Sermon: Lent 4
Facing the snake
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.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
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From Mount Hor to the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4-9), the snakes of fear and anxiety trail the people, their serpentine mouths gaping to bite with poison, lashing out at the people’s heels, twisting around and among them — and the only solution to the infestation is to look directly at the serpents, to name the poison, to gaze honestly at the plague, and to own up to the sins and doubts that brought the serpents into their midst. To be healed, the people have to see the source of death. To be restored, they have to repent of their death-perpetuating behaviors.
• Of Snakes and Sin, Rachel Hackenberg
The Lord be with you.
The First Testament plainly describes the journey the Israelites took from Egypt to Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land as a dangerous journey, fraught with perils and difficulties. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, it says that God led them through “the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions.”
Welcome to Lent. Welcome to the wilderness.
The images of Lent are dangerous, life-threatening ones. We sometimes view the concept of the “wilderness” through a sentimental lens. But the wilderness is the place where people get lost and are never found again. The wilderness is where people run out of food and die. The wilderness is where people perish from thirst. The wilderness is the uninhabitable place. It has no discernible path through it. It is far from civilization and help, should we need it. The sun beats down mercilessly on your head. At night the temperatures drop and it’s hard to shake the chill. Shade is scarce and resources hard to find. And then there are these pesky critters, like snakes and scorpions and tarantulas and vultures. In our imagination, we picture them waiting to spring or strike or swoop down on us as we try to escape.
It is true that there is a robust and vibrant ecosystem in the wilderness, but it is not one that easily supports human beings. The fact that large numbers of people in our own country are able to live and thrive in places like the desert Southwest is a miracle of modern engineering, as water is transported hundreds and hundreds of miles through systems of canals and waterways to meet their needs.
But it was not so in the days of Moses or in the days of Jesus. The desert or wilderness was a place to avoid if possible, to pass through as quickly as possible if you couldn’t, a forsaken place without form and void of the kinds of things that promote human thriving.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus makes reference to a story from the book of Numbers in which the wilderness turned deadly as Moses and the people made their way to the Promised Land. The story notes how the people became impatient and grumbled about their long journey. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they complained. They were tired of eating manna, they were tired of being thirsty, they were tired of the lack of comfort and resources. They wanted out.
The text says that’s when the serpents showed up. “Fiery” serpents, it calls them, and apparently they infested the camp to such an extent that many people were bit, suffered excruciating pain, and died. So the people went running to Moses again and begged him to ask God for a reprieve from the deadly snakes. They confessed that they had been wrong to grumble and complain. They cried out for relief.
And so, as the story goes, God had Moses do something unusual. Rather than simply grant the people’s request and send the snakes away, God told Moses to make a pole and put an image of one of these serpents on it. If someone were bitten by a snake, they were to look at the serpent on the pole, and they would be healed of the effects of the snakebite. And so, the text summarizes: “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
The only solution to the problem was to look at the serpent. The only remedy was for the people to face the snake, to look directly at the thing that had caused them pain and misery and death. They were not to ignore the serpent or run away from the serpent, but they had to turn and face the reality of their own sin and the sad consequences it had brought upon them. They were not healed by avoiding the snake, they were healed by facing the snake.
Welcome to Lent. If this season teaches us anything, it teaches us to be realistic. It encourages us to look directly at the source of what ails us, to name the problem, to own up to what we as human beings have done to our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our world. By our sin and failure to be what God created us to be we have raised the serpents out of their lairs and we have made ourselves vulnerable to the painful, deadly results of that.
Lent urges us to take responsibility, not to grumble and complain that someone else is at fault. Lent is when we take personal inventory, not when we judge and speak ill of others. Each individual owns up to his or her part in awakening the serpents in our midst.
But there’s more than that. For in our Gospel today, Jesus said, “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.’”
Ultimately, we do not just take an honest look at our sins and what they have wrought, we look at Jesus, the One who took all our sins upon himself, who became, as it were, the serpent. He was lifted up on the cross to bear all the weight of human sin and death and to set us free from it. When we look at him in faith, the effects of the poison are healed, and we are raised to life again. Jesus, as it were, became the serpent and all the sin and pain and death it represents.
And so in Lent we are encouraged to fix our gaze on Jesus. We gaze at the cross. We gaze at the One who knew no sin who was made sin for us. And so we are healed. Amen.
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Photo by Stephanie at Flickr. Creative Commons License