Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Texts: Numbers 21: 4-9, Psalm 107, Ephesians 2: 1-10, John 3: 14-21
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, several hundred people began to march from Selma to Montgomery to claim the right to vote and equality under the law for Black Americans. They were attacked that day with tear gas and billy-clubs, and several people died, but they did not give up, because they believed that, eventually, the discrimination and violence they faced would end. They trusted that God would ultimately see them through.
Last Sunday, fifty years later, members of Mount Olive joined people of all ethnicities and faiths all over the country to remember that day. We marched to celebrate how far we have come. We marched to remind ourselves that we still have a long ways to go. We hear in the news this week of police officers shot in Ferguson, and messages of hate from an Oklahoma fraternity, and we know we have a long ways to go. On Sunday, we sang and prayed to the God we believe will ultimately see us through, knowing we aren’t there, yet.
The Israelites journey from Egypt to the Promised Land had been really long, and, like the march to Montgomery, not exactly easy. They had been walking in the desert for literally years, and nearly starved before God provided Manna for them, and when some of them were taken captive by the Canaanites, they had to fight to defeat them. And they still weren’t there yet. Their walk continued, and after all that time, they were getting really sick of eating only Manna.
When things are going well for us—financial success, career success, health, family, friends—it is easy for us to see these things as signs of God’s faithfulness to us without even realizing it. And when challenges arise, we are almost wired to see it as a vacuum of God’s care, evidence that God is not providing for us, or that maybe we or someone around us aren’t doing the right things.
At the very least, poor health or loss of a job or the death of a loved one feels like an interruption to “what is supposed to be happening” in our lives. There is never a good time, is there? We are not supposed to be going to doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment, having tests, and waiting for results. We are not supposed to be living through a loved one’s last days, or planning a funeral, or grieving. We aren’t supposed to be without a job, working on resumes or interviews, and struggling financially, unless of course, that’s what WE had planned.
So often, we move along in our routines, things happening more or less as anticipated, until we find ourselves expecting that this is how life should be. Work gets done, bills paid, vacations taken, decisions made, perhaps with some bumps along the way, but more or less predictable. And when things happen to make life difficult, our first response is typically to complain, as the Israelites did. The food is not good or hot or fast enough. The internet keeps cutting out on us, right in the middle of that e-mail we’re sending. We have to wait too long in traffic, or the doctor’s office, or the grocery store.
The Israelites were sick of Manna, and they complained, and they soon found themselves facing something much bigger than bad food. Poisonous snakes came into the camp, and many of them died. Suddenly the food didn’t matter, and they realized how foolish they had been, thinking that God owed them anything. They realized their sin, and told Moses to ask God to have mercy on them. And in the minds of the Israelites, mercy meant removing the snakes that were biting them.
God didn’t remove the snakes, but God did show mercy. Interestingly enough, the proof of God’s mercy looked just like the thing the Israelites feared most—the snakes. By looking at the bronze serpent raised in their camp, the Israelites saw that their God was bigger than a few poisonous reptiles. God assured them that God was with them, even in the midst of the snakes. The snakes remained, but the people lived, in spite of that. A source of pain and fear and death for the Israelites was transformed into a symbol of God’s faithfulness and triumph over death.
Often, the big challenges in our lives—unemployment, illness, death—are not removed either. These things are not interruptions to the life we are supposed to live, although they can certainly feel that way. Nor are they, as the Israelites felt, punishment from God for sin, although at times, if we are honest, it can feel like that, too. The truth is, the challenges of life are all a part of human experience, and our life is meant to be lived in their midst. Sometimes these challenges are of our own making, or someone else’s, and they are truly the results of choices made, natural consequences of our sin. And sometimes, difficult things just happen. Life is not always easy, and it is certainly not what we might think of as fair. But either way, the struggles and pain we experience does not mean that God has abandoned us.
God never promised that life would be easy, or go according to our plans, but God did promise that God would be faithful to the covenant and always be with us, no matter what happens. God did promise that suffering and death will not be the final word. And the proof of that for us as Christians is revealed in another symbol of pain and humiliation and death—the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. As we make our way through Lent, we remember not only the reality of Jesus’ death, but that because of the resurrection, the cross, like the bronze snake, is transformed into evidence that God has power over everything, even death.
Our encounter with the cross of Jesus does not take away the challenges of our lives, but it transforms them—it transforms us. When we are finished with our complaining, our questioning, our blaming, God is still right there with us, and the cross of Jesus is proof of that promise. The cross reminds us that the little things in life—long lines, or spotty internet service, or cold food—are not really that important. And the big things, the real pains and struggles of life, are not too much for God to handle.
We are created by God to live this life as it comes, knowing God is with us. God created us to bring good and beauty into this world, and we can trust God to make it possible for us to do that, even when things seem so dark that we don’t see how we can possibly make a difference. The Israelites, and centuries later, the marchers in Selma, lived out that trust in every step they took. We, too, are called to march on, carrying the light of faith in the darkness.
When we in our humanity fail, as we are bound to, the cross reminds us that God is still there, giving us the courage and the strength to face the ways we have caused or contributed to the struggles of this world. We look to the cross, acknowledge our sin, and ask God for forgiveness and help. And we are renewed for the journey.
And when we are in pain, the cross is a symbol of the promise that even death is not the final word. We have a God who answers prayer, if not in the ways we might expect. God has promised to be with us even in the darkness, to lead us through to the light when we can’t see the way.
God will not break the covenant, no matter how we stumble. From the Israelites in the desert, to the marchers in Selma in 1965, to each of us today, God loves, forgives, and strengthens us. Nothing is too much for God to handle. And every time we see the cross, we are reminded of the lengths God will go to keep that promise.
Thanks be to God!