A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason
Good Shepherd Lutheran
March 18, 2012
The Scripture Texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B are:
A podcast of this sermon can be heard here.
Numbers 21:4-9 [From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.]
John 3:14-21 [Jesus said to Nicodemus, "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. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." ]
When my children were young, our church in Little Rock had an elaborate six-year Vacation Bible School curriculum that invited us to live into the great stories of the Old Testament. During a hot week in July each year, scores of kids from across the city would converge on the church property, and live into the story of God’s salvation history. It was such a rich experience that we’d have adults take off from their work just to participate. There were storytellers who would bring the tales to life, and then groups would move around to different stations: arts and crafts, singing, games, and food, all thematically planned with an aim at helping us engage the story so we might, in some way, make it our own.
So, for example, we began with Adam and Eve and the Garden, and the Tower of Babel (which we made from shoe boxes and stacked in the sanctuary precariously reaching to the lofty rafters). And we built an ark with all sorts of animals, and arced a rainbow across the altar.
It developed into quite an undertaking, so we had publicity, too. One year’s theme was advertised as “Tricks, Lies and Holy Scrapes,” telling the rich stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, and has to flee for his life; Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah and working seven more years before he can have his beloved Rachel. Jacob tricks Laban by cross-breeding the sheep; Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, and so forth. The Bible is chock full of such tawdry tales, bringing those biblical characters down from any pedestals we might like to perch them on, and we are invited to identify with them. At every turn, even when the scoundrels were about their evil plots, somehow God managed to use it for good. And isn’t that the invitation for us to consider today?
One year we managed to escape the fleshpots of Egypt, and we were invited to “Do the Desert.” What took the Israelites forty years to travel, we did in just four days. But it was hot, and we marched those kids from one end of the church block to the other, while they chanted, “We’re hot, we’re tired; I wanna go back to where my friends are…” In other years, our snacks were sweet and succulent; but in the desert we got only crackers and water. We got the Ten Commandments, and we worshipped golden calves. It was all great fun.
What was not part of the desert week of Vacation Bible School was this passage from Numbers we’ve heard read this morning. I suppose talk of fiery serpents biting at the heels and killing a bunch of folks, all presumably because God was tired of hearing the people whining about how bad they had it, was a little much to foist on the children. I know I struggle with how to make sense of that theological line of thought, and what are we to make of a bronze serpent on a pole somehow magically curing people of their snakebites just by looking at it.
It all seems a little much, and yet there it is, in our canon of scripture, so what are we to do with it?
Well, for starters, let me say that the Episcopal Church has only recently incorporated this reading into its lectionary. Lutherans have been reading it on this Fourth Sunday of Lent since at least 1958, as prescribed in the LBW, presumably harkening back to a time when the Passiontide spanned not its current one week from Palm Sunday to Easter, but two weeks, and the people were encouraged to keep their Lenten disciplines just a little while longer.
For the Israelites who were so tired plodding along in the desert, eating the meager fare of manna and quail, what they did not know is that they were right on the verge of arriving in the promised land. They soon would be reveling in the land flowing with milk and honey.
And for those of us making our Lenten journey of forty days, as we arrive at this Fourth Sunday of the season, we get a little encouragement—the fast is almost over, and the revelry of Easter is just around the corner.
Just hang on, the text says to both groups, then and now. God is up to something, and great things are about to happen. Just hang in there, and you will be surprised beyond measure at God’s goodness and mercy.
Only the old-timers weren’t quite able to keep believing, and they turned their attention elsewhere—to self-pity, and to mistrust. They dropped their eyes from the attentive gaze of godly worship, and instead turned their attention to things that were nipping at their heels. And, oh, how bad it was! I suspect the snakes had been unwelcome companions throughout their desert journey, but now it is all they can think about.
And so Moses makes a relic for them to turn their attention again to higher things. The Hebrew here is actually a play on the words for “bronze” and “serpent”—it’s a rhyme of sorts, perhaps for those who came after them to find some humor in the whole affair. It is interesting to note that the text uses an odd phrase, translated for us as “poisonous serpents” but it is more accurately translated “fiery serpents” or literally “seraphs” as in “seraphim,” those fiery figures of heaven’s host who stand guard at the gates of the Garden of Eden and cleanse the tongue of the prophet Isaiah, and are about the work of God across time and space. This is a clear reference to divine power placed in the midst of the people, for their good benefit.
What we know from a later passage in the Old Testament is that over the course of centuries, the Israelites began to worship the serpent pole crafted by Moses. King Hezekiah actually has to have it destroyed because the people have once again lost their way, diverting their eyes, and their worship, from the real thing, to that which was well-intentioned, but which has become an idol in its own right.
Which gives me pause to ponder how we do the very same thing in our own time—taking the well-intentioned thing and creating an idol out of it. Here on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, if the journey through our Lenten fast seems so tiresome that all you can think about is that which you have given up this Lent, then is it not unlike losing our way in the desert, even while we are on the verge of Easter. And things start nipping at our heels.
We may not have a serpent pole, but we have a cross, set high on a pole, and surely it can aid us in lifting our thoughts to greater things, like God’s mercy and grace, offered here and now, to you and to me. But, oh, how we can idolize the very things designed to assist us in our worship of the one, true God! Even John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in all of scripture, offered as words of hope and good will for all, and yet how often is it affixed to a placard at sporting events and the like to beat people over the head.
Even the Son of Man, lifted up, is an invitation to revel in the riches of God’s grace for all; not to become an idolatrous source of arrogance separating the haves and the have-nots, believers and non-believers, as if God’s love is not sufficient to claim the whole of humanity.
The truth is, my friends, that God is with us on the journey—always has been, always will be. We may forget it; we may wander around, not certain where we are or where we are heading, we may think at times that our situation is pretty bad. Sometimes it really is.
But in those moments, look up, look for signs that God is there. It may come in the most crazy, unexpected ways, but know that God longs for you to see the grace of God at work in your life, and through it, too. Our God is a loving God, providing guideposts to find our way to the promised land, to the land of light and joy, to the delight of Easter and resurrected life, lifted high for us to see, to experience, and to share.
So carry on, good and faithful servants. Carry on.