Of serpents and crosses

Lent 4BNumbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Some Sundays when I sit down to prepare a sermon, I read the appointed passages and sigh, finding little or no inspiration.  I know that means I will be spending longer with those passages, waiting for that moment of divine inspiration.  But then there are weeks like this one, where all of the passages seem to speak to me, in very familiar words and with familiar images.  It is weeks like these that I must wrestle with limiting myself to a good Episcopal homily and not a deadly, hour-long sermon.


What captured my imagination most this week was this remarkable story from Numbers.  Now Numbers is a curious book.  The fourth book of the Pentateuch, what Hebrew scholars refer to as the Torah, Numbers is what its very name implies – a series of lists, of numbers.  The children of Israel, their livestock and other possessions are catalogued, sometimes with mind-numbing detail.  But interspersed throughout these lists are little narrative scenes of the Children of Israel as they are wandering in the wilderness, like the scene we witness this morning.


Now remember, fresh in the living memory of these Israelites was their deliverance from Egypt.  The LORD had shown conquered the gods of Egypt in the ten plagues, ultimately providing safe covering during the very first Passover, when all the first born Egyptian men died.  God had then thwarted Pharaoh and his armies, drowning them in the Red Sea, which would forever be a symbol of God’s deliverance to the Israelites, and a sign of defeat for their enemies.


At Sinai, God had renewed the covenant that had been made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this time establishing the ground-rules as it were between God and these children of Israel.  Hear again the words that preface the entire giving of the 10 commandments: I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.  It was as if to say, “I am the one who is speaking to you.  Not one of the Egyptian gods.  Let there be no confusion on the matter.  You saw what happened to Pharaoh’s army?  I did that!”


God has promised to bring them to a new land.  So the journey begins, with Moses as God’s chosen leader at their head.  I’m sure most of us can recall all the difficulties that arise along the way.  These same children of Israel spend great amounts of time grumbling and whining.  This is not Edward G. Robinson tempting them to worship the golden calf as had happened at Sinai.  This complaining is coming from the mouths of “good Israelites.”


The scene we witness this morning is a good example.  God has just delivered several Canaanite cities to the children of Israel.  They have seen great victories.  God’s promises to be with them and defend them have come to pass.  But now they must by-pass Edom, the land of Esau’s people, because there is still bad-blood between these family members.   This animosity causes the Children of Israel extra hardship.  They must go around Edom, which will add many miles and a good deal of time to their journeys.


Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the grumbling and complaining return.  This time it’s not just against Moses, but against God.  This is far more serious than talking bad about Moses.  Would God pass a no-confidence vote?


Whines of “Are we there yet?” have been replaced by complaints about the food and lack of water.


“Why, 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.”


Wait a minute, first they say there is no food.  And then they say that they detest the food.  What is this food that they detest?  Manna!  The very bread from heaven that they once thought was a miracle.  God has provided for them food enough.  Well, thanks a lot God, but it’s not good enough. “Manna again?  But we just had manna last night for dinner!”


Now things take a rather ominous turn.  God sends serpent among the people.  Instead of providing more or better food, God sends judgment.  Now anyone who has already heard the beginning of the Pentateuch, namely the book of Genesis, knows what serpents represent – bad news.  The serpent had tempted Eve and God had judged the serpent for it.  Was the serpent meant to remind the children of Israel of that original rebellion – Adam and Eve distrusting God?


Perhaps this was a test to see where their true loyalties would lie.  Given this horrifying turn of events, would the children of Israel flee back toward Egypt or would they turn back to God and repent of their grumbling?  We hear in Numbers that turn back to God, away from those halcyon days in Egypt and plead with God to deliver them again.


Moses prays to God on the people’s behalf.  This is a side of Moses we often forget, but more than once Moses interceded to God for the sake of a group of people who usually wanted to fire him.


God is not deaf to their cries.  God tells Moses to make a serpent, hang it on a pole and it would heal them.  Suddenly the very symbol of death, the serpent, had become a life-giving one.


Much like with the Passover lamb, the LORD created a symbol of life and deliverance out of a symbol of death.  And that brings us, of course, to Jesus and Nicodemus in our reading from John’s Gospel.  We are told that they met at night and that Nicodemus was a Pharisee who wanted to learn more from Jesus.


The writer of John’s Gospel invokes the image of the serpent being lifted up on the pole in the wilderness.  This sign of death became a life-giving one.  God’s ways are often to turn the tables on our expectations, using the unlikely, the unexpected.


We hear the familiar words of verse 16, “God so loved the world.”  These are words we often hear immediately after the absolution in Rite I.  They are included in what we call, “The Comfortable Words.”  These are words meant to bring us comfort.


God has provided life instead of death.  God’s promises are raised up in a world of death and suffering.  Those who look for God’s salvation will find it.


I spoke two weeks ago how odd it may seem that we wear crosses and parade them around.  They once were a ghastly representation of death, and yet we love the cross.  We look to the cross as a sign of our faith.  We make the sign of the cross over our selves.  In the middle ages the practice even became to make a cross with your fingers to ward off evil.  The cross for us is good news, not bad.


We are about to celebrate the feast of our redemption.  Moses celebrated a similar meal with God on Mt. Sinai.  It was a peace meal, celebrating God’s covenant with his people.  We are celebrating our peace meal with God.  We are at peace.  God in his grace has raised up in our midst the standard of our healing and of our salvation.


As we humans war and strive with one another, we need no longer worry about war with God.  It was settled long ago.  The cross is a sign of God’s victory over sin and death.   Meanwhile we live in this in between time, between the now and the not yet.  Evil has not been destroyed.  Human arrogance and cruelty often seem to rule the day.


The cross in times like these must not only be for us a sign of our salvation already won, but the cross should also be for us a sign of hope, of peace yet to come.  And what is our hope?  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Amen.


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