March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Numbers 21:4-9/ John 3:14-21
Margaret LaMotte Torrence
When I am in my office during the week, I can always hear Kate Rogers coming, and it always makes me smile. Kate likes to make the rounds when her morning at preschool is over. She dispenses hugs, gathers various snacks, and generally spreads cheer wherever she goes. Sometimes our joy is compounded when Kate is accompanied by her younger brother, James.
But Kate’s salvo when entering my office is always the same.
“I want to play with your snake!” she announces. You can’t blame the volunteers for raising an eyebrow, but Kate knows that in my bottom drawer is a soft lavender snake. I do not know its provenance, nor do I know what I will do when it’s mechanism for mobility finally fails.
But at least for now, when you stretch the soft fabric snake lengthwise, it will happily skitter across the floor, providing Kate and James seemingly endless pleasure.
Some clever toy maker transformed what is often an object of dread into something that can be manipulated by a two-year old,
and safely tucked into a desk drawer when we tire of its only trick.
We humans have a need to take what is powerful, and package it so that we can pretend that we are, ultimately, in control. You can see it in the toys we select—at all ages—and you can hear it in our language.
Think about the words our culture has chosen for expletives,
the words that pop out of our mouths when things go awry. We name the most powerful forces we can imagine: God, Jesus, the act of procreation, our bodies’ mysterious functions, our mothers—
and we hurl those words as though we had power over those forces and each other.
We exercise this pretension of control in all kinds of ways—even
in church. Many days, I suspect, we would prefer a God who stays, docile, in the bottom drawer, to a God who seeks our engagement at every moment of life.
Our desire to domesticate our Maker isn’t a 21st Century problem, or a North American problem. It’s a human problem. Its thread is woven through the whole of scripture. It is precisely the problem the Book of Numbers seeks to address.
The Book of Numbers is deeply concerned with honoring the holiness of God. The word holy means “set apart,” so emphasizing God’s holiness, means emphasizing the ways that God is other than we are. The concept of holiness reminds us that God’s nature is not simply the best of human nature, writ large.
You may remember that the Book of Numbers is an account of
Israel’s 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. Those years follow her release from slavery in Egypt and precede her entrance into the promised land. By the time we reach the story of the snakes,
we are nearly to the end of the long years of wandering. But it’s hard to see it come to this.
That season of the people’s life began with such promise.
God fed the people with just what they needed to eat each day, hoping they would learn to trust. And God wrote a love letter to them in stone, which said essentially this:
I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from bondage in a place you could not thrive; love no one more than you love me.
Don’t worship objects you can possess and manipulate; I want you for myself. –And don’t ever say my name as though it doesn’t matter.
Set aside one day each week for me; don’t do any work on that day; just remember who we are to each other.
And let my love for you transform the way that you treat others:
your family, those who must report to you, the creatures you depend upon, the strangers you encounter.
Cherish life and those who gave you life, be faithful in relationship—in your words and in your deeds.
Trust that what you have with me is enough.
That’s what God said to the people, but time and again, they failed to trust in God’s provision and love. They failed to live into the relationship God kept offering to them. Finally, God acknowledged that this first generation—the one that came out of Egypt, they weren’t going to be able to see the promised land— A new generation was needed,
a generation that wouldn’t always be looking backwards, yearning for slavery, a generation open to a new way of living.
By the time we reach the 21st chapter of Numbers, that initial generation is dying fast: Moses’ sister Miriam has died, his brother Aaron has died, many others have died. And the people who remain, the people who accompanied Moses out of Egypt say simply “Would that we had died when our kindred died.”
And so, finally God gives them what they ask for.
When the people complain again, God sends fiery serpents—the word in Hebrew is seraphim. Those who are bitten, die.
But that is not the end of the story; it has a most unusual conclusion. The terrifying encounter with the fiery snakes—wakes up the people who remain. They realize that they have been unfaithful. They ask Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away—and so Moses prays. But God does not take the serpents away. Instead God instructs Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole where the people can see it. So Moses makes a serpent from bronze and mounts it high. –And whenever anyone is bitten by a snake, he or she has to look at that serpent in order to live. God insists that these fearful people face what they fear the most. God says that’s the way that I am going to heal you.
God intends the snake to be yet another reminder of their Creator’s love and power. But, once again, God’s people go their own way. There is a coda to this story, in the book of II Kings. Let me share it with you briefly.
We are fast-forwarding now to a time roughly half-way between the wilderness wanderings and the ministry of Jesus. We are in the time of Hezekiah, a reformer-king. The northern kingdom has already been destroyed and Hezekiah seeks to rid the temple in Jerusalem of objects and influences that have corrupted the people’s worship.
Listen to this detail of what Hezekiah does. I’m reading from the 18th chapter of II Kings.
Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it—they called it Nehushtan.”
By the time of Hezekiah, the serpent had been turned into an object of worship. What originally had been intended to be a sign, pointing the people to God’s commitment, God’s life-giving power, had become an idol, to which the people made offerings. The people were worshiping a metal snake!
It’s what we do, friends, but it’s not what God intends.
Signs in scripture, signs in life, are always intended to point beyond themselves, to lead us into relationship with the living God. They are not intended to fix our attention, to invite our worship. That’s true of the church, the Bible, the cross, the 10 commandments—you fill in the blank. The idea of worshiping a metal snake may seem silly to us, but if we are not careful we can find ourselves worshiping a building, a book, a piece of wood.
The same God who is holy, beyond our control or understanding, accommodates to us through all of those gifts, but they are intended to draw us into relationship with God and the world. They are not intended to become our idols.
I got a lot of ribbing in the office this week about my sermon title.
We consider these snake stories today, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, because Jesus carried them in his heart and used them to interpret his own mission. The Gospel of John reports that Jesus said, “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.”
When we look at the cross we see what we fear most to acknowledge in ourselves—our thirst for power, our quick resort to violence, our willingness to deny and betray those who disappoint us—
our deep fear of losing control—our deep fear of death.
Jesus says “Look at it. Look at all of it. Let the light shine in all the shadowy places in your heart. Don’t be afraid. Don’t cling to the darkness.
Jesus says look it in the face, because when you do, it’s my face that you will see. I have endured all of that and I am more alive than ever.
In John’s gospel the cross means both life and judgment.
Jesus says judgment is like light. Jesus wants us to look at the cross because it tells us the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God.
God’s light, God’s judgment assures us that nothing is hidden from God. And that’s good news—because whatever comes to light, whatever comes to light, is encompassed by God’s love.
God’s desire for God’s people, so powerfully expressed in the 10 commandments, took flesh in the life of Jesus. Ultimately, God says, there is nothing I would not do for you.
This is such good news, friends. When Jesus says that God sent the Son into the world that the world might be saved, this is not some sweet and sentimental bromide. John is incredibly cognizant of how difficult and dangerous the world can be—how blind the world is to God’s presence. But it’s that world that God intends to save.
For God so loved the world—the broken, confused, self-interested world—that God gave Jesus—knowing that everyone who witnessed the life they shared would discover a love so powerful there would be nothing left to fear.
It is towards his cross that we walk in this season.
It is by the power of their love that we live every day.
To God be the glory, even now. My broad paraphrase of the Ten Commandments.  Numbers 20:3  II Kings 18:3-4