A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent; Numbers 21: 4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
It must be spring, our clocks sprang forward in the middle night, depriving us of an hour of sleep. It must be spring, snakes are all over the place. My first memory of a snake story is not wrestling with the identity of the snake in the Garden of Eden, nor the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones opens the secret chamber and on seeing the strangely rolling floor rolls over and says Snakes, why does it always have to be snakes. No, my first memory of snakes is the story of my mother and mother of our across the street neighbor going out to lunch. It must have been a special place because they wore long tight skirts with high heels. When they got back, they saw a snake in our front yard as they drove in. They didn’t know what kind it was but decided it was just too big, and besides, all the kids would be getting off the school bus before too long. So, she asks our neighbor to bring her an ax and she will cut its head off. Our neighbor brings her ~ a hatchet. Determined, and against all laws of motion and balance my mom is successful. They go home. Sure enough, not 15 minutes later all the school bus kids are romping down the street headed home. One of the boys, picks up the headless snake by the tail, begins swinging it around loudly asking Who killed the copperhead? If the snakes are not in our yards, they are all over this morning’s bible stories.
From Numbers, we read how the Israelites yet again grumbled about how hard the trip to freedom is, the miserable food and lack of water. God sends snakes, who bit many people, who die. The people go to Moses acknowledge their sin in complaining and ask him to intercede. He does. God tells him to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and anyone who looks at it will be healed and live. He does, they do.
The Gospel story begins with Jesus saying: 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. It is interesting to know that in Bible days snakes or serpents were a symbol of both death and danger and fertility, life, and healing. (Harrelson). The story gets more complex when we learn the word for poisonous also means fiery, and also, saraph, or Seraphim, majestic beings who attend and protect God (Thomas Nelson Inc; Gaventa and Petersen). It gets evening more interesting when we are told God’s instructions to Moses are similar to homeopathic medicine that treats diseases with small doses of what in larger doses would be dangerous or fatal, and apotropaic medicine which is intended to ward off evil and bad luck (Keener and Walton). All that sounds a bit like a vaccine. All of it is interesting, but there is more to these bible stories.
In addition to all the serpent images, there are emotional images. Most of us recognize John 3:16 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. even if we don’t know it is a bible verse. It is a feel-good line (Cruz). We can go a long time on the happy energy that comes from knowing how much God loves us. And then ~then we remember that “he gave” refers to Jesus’ crucifixion and that stirs up all kinds of questions. Yes, we know God loves us, but giving up his only son to die, who would do that? That reminds us of the story from Numbers and God sending snakes to punish them, and that many died when they were bitten. Did God, would God really send snakes to bite people who would die. Even though there is a lot that makes us feel good in the Gospel story it is very clear that if we don’t believe in Jesus we are already condemned (John 3:18). Does God, will God condemn us because we don’t believe, or we struggle to believe in Jesus? Did God, would God, will God really do that?
Both stories have snake images and emotional images in common. There is a third thing they have in common, decisions and consequences. Psalm 107 verse 17 reads Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; * they were afflicted because of their sins. It reminds us, that the story from Numbers is not the only one where Israel rebels against God. There is the entire book of Judges and its cycles of Israel’s bad decisions, then their crying out for help when they are in trouble, and God sending a hero, called a Judge, to save them. That is in verse 19 of the psalm. The bad decisions continue through all the books of history. In them, God sends prophets to help get Israel back on the right track. We have their stories in the Bible. Their language is often full of warnings of doom. All these stories, the story from Numbers, and the story from John’s Gospel account tell us about the consequences of bad decisions. And all of them also tell us about the promise of redemption. Psalm 107 verse 20 reads He sent forth his word and healed them * and saved them from the grave. That is what happens with the bronze serpent, we know is really a saraph a heavenly agent who brings life and healing. This is what happens when we remember that for John Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection – that thing he did on Easter, and Ascension – going back to God, is all one thing, and it is all about healing us, so we can have eternal life, which is not sometime in the future, but is right here, right now because we know we already live in God’s presence (Harrelson; O’Day). So, what we can now see, is that both the story from Numbers and from John are about healing (Lose; Hoezee; Gaventa and Petersen). But, this still does not answer the question about the consequences of bad decisions.
Here is the paradoxical, the strange, thing about the consequences. In Numbers, it is the image of a snake that gives life to those dying from a snake bite. In John it is Jesus dying, coming back to life, and returning to heaven, that gives life to those who don’t believe in Jesus the Son of God, who loves you more than you can imagine. It is what takes life that God uses to restore life. I’ll bet you, that when you make a bad decision, God will find a way to use that decision to bring you back to life in God’s presence. It is not a very good example, but it is kind of like a vaccine, a tiny little bit of something bad, can help keep you safe from a whole lot of something bad.
During Lent, we have been exploring how Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and what lentil soup looks like in the bible readings, and in our lives. This week I see how lentil soup is choosing what is false. It came to my mind Friday morning when I read an article about how a false story is reposted much faster and more often than a true story on social media. Researchers have learned that it is our choice and the not results of some automated effort to mislead people (Lohr). Recognizing the truth isn’t hard because we are misled. Recognizing the truth is hard because it is not what we learn from much of the world around us. We want to use John 3:16 to comfort people facing a crisis or in distress, but we do not want to do anything, even just stay with them (Helmer). This is the dark side of the prosperity gospel. Some preachers teach that if you just pray right, you will be right with God and all will be well, including your checking account. What this also means, but is left unsaid, is that if you or a loved one is sick, or poor or subject to any kind of oppression or abuse, you have somehow sinned and not right with God. Making the right decisions is hard,
- because we are afraid,
- because we have a secret that has to stay a secret,
- because we are ashamed.
Making the right decisions is hard,
- it can mean that what something is worth is not ultimately guided by how much something costs, or how much you can make,
- it can mean saying the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, as powerful as it is, is not the final guardian of life, (who by the way is God) even if police can take guns away from certain dangerous people, or some teachers have guns in schools,
- because the Tempter from Eden’s garden whispers in our ears so that we won’t see each other, see everyone, as the image of God we are, so that we won’t value every human life.
Making the right decisions is hard because there is no neutral position, God/Jesus demand we choose and then act on our choice (Cruz).
But, making the right decision is possible, because, as John says, the light (Jesus) is in the world, and it will not be overcome (John 3:19, 1:5). Making the right decision is possible because we do not have to wait for Jesus to return because we are already living in Jesus/God/Spirit’s presence. Making the right decision is possible because God loves you so much, God sent Jesus to show us how, and sent the Holy Spirit to gently, continually, remind us. Making the right decision is possible because God is more patient than we are stubborn. Learning to, and practicing, making right decisions is a great replacement for lentil soup; it might just be a good Lenten discipline.
Cruz, Samuel. Commentary on John 3:14-21. 11 3 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 11 3 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Helmer, Ben. “Snakes, Lent 4 (B).” 11 3 2018. Sermons that Work.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:14-21. 11 3 2018.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. After Effects. 11 3 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lohr, Steve. “It’s True: False News Spreads Faster and Wider. And Humans Are to Blame.” 8 3 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/technology/twitter-fake-news-research.html>.
Lose, David. Lent 4 B: 3 Overlooked Elements of John 3:16. 11 3 2018.
O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
The Living Church. Sin and Salvation. 11 3 2018. <livingchurch.org>.
Thomas Nelson Inc. NKJV Strong’s. Nashville: Olive Tree, 1982.