a sermon on snakes and crosses

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21 

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Community Picnic by Lisa Cain

That we may not perish, but have everlasting life. (Jn 3:16)

The kind of life that is abundant and green. Full and rich and whole like an enormous cosmic banquet. Creative energy that doesn’t run out but that keeps springing forth, giving life upon life. overflowing, enduring, everlasting.

The Israelites know what it’s like to long for that life. In today’s reading from Numbers, Israel is wandering in the wilderness on this long, long journey away from slavery in Egypt – which is about as far away from everlasting life as it gets. Generations before, the people had come to Egypt as refugees, seeking food in a time of famine. But when they stayed and put down roots there, the people in power felt threatened by the Israelites, and decided to strategically and systematically oppress them in order to remain in control. The Egyptians oppressed them with forced labor. They were ruthless and made the Israelites’ lives bitter with work. They put policies in place to ensure that none of their young men would live into adulthood. For four hundred thirty years Israel lived in slavery in Egypt. Perishing.

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And the book of Exodus says that God heard their groaning. God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, so they may not perish, but may live in the promised land where their labor is their own and their children can grow up in safety, and they can worship God without fear. So Israel has left Egypt and they’re on their way – but between here are there is wilderness. Wandering upon wandering.

Now they’ve been wandering in the wilderness for nearly forty years, and it is getting easy to forget how far they’ve come. The journey is getting long, and hardly anyone is around anymore who remembers what it was like to be a slave. God provides food and water each day, but the same meal for forty years is getting old. Enslaved or not, the Egypt life is looking better and better.

At least in Egypt we knew what to expect. There was a kind of comfort and certainty in the life of oppression. The rules weren’t in our favor, but at least we knew the rules.

But the life of freedom is risky and uncomfortable. And honestly, we’re beginning to realize that some of us may not ever live to experience that life that our ancestors longed for.

Everlasting life – a place to call home. Neither slaves nor wanderers, but free and grounded people.

The people’s yearning to be done with wandering, to finally arrive at that abundant life comes out as complaining about the way things are – “There’s no food, and besides, we hate this nasty food.” And now God sends these fiery serpents into the Israelites’ midst which bite the people so that many die. Whether the serpents are punishment for the people’s grumbling, or sent for some other purpose, it doesn’t much matter I suppose, when the point is that people are perishing. But the people saw that they were wrong not to trust God, that God would deliver them yet, so they ask Moses to pray for them, which Moses does. And God provides a way for healing where there was only death.

The cure, God says, is to look at the bronze snake. If you are perishing, gaze right in the face of the thing that bit you, the thing that is making you die. And live.

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“Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent” – William Blake (c. 1801-3)

Live. Despite venom, through hunger and bitterness, in a wilderness wasteland, God makes a way for life that lasts.

I wonder what it felt like to behold the serpent of bronze. I wonder if it was kind of like how it feels to say the confession and forgiveness out loud in worship. Maybe it felt risky, like how it feels to name the grief and pain that are making you sick. Maybe it felt empowering in its honesty, like an introduction at an AA meeting. Not shying away from the source of our death and suffering, but perceiving it directly; even naming it. Look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In just a few weeks, on Good Friday, the church will look at the cross as we sing together: Behold the life-giving cross on which hung the savior of the world. We’ll perceive the cross, looking, coming near, touching, kissing. Experiencing the cross for what it is – instrument of imperial torture and death that was hoisted high to kill Jesus. The cross for us becomes a stand-in for all those things which bring terror and death still. And absurdly, it is the same cross to which we turn to find healing and life.

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Everlasting life – the abundant kind. In this life, there doesn’t need to be pretending anymore, or sweeping our pain to the side. Beholding the cross is beholding all that is so very wrong in the world and in our own lives – and God’s everlasting life comes flowing right through the middle of all that! pouring out from the most desolate of places. On this life-giving cross is hung the Savior of the whole world – which means that we’re not alone anymore. The place of pain and death, of hunger and longing to be free, becomes transformed into the place where we meet God, and meet one another.

You see, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus is lifted up on the cross, so that everlasting life might be experienced by all who so much as trust in Jesus. This Jesus in John’s gospel is the same one who called the disciples by name, who really saw them, who knew the samaritan woman’s whole life, who raised Lazarus from the dead, who is the very word of God, from the very beginning with God, bringing life into being, life that enlightens all creation. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it – that is the Jesus we’re talking about here.

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Dawn in Uluru, Australia. Photo by Grant McIver on Unsplash

That is how God decides to act out of love for the world. God gives us that Jesus to trust in. In Jesus, God shows humanity a vision of life so abundant and full that we would no longer settle for the life of slavery, or the kind of labor that kills; so that we would no longer be okay with “power over” others or a world where children don’t grow up to be adults.

God shines that light in the shadows, giving us the opportunity to love the light instead of the secrets, and to bring our whole truth, hurts and all, out into that light, out in the open.

God gives us that Jesus so that we are freed from the slavery of thinking we are alone in our pain, freeing us to trust that these instruments of pain and death are not ours to bear alone.

God replaces the wilderness grumblings of “not there yet” with an experience of everlasting life here, and now, along with this whole earth that is our home.

So that even when death is all around and the whole world seems to be perishing, we can trust that the truest thing about this cosmos are not the things that bring death, but about the light that no darkness can overcome.

That is what God’s love is about. Not perishing, never judging. But life and light. Ours. Everlasting.

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Community Picnic by Lisa Cain
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