A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2015
(Numbers 24:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21)
It is an odd old story.
The patience of the miraculously freed Israelites is being sorely tested – circles in the wilderness loses their appeal fairly quickly. Even Egyptian slavery can be romanticised when all you know is scorching sun, desert heat, and wind-whipped dust. Deceptive mirages not only linger on the horizon. They also trick the memory: ‘Remember how mild it was in Egypt?’
Our reading sums their state up well: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ (Yes, their complaint is internally inconsistent – just because food is ‘detestable’ doesn’t imply its non existence!)
These complaints are directed toward two: ‘God and Moses’. After all, these are the ones who confounded Pharaoh. This desert predicament is clearly their fault.
When snakes (from the LORD), however, are found in the camp, the people remember all too clearly where their hope lies. They turn once again to their super-duo. God and Moses get both blame and the responsibility!
And so as the people confess and repent, Moses prays, and God guides. Following God’s instruction, Moses fashions a serpent of bronze and hangs it on a stick. Those who have been bitten are invited to look and be healed.
Who wouldn’t give such an offer a try?
It is an odd story for many reasons. Principally, however, it is strange because it offers no deeper meaning – no reason for its telling – other than this is what happened. It reads like uninterpreted, even unconsidered, history.
I wonder if Jesus’ audience was also baffled by this stick-in-the memory story? Perhaps this teacher ‘with authority’ might shed light on these wilderness mysteries.
Jesus’ willingly digs up this old account and uses it to point to his own ‘lifting up’. He sees parallels between this story and his, between the behaviour of God then and the behaviour of God now. He uses this strange story to point these questioning followers to God’s grand plan.
Jesus, however, says no more. All he offers is the invitation to search for parallels between this ancient account and the yet-to-unfold ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man. Is Jesus hoping his listeners will keep a close eye on coming events while holding the ‘bronze serpent’ story in mind? I suspect so.
At this stage, however, Jesus chooses to point only to the ‘love of God’ that will give ‘his only Son’ in order that those who might trust (perhaps in keeping with the desert story we might read, ‘look’) will know life for eternity. Sounds pretty good?
And it gets better. Jesus goes on to insist that he, as God’s most trusted Son, is not here to condemn, but to save. Choosing not to trust this one changes nothing: the world and all who are in it already live in condemnation. Jesus is here only to save. He is like a light shining in the dark. Some will approve, enter the beam, and see. Some will run to the safety of deeper shadows.
Like every other parable he told, Jesus’ listeners will need to give this careful thought – or at least store these claims away until further information comes to light: ‘Let he who has ears hear’.
The Bible, however, does not leave us guessing as to what all this might imply. The unfolding story of Jesus – and especially the events of that first Easter – ask us to think back to these explanations: The cross tells is just how much God loves us and our world. God, Jesus, and the wonderfully wild Holy Spirit are here to rescue. The Trinity is out to ‘save’.
Our Ephesians passage, unlike Jesus, sees the Apostle Paul attempting to spell out these mysteries after the events of easter. He, unlike Jesus’ crowd, has the benefit of hindsight.
Initially Paul’s assessment is fairly bleak. Even while addressing members of God’s church he insists that they were once ‘dead in sin’. This state is, of course, anything but exclusive: it is the condition of ‘all’ and ‘everyone’.
His God-story is as hopeless as slaves escaping into a campsite brimming with angry serpents or a lost people groping in utter darkness. Perhaps Paul says it slightly more pointedly, but his sentiments are the same: ‘we were by nature objects of wrath’.
That is until we encounter the two hinge-words that – for those of faith – change our world: ‘But God…’ .
Paul, as he outlines his understanding of the gospel, emphasises the character of this intervening God. His words: ‘mercy’, ‘love’, ‘grace’. The actions of God in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were for Paul – as among the Israelites, and in Jesus’ explanation of God’s giving of himself for us – the actions of a good and grace-filled God. Yes, God is filled with anger at our artificial independence from God and holds the potential to destroy, but, God’s grace trumps God’s wrath!
In God’s torn heart, love wins!
Paul is right to emphasise this salvation as an act of God – for it is from first to last the result of the good and loving heart that rests at the very core of our creator and saviour. God’s love is not something we deserve. It is something we are given and – hopefully – accept.
According to Paul (and NT Wright) the results are much more than simply ‘I will one day live in heaven’. We, like Christ, were ‘dead’ but are now ‘alive’. And, like Christ, we are, now, a people enacting the authority of heaven: we are ‘seated with’ Christ. And we, now, have a task: to be the people God dreams that we can be – a God-created, God-believing, community who live lives brimming with God-prepared ‘good works’. I sincerely hope you are able to see this happening all around you at St Barnabas.
It is so much more than eternal life with God one day. It is eternal life now!
And all this it not because we are so deserving – so different from others. It is only because God is so good, so merciful, and so willing to ‘show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus’.
‘By grace we have been saved through faith’ – and even this is not our own doing – this is the work of our grace-filled God. If this is true we can never respond with a boastful pride or arrogance. We are nothing more – or less – than the outworking of the sacrificial love of God.
‘But God…’. Don’t forget those two words. After all, they change everything – both now and into all eternity.
What if you took them with you into every encounter, every difficulty, every question, every sorrow, and indeed, every joy. What if you held them close to you every moment of this week, this season of lent, this year, and indeed this life – in every situation saying to yourself: ’but God is gracious…’, ‘but God is sacrificial…’ , ‘but God is merciful…’, ‘but God is good…’.
And ultimately all you will be saying is the truth that God is perfectly like the Jesus who lived, died, rose, and ascended that we might tread this same mind-boggling path to true life. NT Wright put it differently: easter day is the ‘birthday of God’s new world’. A new creation that you and I are invited to participate in to the fullest. So much more than merely life in heaven. This is life alongside God now.
And all God asks of you in all this is your trust.