A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Year B – 18 March 2012
by Eleanor Lee Wellford
From Exodus, chapter 20, verse 2: And God spoke these words through Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me. …You shall not make (idols for) yourself. You shall not… worship them…”
from Numbers, chapter 21, verse 8: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look (up at that serpent of bronze) and live.’”
Does anyone hear anything inconsistent in those two readings? In the first reading, God specifically commanded Moses and the Israelites not to make anything that could be used as an object of worship. Yet in the reading from Numbers, God suggested that Moses make a serpent of bronze and raise it up on a pole so that any person who had been bitten by a poisonous snake, could look up at that sculpture and be saved.
In my mind, gazing upon an object, especially one that is lifted up, in hopes of something mystical happening, seems like a form of idol worship. But as is true with any story, there is always a context in which to understand what is going on.
The context of both stories involved the way God and God’s chosen people, the Israelites, interacted with each other. Basically, the Israelites had a history of complaining and of having short memories. No sooner had they been freed from slavery in Egypt, than they began grumbling about wanting to go back there because life in the middle of the Sinai desert had become too hard for them. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in thelandofEgypt, when we (could eat) our fill of bread” they said (Exodus 16:3). And then they turned on their leader Moses and blamed him for their misfortunes. Hearing their complaints, God responded by giving them water to drink and “manna” or bread from heaven to eat.
Then, when they arrived at themountainofGod, Moses climbed up to receive the gift of God’s commandments. When he didn’t return as soon as expected, the Israelites began to complain that Moses was taking too long with God. They said: “This Moses, the man who brought us up out of thelandofEgypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). So, in defiance of God’s commandment, Moses’ brother, Aaron, helped the people melt down their gold and mold it into the shape of a calf to which they presented burnt offerings and sacrifices. As angry as God seemed to be about this, Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites and God relented by restoring His covenant with them.
When the Israelites finally came to the land that God had promised to them, they sent spies to scope it out before marching in to claim thelandofCanaanas their own. The spies became frightened by the strength of the people already living there and complained to Moses about it. Soon after that they encountered fiery, deadly serpents and blamed God for it. Once again, Moses interceded on their behalf and once again, God relented by endowing a bronze sculpture with healing powers.
Without knowing the context of that serpent story, I was sure that the Israelites had offended God by worshiping that sculpture. Put into its proper context, I realized that it was all part of a pattern of behavior that characterized the relationship between God and God’s people – one of complaint, anger, intercession, relenting and repenting.
And of course that pattern of behavior didn’t begin or end with the Israelites. It is ingrained in the nature of all human beings which is why there is plenty for us to learn from these ancient stories.
And Jesus thought there was plenty to learn from them, too, which is why we heard a reference to that bronze serpent in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel. The context of this reference also involved complaining. This time it was the Pharisees and they were complaining about Jesus. Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, came to visit Jesus but he came at night because he didn’t want the other Pharisees to know what he was doing. He was probably tired of hearing the complaining and maybe wanted to learn something about who Jesus was and what he was doing.
The answers Jesus gave to Nicodemus were framed in terms of the Kingdom of heaven. And his mention of how no one can see it “without being born from above” (John 3:3) was at best, confusing to Nicodemus. And then we heard how Jesus predicted his own death by mentioning how the Son of Man, who comes from heaven, “must be lifted up (just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness) so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). That too may have been confusing to him.
Hearing the reference to Moses, however, would have connected the past to the present in Nicodemus’ mind. He was a teacher of the scriptures and by hearing the phrase “lifted up”, he would have remembered how the Israelites had been saved. We hear the phrase “lifted up” and immediately connect it to Jesus being lifted up on a cross – which brings to mind that same connection of being saved.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites who looked up at the serpent were saved from the death of a serpent’s bite; and in John’s gospel, all those who “believe” in Jesus will be saved from the “sting of death.” The difference is that it’s not enough to simply gaze up at heaven and wish for something mystical to happen. We have to live a life as Jesus did in which he never doubted or forgot God’s involvement in it.
The Israelites knew that God was involved in their lives but began to complain when they thought God was taking too long to intervene, or was intervening in the wrong way, or had simply forgotten about them for awhile. It made them lose sight of what they were doing and where they were headed and the same thing happens to us. The Israelites were looking forward to the land God has promised them, yet lost sight of it when things didn’t go their way. The Jews were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah yet lost sight of who that was when Jesus didn’t act the way they expected a Messiah to act.
It’s important to see the connections and to understand the context of the stories told in the Bible so that we don’t lose sight of how God is involved in our lives. How do we actually recognize God’s involvement? Is it direct or subtle? Is it proactive or reactive? Is it constant or intermittent? Did God actually send those fiery serpents to the Israelites as a way of punishing them for their complaining or did it just seem that way? Or did it simply make for a good story to help them explain and understand their relationship with God?
These basic theological questions are appropriate to ponder anytime, but especially during Lent. The Israelites saw a direct correlation between God and what was happening to them. When things were going their way or they were victorious, they thought that God was rewarding them; when they were suffering or defeated, they thought God was punishing them. The prophets, whom God raised up, tried to add another dimension to their thinking by holding up a mirror toIsrael’s collective face so they could see who was really to blame for what was happening to them and to be accountable for it. I’m not so sure we don’t need the same thing.
The good news is that Jesus is that mirror to us, but he’s more than that. He not only allows us to see who we really are but is always the means to our salvation for the sin we see in that mirror. It’s the same old pattern of behavior that has always marked the relationship between God and us, and it is what sent Jesus to his death. Yet even from the cross, Jesus interceded on our behalf, asking God to forgive us. And once again, God relented. But this time it was different. Through Jesus, God restored us to Himself; and not just one more time, but once and for all.