saying there is NO food, but in the next acknowledging yes, there IS food, they just don’t like it. They “detest” the “miserable” food!
And in an extraordinary statement of mistrust in God’s desire to care for them, they ask, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to DIE?”
These words become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, because we read that the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they DID start to die. Then they repent and ask Moses to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away.
What follows is VERY interesting. The Lord does NOT take the serpents away. What the Lord DOES give the people is a way to DEAL with the serpents.
And it gets even more interesting. Because the way the Lord tells Moses to deal with the serpents is to confront them head on. Get bit by a serpent? Look to the serpent to live. Look at the very thing that wants you dead, and you will survive. Wow.
It seems wrong. But in reality we do it quite often. Vaccinations contain bits of the diseases we’re trying to avoid. In chemotherapy we accept poisons into our bodies to fight the deadly cancer. And if we ARE ever bitten by a dangerous snake or spider, the cure we’re given really is from the venom that wants to kill us.
So when we’re going through something and we feel angry or lost because we’ve prayed for God to take it away, and it seems like God’s answer is no, perhaps our answer is somewhere else, in finding a way to COPE with what we’re going through.
After all, I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – God NEVER promised us an easy life. What God HAS promised is that we’re never alone in it.
Again, God didn’t take away the serpents, the means of death – God gave the people a way to cope – to overcome.
And God has done the EXACT same thing in Jesus.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus makes a direct reference to our first reading. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus becomes the serpent, and the cross becomes the pole.
God’s answer is not a way to escape the ultimate enemy of death, but a way to OVERCOME it. To look at what wants to kill us, and not only survive, but live forever.
Serpents have had a bad name throughout history, starting from the beginning – LITERALLY. In the garden of Eden the serpent was described as, “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” (Gen. 3:1)
“Crafty” in this instance does NOT mean good with arts and crafts! The definition of crafty is “clever at achieving one’s aims by indirect or deceitful methods.” As a result of the serpent’s actions towards Eve and Adam, God proclaims the serpent to be “cursed among all animals.”(Gen. 3:14)
Jesus becomes the serpent. Jesus becomes cursed above all for you and me.
Through Jesus we are given the same way to overcome that which wants us DEAD.
In our sin we detest the miserable food of life – the fact that we can’t get everything we want when we want, what our neighbors have that we don’t. We set unreasonable expectations for those we love so that we end up detesting them. We detest God for commanding us to love one another when hate and apathy are so much easier.
And if left to our own devices the serpent of sin will multiply our misery and we WILL die. As Paul wrote in our second reading, (paraphrase), we were dead through our trespasses and sins.
We’ve been bitten. We’re drowning in the venom. It infects every cell of our bodies.
But then Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us ALIVE together with Christ…”
God says, “Look to Jesus and live.” Jesus overcomes for us what we CANNOT overcome on our own.
He becomes the serpent for you and me so that he may defeat the enemy that wants to devour us – the enemy of sin and death.
Just like with Moses, it may not always be what we ask for – but in reality, it is INFINITELY better.