Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snakes On A Journey: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Lent 4, Lectionary Year B: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. (Numbers 21:7)

A few years back, a film appeared with the rather squirmy title, "Snakes on a Plane". I never watched it. I find air travel arduous enough at the best of times, but the idea of a confined plane cabin infested with snakes, even despite the heroic presence of Samuel Jackson, was simply too unappealing.

In today's first lesson, from Numbers, could be titled "Snakes on a Journey". At the time of this reading, which is about two thirds of the way through the book of Numbers, the Israelites have been in the wilderness for many years since being led out of Egypt. It has been so long, and the journey so difficult, that they have forgotten that their time in Egypt was actually a time of slavery. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?", they complain to Moses. From their perspective, slavery now looks like job security, food, and shelter. At least they had a good place to live.

The Israelites are so cranky and so hopeless that they cannot recognize their blessings. Not only have they forgotten what God did for them years ago, they've forgotten what God has done for them recently. Manna from the heavens? Are you kidding? "We detest this miserable food," they tell Moses. Get us something better to eat! Get us someplace good!

There is something more profound going on here than just a bunch of whining. For those familiar with the Old Testament narrative, the misbehaviour of the Israelites in the wildnerness is part of a larger pattern. Forgetting God's promises, making idols and trusting in them, breaking God's laws, turning against and killing his prophets -- God's chosen people do all of these things, even after they reach the promised land. The story of God's love and faithfulness is always counterpointed in scripture with the chronic persistence of God's people in going off course and screwing up.

Any parent who has tried to keep driving the family car on a long road trip, with querolous and cranky voices coming from the back, may sympathize, if not with God, then at least with Moses. Poor Moses is the guy who has to hold the whole journey together, even pleading with God not to wipe out the whole bunch (Num 14:13-19). However, our ability to relate with God in this passage is probably limited, since the poor parent trying to get the ungrateful kids to the promised land of the family vacation can't pull over and kill them. God, in contrast, "sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died" (Num 21:6).

Elizabeth Webb, in her commentary on this passage, asks the question that many listeners in church are probably thinking, namely, what does the business with the snakes say about the character of God? To return to my analogy of the family car trip, no parent, however frazzled, would toss a poisonous serpent into the back seat to punish the cranky kids. Webb notes that God's punishment is not arbitrary; it is rooted in the covenant that God makes with his chosen people, as we heard in last Sunday's lesson from Exodus 20:1-7. That passage begins with the words "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me". Seen in this context, the complaints to Moses are not mere kvetching; they are a radical denial of God's work of liberation and of God's faithfulness. The complainers are those who anticipate the one's in John's gospel today who "have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (Jn 3:18).

Webb's answer to this problem is twofold. First, while God's law may seem harsh to us, to use a word that emerged in today's sermon/bible study at our small chapel, it is just. God's act of creation, like his promise never to destroy the world and his promise to Abraham, may have been unilateral. His covenant with his people is bilateral. God's righteousness is balanced with his justice, and justice entails judgement. The writers of the Old Testament never denied God his rights of judgement and punishment. Likewise, they do not deny God his capacity to show mercy. As Webb notes, "God does not remove the snakes, but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger. God brings healing precisely where the sting is the worst."

When Jesus predicts at the beginning of our gospel passage that he will be lifted up like Moses' snake, he is predicting his own death, as he did in last Sunday's reading about Jesus comparing his body to the Temple (Jn 2:13-22). In some ways, nothing has changed from Numbers. God's people still continue to doubt, disbelieve and rebel against him. God's right to judgment and punishment continue. God continues to waive that right and show mercy. But in another way, everything has changed. The bronze serpent was an emblem of mercy, but it did not change the fact that there were snakes on the journey. The human condition of sin and death did not change. In that respect, the poisonous snakes are symbolic. God could have chosen scorpions, or lightning bolts, or even falling pianos, but the snakes are a reminded of the original serpent in Genesis, the source of sin and death that wars with God's creation. In replacing the bronze serpent on the staff with his broken body on the cross, Jesus I think changes the equation. By taking the serpent out of the picture and replacing it with himself, Jesus points to the new order shortly to be innagurated with his resurrection. In this new order, which we get a foretaste of after Easter, there is no room for snakes, or sin, or death. After Easter, we see the beginning of the road back to the Garden.

That post-Easter road is a long one, to be sure. It is a road as long as the history of the church, as long as the span of our lives, as long as the longest moment of crisis and despair we may experience. Redemption, salvation, resurrection, call them what you will, may seem like the promised land to Moses' people, a thing spoken of but so far away as to seem impossible to believe in. I don't want to say that you just have to believe in the happy ending, for that would seem trite. What I would say is simply to remember the cross. In choosing to become the cure for all that is wrong with us and with the world, Jesus chooses to stand with and to become one of those who suffer. The famous promise of John 3:16 needs to be seen within this context, that Jesus is God's answer to a world that suffers and disbelieves. The cross is not a short-term answer to suffering. Like the people of Moses who looked to the bronze serpent after they were bitten, we will still be wounded and hurt. But we will not die. The cross is the promise of that, and the promise that, at the end of this road, there will be no snakes.

1 comment:

Vic M said...

Yes, Yes and Amen. Thanks Brother.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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