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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lifted High

Mistrust of God: that is the problem, then and now.  We grumble and we sin, but we look to the cross and find salvation there in Christ's healing love for the whole world and for us.

Vicar Erik Doughty, Fourth Sunday in Lent, year B; texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

A Lenten sermon, in eight words:


The text for today is one of the stranger stories in our Bible.  The people of Israel have been freed from slavery by God, led by Moses.  They have left Egypt, but are not yet in the promised land.  At many points along their journey in the wilderness outside Egypt, God has provided food and water for them.  At many points along their journey, God has defeated those who wished to harm them.  They have been saved and fed and re-saved and re-fed time after time.

And the people also have messed up.  They have broken the commandments God gave them to live by, time after time; they have not trusted God; and each time there are unpleasant consequences; and they repent; or Moses prays and reminds God that the neighbors will find out if God destroys his people Israel-- and God keeps covenant with the people.

This time the people speak not just against Moses and Aaron, but against Moses and God.  They do not speak with God, they speak at God, against God.  They begin grumbling about how there’s no food (and, by the way, the food is miserable and we hate it).  And God hears their complaint.  According to the text, God sends seraphim – serpents of fire – or, in the NRSV, poisonous snakes – and they bite many people, and many people die.

The people realize, during the snake crisis, that they’ve messed up.  And, by the way, they’re not fond of snakes (or of seraphim, I guess) and would rather live than die.  They convince Moses to pray for them; and God tells Moses to create a bronze serpent, lift it up on a pole, and have the people look at it.  So the people trust what God has said; they look where they are told to look.  That allows them to live, although they’ve been bitten.  The snakes, however, do not vanish in a puff of divine smoke; the snakes stick around.

Now, we might say “God doesn’t work that way, God doesn’t send snakes to kill people!”  And we might be right.  It is entirely possible that God didn’t send the snakes; but in any case, the people were reminded, in crisis, that God was their God; and that, when they had repented – returned to God’s ways  –  in the past, God had saved them.  God is in the business of life and salvation.  God’s promise to be their God was trustworthy.  God’s anger is not infinite.  God’s ultimate judgement is mercy.  God’s mercy endures forever.

Something like the Israelites, we, too, are on a journey.  Choose whichever one you want; two possibilities are the journey through Lent and the journey through life.  Either way we have not yet reached the fulness of the promises made us, and the destination remains ahead.

How’s your journey going?  Are you grumbling yet?  Against whom  –  at whom, instead of with whom  –  are you speaking?  What do you detest?  Is it something God is providing?

Pastor Crippen has preached about God choosing to work in nonviolent ways.  And I would not think we are likely to be set upon by either seraphim or serpents, even when we grumble during our journey.  It is often the case, though, that we turn to God only when we’ve exhausted our other options, or when there is a crisis.  Perhaps we can learn from the experience of the Israelites to turn to God prior to crisis.

And there is something in this story about the relatedness of the problem and the solution which God provides.  The problem of the Israelites is twofold:  biting serpents, and also the people’s mistrust of God  –  we recall from Genesis the serpent there, which sowed those seeds of mistrust.  And the related solution is (a) trust God; and (b) look at the serpent which has been lifted up.

This same bronze serpent on the pole is destroyed in Hezekiah’s reforms as he cleaned idols out of the temple, about 150 years after today’s reading takes place.  So we, in our trouble, in our need of wholeness, can’t look to a serpent on a pole; and anyway, serpents are not our problem.

No, but our problem IS distrust of God, the same as it always has been.  And our problem is our limited, finite humanity.  We do not trust but we DO fear all the changes of life.  We fall down in our tasks; we fall down into death.

But God is rich in mercy.  God has been calling after us to turn to God’s way.  And when we did not turn, God planted Jesus Christ  –  fully divine, fully human  –  in our bumbling, grumbling path to be one of us, to call us to return to relationship with God; to show us the love of God.  And for all that, we decided we were threatened and we crucified Jesus.  WE lifted HIM up on the cross and decided that was the end.

And God speaks and says yes, look at the cross-- that WAS the end.  The end of death’s sting, the end of sin’s power, the end of fear’s hold on you.  That was the end of all that keeps us from healing, from living as whole human beings.

And it was the beginning of our ability to live, even as bumbling, grumbling humans, as sinner-SAINTS, alive in baptismal grace.  In looking to the awful cross and seeing Christ there; in looking at the worst humanity can do and seeing God at work even there, continuing to love and save us, we live under the cross’s new reality:  There is no place God is not; there no crisis in which God cannot work; there is nothing we can be or do that puts us outside God’s active love.

So we lift up the cross; and we look toward it, not toward our own limited selves.  We trust God, who comes to us in Christ; who guides us through, walks with us through whatever wilderness we are in.  And Christ draws us up to him, lifting us from our sin, lifting us from our failures, lifting us even from the grave into a life of service and grace; we live as servants of the crucified, to spread Christ’s love in the world.  There is more of the journey to go, and there is nothing to fear  –  not snakes, not life in this world; not even death  –  because we look at the cross lifted high, and Christ is loving  and saving the whole cosmos there, loving and saving every one of us.

The cross is lifted high, for all.  The cross is lifted high  –  for you.

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