Of Serpents and Crosses

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Some weeks when I sit down to prepare a sermon, I read the appointed passages and sigh, finding little or no inspiration. This is especially true when the text is among the most familiar passage of all of scripture. What more can be said about John 3:16?

Have courage, Scott! Is there anything new that can be said about these passages? One thing that 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 is also referred to as the Torah in the Jewish tradition, 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 conquered the gods of Egypt with ten horrific plagues, ultimately providing safe covering for them during the very first Passover, when all firstborn Egyptian males were killed by the angel of death.  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. Last Sunday we heard the 10 Commandments.  Remember that, as I said then, these commandments were ultimately about community and relationship – God’s relationship to the Israelites and God’s command about how they were to live with each other. But now 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.” This is again about relationship, but it is a reminder of where this special relationship has brought the Children of Israel. God is saying, “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!  Listen to me!”

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. But 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” and loyal Israelites.

The scene we witness this morning is a perfect example of this grumbling. 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 from WAY back. This ancient 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! This is the very bread from heaven that they once thought was a miracle. We are told God provided for them food enough. But then we hear, “Thanks a lot God, but it’s not good enough!” “Manna again? We just had manna for dinner last night!”

Things take a rather ominous turn. God’s patience runs thin. And so God sends serpents 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 they do indeed turn back to God, those halcyon days in Egypt forgotten. They are in dire straits, and they 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 with God for the sake of the same people who wanted to fire him. Moses’ leadership is unparalleled in moments like these.

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 image.

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 (read, “in secret”), and that Nicodemus was a Pharisee who wanted to learn more from Jesus. He wouldn’t dare ask such questions publicly, but he is dying to have an audience with this bold new rabbi.

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 has become a life-giving one. God’s ways often turn the tables on our expectations, using the unlikely thing, the unexpected image, the marginalized person.

Whenever we use Rite I, we hear a recitation of what we call, “The Comfortable Words,” immediately following the absolution. Among those verses we hear a portion of this Gospel reading, “For God so loved the world…” arguably some of the most familiar words in all of scripture. It is in the context of this retelling of the story of the serpent in the wilderness. And the verse following these comfortable words should bring us even more comfort, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might find life through him.”

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.

We are about to celebrate the feast of our redemption, this salvation promised by God. Moses celebrated a similar meal with God on Mt. Sinai. It was a peace meal, celebrating God’s covenant with these rebellious but desperate people. We are celebrating our peace meal with God. Despite our stubbornness, despite our sin, we are at peace with God. God’s grace has raised up in our midst the standard of our healing and of our salvation, a symbol of life and death.

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? The crucified one is alive again. Death has no dominion over him…or us!

Amen.

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