Sermon: Sunday, March 22, 2009: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9  ;  Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22  ;  Ephesians 2:1-10  ;  John 3:14-21

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers, in Christ Jesus into whose death and life we have been baptized. Amen.

I want to begin with a welcome to all our visitors this morning, and especially the family and friends of Joshua Eric Connal who have come this morning to participate in his baptism – his mother, Jessica, who was also baptized here at St. Luke’s; his grandparents, Greg and Joanne, who were married here at St. Luke’s; his godparents, George and Kimberley Gonzalez; and all the rest of the family. Joshua’s family has driven up from Texas to have the baptism here, and I know that you’ve been getting some good time in with each other this weekend. It sounds like a bit of a family reunion, and we’re glad that you’ve included your church family in your celebrations.

I want to compliment you, Jessica, on your choice of names for your son. “Joshua,” you probably know, comes from the Hebrew for “the Lord saves,” or “our God saves.” It is another version of the name we’ve been taught for our Lord, Jesus. His parents were given instructions by an angel of God to name their baby Joshua, or Jesus, because it would be through him that God would reach out to save all God’s people. I’m guessing you had no such revelation, but we’ll have to watch Joshua as he grows up and see what God is doing through him as well. And, of course, you gave him a fine middle name, Eric, which comes from the German or Scandanavian for “ever powerful.” You’ve really packed a lot into those two names.

I know we’re all kind of living by grace here this morning, in terms of keeping Joshua’s attention – so I’m not going to give you a very long sermon. I’ve been a little wordier than usual the last two weeks anyways, so I know folks will give me a pass if I keep our reflections a little more compact this morning. I’d like to use Joshua and his name, however, as the entry point into some reflections on the odd story we heard from the book of Numbers, and the interpretation of that story given by Jesus as he spoke to the Pharisee Nicodemus in the gospel of John.

Joshua here was born just a little over a year ago, on March 6, 2008 and I wonder what Jessica’s life was like before that day. Any of you who have children might be able to tell stories about what your life was like before, and after, your children arrived in your life. Did you eat on the same schedule as you did after your child arrived? Did you get the same amount of sleep? Did you see as much of your friends and acquaintances after your child came into your life? Did you get out of the house as much? Did you make decisions as easily after your child arrived as you were able to beforehand? Did you find yourself worried about someone else more than yourself?

How did your life change when your child arrived? Are you living the same life at all?

The strange story we hear from the book of Numbers this morning provokes all kinds of questions. The context for the story is the wanderings of the Israel’s descendents in the wilderness between the slavery of Egypt and the freedom of the Promised Land. In Hebrew the name for Egypt was “mitzrayim,” which means “narrow place” – a place of confinement or entrapment. The long journey from Egypt to the place we now call Israel is the story of a people’s journey from the narrow confinement of slavery to the freedom of self-possession. It’s a story about transformation, of casting off the narrow mindedness of slavery and captivity, to become people who can embrace the challenges and the possibilities of their lives and can thank God for all that God has given them. The transition is long and hard, and as you read the entire account of it in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, you discover that not everyone makes it. In fact, an entire generation dies in the wilderness and even their leader, Moses, is not allowed to enter into the new land. The community has to shed a layer of itself in order to be open to the new kind of life God is trying to lead them into, it has to grow beyond the confines of its narrow places.

Plenty of cultures recognize the snake as a sign for both death and life. In Native Mexican folklore the snake and the skull are sometimes seen together – as on the annual Dia de los Muertos – as a symbol of power, resurrection and rebirth. The symbol for modern medicine, of the snakes entwined around a staff, comes from ancient Greek religion where the snake was seen both as a source of death and healing. It’s even the case that the antidote for a snake’s poisonous bite is an antivenom that is made from a bit of the poison itself – so the snake’s bite carries both death and its own cure.

All those meanings seem to be in play in the story we hear this morning. God is escorting the people out of slavery and into freedom, a freedom that will require them to become responsible for themselves, and as the story opens we hear them complaining about the lack of food in the wilderness. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness” they ask. “There’s no food, and no water, and we’re tired of the food we’ve been eating.” The scene is written like a comedy so far, with the people complaining that they have nothing to eat even as they complain about what they’ve been eating. It’s like me standing in front of my well-stocked refrigerator and complaining that there’s nothing I want to eat, rather than giving thanks that I will have enough to eat on a day when others will go hungry.

But the scene moves quickly from comedy to horror. God hears the complaints and sends serpents among the people. The serpents bite them and they die, and it seems that the people immediately understand that the plague of snakes is a consequence of their disobedience, “we have sinned by speaking against the Lord.” They ask Moses to intercede on their behalf with God, and God responds by telling the Moses to put an image of the snake on a pole and to direct the people to look at it when they are bitten if they want to be healed.

Such a strange antidote. When you have been afflicted with pain and suffering, look at a symbol of that suffering and you will be healed. Such an ambivalent sign. How are we to understand it? When we are weak and hurting, does it say to us that God is doing this for our own good? Is this symbol of a snake on a pole, like the cross that Christians transformed from a symbol of death and torture into one of life and rebirth, a warning about what God does to God’s own people, even God’s own child? There are so many ways to read, and possibly misread, this symbol of death turned into life.

When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in the gospel of John, he gives a new meaning to the sign. “And 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.” In the church we immediately make the jump from serpent on a pole to cross, but it seems to me that part of the comparison being made is not only that the cross is like the serpent, but that Jesus is as well. Jesus’ coming means the death of something old in order to make way for something new. Imagine that for a moment and play with these questions:

· How is Jesus like the serpents that God sent among the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness?

· What would you have to give up, in order to follow Jesus?

· Is there something that has to die in order for us to commit ourselves to God?

Each week in Lent we’ve heard
stories from Hebrew scripture that remind us of the covenants, of the promises, God has made with all of creation, all of humanity. God wants life for us, abundant life, and God has made that available – but the message of Lent is also that humanity has turned away from the patterns of being and holding ourselves in the world that make abundant life possible. Lent calls us to return.

On the front end of that process of returning, it can look like we’re being asked to give up so much – we don’t want to trade the food we’ve become accustomed to for the food God will provide in the wilderness. We look back on the narrow places of our lives with some nostalgia, “hey, so it wasn’t so great… but it wasn’t so bad, was it?” We wonder if we really want to live in the promised land if it means losing so much of what we’ve known and held dear.

But God asks us to look at the symbol of that which has changed us to be reminded of what God is doing. Think about Joshua, who is waiting here as patiently as he can for me to stop talking so that he can be baptized. He represents the end of so much – of his mother’s own childhood, of sleeping in or eating out or late nights with friends or making plans with only one person in mind. Joshua’s arrival on the scene meant the death of one way of living so that there would be room for a new way of life to emerge. Surely we can admit that during the most trying of times we have looked at our children (or our parents, or sisters and brothers, or friends and neighbors) and said to ourselves, “it would have been so much easier if they’d never come into my life.” But then almost as quickly we are reminded of the ways that our lives have been transformed, enlarged and renewed by their presence. Like snakes, we have shed the skins of an old way of being to make room for the new life God has led us into.

Sisters and brothers, as the season of Lent advances we are being asked to let go of those things that we cling to that keep us from embracing life in God’s reign. Things we cling to as if they had the power to save us, when – as Joshua reminds us with his own name – it is God who saves. And God does this by grace, which is to say that God does this freely because God loves us. Accept your acceptance, let go of those ways of being and thinking and acting and speaking that keep you separated from the wide human family. Look up at the cross and be reminded that in faith we trust that death is God’s opening to make room for even more abundant life.


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