Let us pray: O God, who sent Christ to be the light of the world and the light for the world, shine within us, upon us and around us. So guide our reflection on the life of Christ that we might find new purpose in our own. We pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you are squeamish about snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.
If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. They complained continuously against God who was delivering them.
All told, Numbers depicts five of these so-called “murmuring episodes,” where the Hebrew people grumble and complain about an assortment of perceived grievances. They don’t like the food; they want more water; they’re tired; they want to go back to Egypt; they’re sick of camping. Picture a minivan loaded up for a road trip with a gaggle of disgruntled toddlers kicking the seats, throwing popcorn, and screaming, “Are we there yet?” and you won’t be far off!
Each episode follows a predictable pattern: the Hebrew people complain, God gets angry, the Hebrew people realize they’ve made God angry and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf, Moses does, and God calms down. Then, a few chapters later, another tantrum erupts, and the same pattern unfolds. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Finally, their sniping reaches a boiling point. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they grumbled against God and Moses, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
If you listen carefully, you’ll catch the level of absurdity behind their whining. “There is no food and water,” they moan in one breath, and then, “we detest this miserable food,” they grumble in the next breath. In response, God punishes them for their insolence and rebellion by sending venomous snakes into the encampment.
Now, at this point, some of us may be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God. Those snakes bit people, and some folks even died!” But we must leaven our reading of Scripture with a bit of theological imagination.
So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.
Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the power company and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we complain to the water utility. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a diverse menu.
Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?
Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.
Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.
So, we come to the Gospel from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “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.” This passage is so well known that it is often cited on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.
This Gospel taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.
The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.
Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John writes: “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”
As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.” Amen.
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