Texts: Numbers 21:4-9 • Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 • Ephesians 2:1-10 • John 3:14-21
Panem et circences. That’s Latin for “bread and games,” though it’s usually translated “bread and circuses,” and it’s on my mind because this Friday the movie adaption of The Hunger Games comes out.
If you don’t already know about The Hunger Games, let me catch you up. It’s a young adult novel published just a few years ago and the first of a trilogy. Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984, the book is set in a dystopic future in which the world has been ravaged by war and the country of Panem (meaning “bread”) is ruled by a city known only as the Capitol, where people live lives of luxury surrounded by a variety of shallow diversions and entertainments.
Outside the Capitol the rest of the world lives in constant hunger, as food and basic supplies are rationed out as a means of population control. The police state’s agents are everywhere, to remind the general population that they live and die at the mercy of the Capitol — a reality that is dramatized each year when each district is forced to send a pair of children to compete in a televised fight to the death called the Hunger Games.
The books are categorized as science fiction because of their futuristic setting, but to anyone with even a passing knowledge of history the story is as old as the Colosseum in Rome, where Roman citizens were kept entertained with the spectacle of gladiators in combat and public executions. About ten years after the gospel of John was composed, the Roman poet Juvenal lamented the government’s use of rations and base entertainment as a method of placating and pandering to the people as he coined the term “bread and circuses.” He wrote,
“…the People have abdicated their duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
Juvenal recalled an idealized time in Roman history when citizens gave greater care to the hard work of building and sustaining a democracy, work that he saw degenerating into a shallow preoccupation with the self and its pleasures that he rightly feared was the beginning of the end.
On the bottom side of empire, about ten years earlier, the early Christian church was reading an account of Jesus’ life provided by John’s gospel in which Jesus is shown to be teaching Nicodemus, the religious leader who comes to him under the cover of night to try and understand Jesus’ message. Jesus tells him, “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. 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.” (John 3:14-16)
There’s a reason people paint the chapter and verse, John 3:16, on their bodies before they go to the ballpark. If you were trying to summarize the Christian message in a concise talking point, that would be it: God loves the world, and God is will to exchange in us our deaths and God’s life. But how that happens and what that means takes more than one verse to explain. That’s why you never see people painting “John 3:14-16” on their chests at the ballpark, because how would you make sense of the preceding two verses about Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness?
Well, let’s go back to that story for just a few minutes and see if we can’t get a better understanding of why Jesus makes reference to that episode in the story of the Israelites forty year journey from slavery to freedom.
In the 21st chapter of Numbers, the people complain to God and to 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.” On face value, it’s a confusing complaint. They say there is no food, and that they hate the food they have. Sounds like me rummaging through my refrigerator at 11pm, complaining that there’s nothing to eat, when what I mean is that I don’t like what I see. And that’s essentially what it is.
This isn’t the first time the Israelites have complained on this journey. They complain that the journey is difficult, and God burns the edges of the camp. They complain about their leaders, Moses and Aaron, and try to pick someone to take them back to Egypt. They complain that there’s no water, and God’s tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff, which he does and water flows from the rock to provide for the people.
Over and over again, God provides for the people, but they want something other than what God has provided. Finally, in this morning’s lesson they complain about the food and God sends poisonous serpents among the people that bite them. Many people die before they come to Moses to confess, “we have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people and God instructs him to construct a totem, to make a symbol of the thing that has been killing them, to put it on a pole and lift it up, and whenever anyone was bitten by a snake they would look at that symbol of death and live.
Like I said, it’s a difficult story, so we’ll understand why sports fans and Christians and Christian sports fans might just stick to John 3:16. But, for those of us attempting to make sense of the cross, and what it might mean for us today, it’s a really important story for us to struggle with.
Pastor Melinda Quivik, who teaches worship at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, summarizes the story this way,
“God (1) liberates the people, (2) causes them to suffer, (3) forgives them, and (4) heals them. This is the pattern of the action of the word of God in our time: (1) God’s mercy and grace (2) cause us to realize our need, which (3) helps us to know our utter dependence on God through whom, then (4) we are healed.”
And so, having heard about serpents and crosses and food, we finally have all the words and symbols in place to talk about the fourth item in our five weeks series on the Small Catechism.
If you brought your Small Catechism back this morning (or picked one up on the way into worship), I’m going to ask you to turn to page 33. If not, you can open up the red hymnals to the very back and find page 1166. Here Luther puts the question on our lips, “what is the sacrament of the altar?” and then provides the answer, “it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.”
But, knowing that answer wouldn’t be enough for us, a little further on he lets us ask, “what is the benefit of such eating and drinking?” then provides us with another answer,
The words “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin” show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.
So, to pull the symbols all together, let me put it like this: The snake, the cross, and the loaf of bread are each and all symbols of both life and death. The snake, the cross, and the loaf of bread are there to remind us of our absolute need to confess and God’s absolute commitment to our healing and wholeness.
When the spirit of the Israelite people became poisoned with complacency and a mistaken nostalgia for their own enslavement, God sent serpents to remind them that the manner of life they’d left behind was death. Only when they could look at that truth directly could they move forward toward life and liberation.
When the Roman empire built a false peace by conquering all the known lands of the ancient near east and forcing people into lives of unending hunger and debt slavery, nailing to a cross any who opposed them, God sent God’s own Beloved to take away the power of that death, to ennoble it, so that all who were longing and laboring for a different kind of empire, God’s empire, the reign of God come near, could look at that symbol for what it was and no longer be dominated by it. Only when they could look at that cross directly and call it what it was, a tool of violence in service of domination, could those who followed Jesus find the courage to live a new kind of life. This is what Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus.
But then, what about the bread? How is the bread a symbol of both death and life?
Well friends, because in the land of bread and circuses, bread is what the empire uses to keep us complacent. You know the saying, “everyone has a price.” For the ancient Romans, it was bread and games. Hunger games. For us, these days, it’s the things that get tagged #firstworldproblems. Cheap gas. Cheap clothes. Cheap food. Cheap entertainment. All the daily cravings that keep us focused on our wants at the expense of others’ needs.
So, like the serpent and the cross, God says to us this morning and every morning that we gather at the Lord’s table and lift high the loaf of bread, “if you want to live, look at this bread and see it for what it is.” Is it unimpressive, this loaf of bread? Have you seen better? Is it easy to come by? What does this loaf of bread require you to confess? That you are a stranger to hunger? That you have been distracted by so much “bread and circuses” from the hungers of your neighbors? Hunger for food, hunger for dignity, hunger for justice, hunger for safety, hunger for work, hunger for education. Which bread has been withheld from our hungry neighbors?
This is the uncomfortable truth about us human beings. We long for forgiveness, but we struggle to confess that we’ve done anything to require it. Speaking to this point in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther says,
In short, the less you feel your sins and infirmities the more reason you have to go to the sacrament and seek its help and remedy. Again, look around you and see whether you are also in the world. If you do not know, ask your neighbors about it. If you are in the world, do not think that there will be any lack of sins and needs. Just begin to act as if you want to become upright and cling to the gospel, and see whether you will not acquire enemies who harm, wrong, and injure you and give you cause to sin and do wrong. If you have not experienced this, then take it from the Scriptures, which everywhere give this testimony about the world. [The Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar]
During the season of Lent, you often hear calls to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Perhaps, though, in this land of bread and circuses, we are equally called to take up our bread and follow Jesus. To take the bread we’ve been given, in all its forms, and to follow Jesus out into the streets, where he will process into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to proclaim a different kind of empire, where there is already bread enough for everyone if only we would share what came to us first as a gift.
That’s part of what we’ll be doing two weeks from today on Palm Sunday, as we join other congregations from around Logan Square at the “Occupy Palm Sunday” gathering at the Logan monument after worship. There we’ll sing and dance and share our food with friends and neighbors, as we learn and discover new and deeper ways to follow Christ, the bread of the world.
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