A sermon offered to the people of God at Greenbelt Community Church, Greenbelt, MD. Rev. Glennyce Grindstaff, pastor. March 11, 2018 (Lent 4B)
SNAKES ON THE PLAINS
Scriptures: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:11-21 (Common English Bible)
The lectionary editors brought these texts to us in Lent, of all times, because they contain elements of the journey to the Cross that are worth our thoughtful consideration. Both of the texts deal with questions of disbelief and wonder, judgment and grace. And isn’t that what we know to be true about the narrative of the Crucifixion and Resurrection? The stories that, very soon, we will be reading during Holy Week?
Today let’s take a step back and consider how God uses these two stories, the portion from the Hebrew Bible in Numbers 21, where the Israelites meet “snakes on the plains”, and the Gospel of John, where we listen in on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. What is there message for us, the Church, today?
THE ISRAELITES AND MOSES
This story is part of the Exodus narrative, the journey of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The themes of humans rebelling, Divine correction and mercy, and then God providing all they needed (not wanted) are told over and over in the book of Numbers. Our text this morning begins after the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Aaron, the high priest. Moses is still leading the people (and will until they reach the banks of the Jordan River). They had just been turned back from Edom, losing that battle. God directs Moses to go around Edom, not engage them in battle again.
The loss in battle stings. They people were frustrated. V4 says they were “impatient” – a better word might be discontented, or discouraged. The Hebrew suggests wanting to “shorten” the time or cut to the chase. Weren’t they supposed to have a God who could do ANYTHING? And if God is so powerful and Almighty, couldn’t they have something to eat besides Manna?
In this moment of change, where their first goal was frustrated and they were embarrassed by losing, they responded the way we might. When something doesn’t go the way I want, first I get a little mad. Then I get mouthy. Then… I have a choice to make. Because it is what I DO in that moment of decision that shows where my heart truly lies.
Logic doesn’t always work. The Israelites were defeated by Edom. God directed Moses to lead the people around them. This made for a longer trip. Like kids the back seat of the car, they complained. “Why aren’t we there yet?”
But to be clear, it wasn’t their complaining that was the real problem. It was their “speaking against” God’s provision and leadership. It was a pattern of wanting to do things by what their human minds thought was the best course of action. Their faith was on shaky ground. If they couldn’t see it, taste it, touch it, and experience it, they didn’t believe God could do it. It wasn’t that their faith wasn’t strong enough. It was that they made choices which defied God leading them through these difficult circumstances.
Moses and the Snake. St. Mark’s Church, Gillingham. Photo by Mark Young.
So… the snakes. I can tolerate snakes. I appreciate that black snake that has visited our back yard in search of small rodents. (You go, dude.) I don’t even mind copperheads, as long as they nest some place else. They have their place in the ecosystem, even if I don’t exactly like it. But God unleashing snakes? Really?
It should not surprise us, we who are lovers of God, that there would be a way through this crisis. A place of mercy. An option to be healed.
The seraphs had a bite that burned like fire, and killed. But if the Israelites only looked up to see the bronze seraph on the pole, as God asked, they could find their healing. In the moment of crisis, even when they did not understand why, or like the circumstances they were in, they could look to God for mercy. If they were a “stiff-necked” people… (NO I’m not looking!) …well…
Consider that the very image of their pain, the seraph, was what prevented their death. Perhaps they had the memory of the blood of the Passover Lamb, smeared on their doorsteps, which brought death to the households of the Egyptians, but saved them. In any case, those who accepted the offering of mercy and healing, responded to the covenantal God who delivered them from slavery.
There was a choice to believe. Or not. To look up. Or Not. And this was the quandary where Nicodemus, a Pharisee, found himself. To put the Gospel reading in context this morning, let’s recall the story of Nicodemus.
Study for Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop by Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Nicodemus was known to be a Pharisee. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish faith atthat time who were not too thrilled with this upstart rabbi, Jesus… One of the leaders who were actively plotting to see Jesus killed. But Nicodemus, to his credit, comes to see Jesus because of his unanswered questions:
Who is this guy and what is God doing?
Jesus, in his fashion, answers in a circuitous way: In v. 3 Jesus tells him that you can only truly see the work of God in your midst, the KINdom of God, if you have been given new eyes, or in biblical language, “be born again.”
(An aside: The phrase “born again” has been co-opted by some Christians to mean a specific prayer, moment in time, and religious response. I’m not saying that isn’t a valid understanding, but it is not the only interpretation and application of this text!)
If we understand this phrase, “born again” to mean more than just a one-time moment, there is a richness to Jesus’ response. It suggests the concepts of regeneration, renewal, being delivered FROM something you understood before, being born TO something new. It suggests a process, a lifetime, a concept that includes growth and change, acceptance of God’s guidance and… dare I say it? Obedience!
Twice in the third chapter, in v4 and v 9, Nicodemus says, “How are these things possible?” I read these words to be more along the lines of confusion, not disbelief. I think Nicodemus came to Jesus because he truly wanted to understand. He wanted to see and believe. He just didn’t see how it could be true. In the words of Commander Spock from Star Trek, “it is not logical!”
Jesus uses words which are the language of choice, of expectation, and of revelation. Nicodemus, aren’t you a teacher of the law? Didn’t you spend a lot of time studying this? What are you choosing to see, Nicodemus? What did you expect God was doing, Nicodemus? The responses are gentle, calm, but to the point.
V 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Jesus uses language and images that someone who has studied the Torah should immediately grasp. There is kindness in his rebuke but also clarity. V 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness” (this is a simile, Nicodemus, are you paying attention??) so must the Human one be lifted up…
Just as God brought healing to rebellious, doubting, complaining people bitten by snakes (remember that from the Torah, Nicodemus?)
So must I (Jesus) be lifted up for your healing.
This image of the Crucifixion is on our minds in this Lenten journey. From the other side of Holy Week and Easter, we can superimpose the image of Christ on the cross, Christ first being raised and suspended on the transverse beam of the cross. Dying there. Being buried. And then, on Easter morning, Christ being lifted up, resurrected from the grave.
But even though we are still in Lent, we must not forget that Jesus being lifted up includes the action of the Ascension, of Christ’s return to the right hand of God, a place of power and judging. We must reflect on the exalting, the empowerment that Christ gave us through the Holy Spirit, to effect change in ourselves and in our world. We are lifted up from where we live in the struggle and frustration of day-to-day sin and pain. Where it is far too easy to say, “Lord, no. Not again!”
This choice we must consider, one of believing and choosing to live empowered lives, Holy Spirit lives, is the process of following Christ. If we share in this life with God, we are “lifted up” people. We experience the same love of the covenantal God for the people of Israel. We are relationally drawn to God, and to one another, and how we live out our faith should demonstrate to the world around us that we are CHANGED!
Where do we take this message of healing and mercy and hope and grace, Church? How does it impact our lives personally?
One of the problems with the Gospel message is that it seems to have two classes of people: the IN crowd, and the OUT crowd. The Jesus people and those… SINNERS. The people who love light and the people who love DARKNESS. If we are people of redemption, people who want to demonstrate love and forgiveness, what do we do with this?
First – can we bring light to the darkest situations around us?
As a church, you already do – donating food, helping the homeless, providing safe clothing for children, and volunteering in many other places around the community. Who have you ignored? Who are you too uncomfortable to go and serve? We all have our areas of challenge and are ill at ease. Who are you choosing to NOT serve?
As a person, just walking around the planet, what could you do? Who can you listen to, provide safe haven for? Whose voice needs yours to amplify its cause? Many times we sit by, silently, and shake our heads and say, “oh that’s a shame.” (I do it, too.) Our youth, like the ones in Parkland, Florida, are showing us the power of a few voices. They are bringing the light of their very lives into a very dark conversation. And we can do that, too. We can bring our voices alongside others who are marginalized and ignored.
Second – Can you expose the lies of darkness for what they are?
When wicked things come into the light, it is hard to stand the stench that they bring. Our first response is to shudder and look away. Snakes. On a plane. UGH NO THANKS. But someone, like Samuel Jackson, in the film Snakes on a Plane, has to lead. (spoiler alert!) You might have to yell at people to strap in, and then punch a hole in the side of the plane so that the snakes get sucked out… and people can live.
That “stench” may be how you feel about politics… and as pastor, I can NOT tell you who to vote for. But I CAN tell you that you need to examine the deeds of politicians as they are brought to the light. And then use your gift of citizenship to campaign and vote.
Third – and perhaps the hardest – can you, in your heart of hearts, experience change? Can you embody the love of God – a love that, as we learned in John 3:16, “so loved the world” that Christ was sent for us?
How does that change express itself? Perhaps it is in realizing who God loves and how God loves them. In the gospel of John, it was the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritan woman at the well.
For us, it is a Love Unknown… A way of caring for people we don’t really know, but who we think are not love-able by God.
There’s the people we might be so quick to condemn because of their life choices… “for God so loved…”
Or the people who have seemingly rejected God… “for God so loved”
The people who sit beside us in the pews… “for God so loved”
The people we work with (and sometimes disagree with us)… “for God so loved”
God demonstrated love through Christ to us, not because we understood it, but because our humanity, our stubbornness, our sinfulness demanded it.
My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me;
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake,
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?