Sermon for Lent 4 March 14 2021
Priest-in-Charge The Rev. Mary Bell-Plouffe
Last Sunday during coffee hour,
we talked about the challenge of the 10 commandment passage we’d heard, and God being a jealous God,
punishing children to the 3rd and 4th generations
for the sins of their parents.
We wondered how that would be heard by today’s young people.
I think this morning’s passage from Hebrew scripture,
that old story from the Book of Numbers, is even more challenging. Fiery poisonous serpents, people dying from snake bite,
but then Moses makes a serpent of bronze and puts it on a pole
and anyone who’s bitten, looks at the pole, and lives. The whole thing smacks of magic.
But let’s take a closer look.
The people are in the wilderness; Moses has led them out of slavery in Egypt, but the people have become impatient.
They’re complaining and grumbling against God and against Moses:
‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’
Did you notice that? – in the same breath they say there’s no food and that they detest the miserable food.
There’s food available; they just don’t like it.
They’d been slaves. Moses has led them out of that slavery.
But instead of being grateful, already they’re complaining.
Many years ago, I had a spiritual director, Sister Olga. She was a very wise woman. She’s long dead now,
but I’ve never forgotten her words:
‘Gratitude is the cornerstone of the spiritual life.’
Gratitude is the cornerstone; everything builds on that – being grateful.
I mean when you think about it, everything, absolutely everything,
every breath, life itself, is gift. Being grateful for that gift, is the cornerstone, the foundation of spiritual life.
The people had been slaves; life was hard in the wilderness but they were free. They had food, but they didn’t like it.
Instead of being grateful, they complained.
Then we’re told that God sent fiery, poisonous serpents,
and the serpents bit the people, and many died.
It was God’s fault. That’s how people understood the world –
if something bad happened, it was God’s doing.
Just as some people today blame the corona virus on God.
Then the people repent, they beg Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents. So Moses prays to God,
and God tells him to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole,
and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.
And that’s what happens. Moses makes the serpent of bronze, puts it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten looks at it, and lives.
The pole with its bronze serpent isn’t magic.
It’s the people’s faith in God that brings the healing.
Remember too, that God doesn’t take the serpents away. That’s what the people asked Moses to pray for –
for the Lord to take away the serpents.
So often our prayer is similar.
We pray for God to take something away:
Lord, take away my anger, take away my hurt
take away this illness, take away this pandemic.
God doesn’t take away the serpents, but God offers a way through,
and so it is with us.
Our prayer needs to be
Lord, help me carry this anger; help me carry this hurt;
help me live through this illness and this pandemic.
No matter the circumstances, our loving God offers a way through.
I was in my early 30’s when I first encountered this passage.
Donovan Brown was the chaplain at the old Peterborough Civic Hospital, and he was my mentor.
In his office he had a wall hanging with this passage on it.
I’d never heard it before, but the strangeness of it all fascinated me, Later, when I was doing an Old Testament course for my M.Div.,
I wrote a 20 page essay on this passage.
When I was ordained priest, the date set for the ordination by Bishop Blackwell
was September 14th – Holy Cross Day.
Can you guess what the readings are for Holy Cross Day?
This passage from Numbers, and John 3: 13-17 which we heard this morning.
So lets turn to our gospel.
The setting is part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus
Jesus says, “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.” Jesus explicitly identifies himself with Moses bronze serpent on a pole.
This would be a perfect place to wrap up this sermon –
connecting the Israelites looking at the serpent on the pole and living, and we as Chrisians having new life through Jesus’ death on the cross.
But then we really wouldn’t be doing justice to our gospel.
Because the next verse is perhaps the most popular, recognized verse in all of scripture; Sometimes we see it on bumper stickers, 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.’
It’s a beautiful verse, the only problem is
that so often it’s used to exclude rather than include.
The idea is widespread,
that unless someone explicitly states their belief in Jesus
as lord and saviour and son of God,
then they’re just out of luck.
It’s a sort of my way or the hiway theology.
And the rest of the passage seems to confirm this.
It seems harsh. Verse 18 says ‘those who don’t believe are condemned already.’ What about those who have never heard about Jesus?
What about those people who don’t identify as Christian,
but live more Christ-like lives than any of us?
Are they damned to hell?
Jesus says ‘those who don’t believe are condemned already.’
But I think Jesus isn’t talking about intellectual assent; reciting a creed. I think Jesus is talking about the way we live.
John has already told us that Jesus is the light of the world,
In verse 19 Jesus says, “And this is the judgment,
that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness
rather than light because their deeds were evil.
I think that’s the judgement -not a matter of intellectual assent But of how we live our lives.
I always considered Billy Graham a rather conservative Christian, but in 1997 in a television interview, this is what he said:
I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not
they’re members of the Body of Christ.
And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival
that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time.
I think the Apostle James answered that, in the first council in Jerusalem, when he said that God’s purpose for this age
is to call out a people for His name
And that’s what God is doing today.
He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world
or the Buddhist world or the Christian world
or the non-believing world
they are members of the Body of Christ,
because they’ve been called by God.
They may not even know the name of Jesus
but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light that they have.
In the passage from the Book of Numbers, those that were bitten by the serpents looked at the bronze serpent on the pole, and they lived.
God was with them and offered them a way through that serpent-ridden place. It was faith in God that healed them.
Jesus on the cross, offers new life and new hope to everyone.
He stretches out his arms in total and sacrificial love
And invites us all to follow him in living a life of sacrificial love. And it is in living that life, that we have life, and have it abundantly.