Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, RCL
Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The wilderness people are nearing the end of their 40-year trek, but as of yet, they do not know this. Over these generations, the people have gone back and forth in their thoughts about following Moses and God. When times are tough they wonder why they even left the bondage Egypt and when times are good they praise God for all he has done. I wonder if this sounds anything like our journeys in faith. I know it resembles mine.
Today we hear that the Israelites became impatient and spoke against God and Moses. They say “there is not food or water” and in the same breath they say that “they detest this miserable food.” How can the detest the food if they have none? This discrepancy makes me think that they are exaggerating their circumstances much as a child will say he would rather starve than eat dinner. They say they don’t have food because they are tired of the eating manna; the food God provides for them. Because of their constant grumbling and lack of faith God sends serpents.
According to Midrash (ancient Jewish teachings), we should reflect back to the book of Genesis to the serpent who caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. In that story, we find that God cursed the serpent. God does this at least in part because the snake spoke against God, it was unfaithful. Today, in a bit of irony, God sends the serpents in response to those speaking against God, the unfaithful.[i]
People are dying and people are afraid, and when times are tough we turn to God. God tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and to put it on a pole. At first blush, it appears that the Hebrew people are using this image as a talisman. From our perspective, it almost seems there is something magical about this statue. For when they gaze upon it they are healed. And if the statue heals than where is the need for God?
As the story goes and as a result of the serpents, the people come to Moses repenting for what they have done and thy ask Moses to pray for them; for we have sinned. In his priestly role, Moses does what is asked. With their repentance and Moses’ intercession, God asked them to make a bronze snake and look upon it to be healed. Again according to Midrash, this image was not a talisman, this image was high on a pole so that the people had to look up to gaze upon the serpent. By gazing upward they turned their thoughts and hearts toward God. Through turning toward God they were healed spiritually and physically. The bronze snake is not a talisman. This image of death is a sign of repentance and points the people toward God.
I wonder how different this figure of a serpent is from a crucifix, a depiction of Christ hanging on a cross. In our mind, we may have a picture of people praying fervently at the base of a crucifix. But these people are not praying to the image of Christ that they look upon. The crucifix reminds them that Christ is already present with us. The image simply turns our heads, our thoughts, and hearts upward toward God. There is no doubt that a crucifix is an image of pain, suffering, and death; an image of something that we all have experienced at one time or another. But this image also transcends our physical feelings and fears. The crucifix is a symbol in which we recognized how we can be healed; eternally healed in life after death, through him who has died for us. Just as Christ tells us today, “the Son of Man [must] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The people came to Moses, acknowledging the sins they committed. They are repenting and asking for forgiveness. We don’t know how upset Moses was with the people who over the last 40 years were giving him and God a hard time. But Moses doesn’t hesitate to hold them up in prayer, to offer them reconciliation.
Asking forgiveness isn’t easy. Any of us who broke a window as a child or did something stupid even as an adult knows how hard it is to confront the person we have hurt. The opposite is also true. Often times it is no easier to accepting someone’s plea for forgiveness and repentance. The pain we experience through their actions may still be fresh. But according to this same Midrash, it is equally sinful not to accept someone’s request for forgiveness. Or as we say, at least every Sunday, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
There is a strength we gain both by asking forgiveness and offering forgiveness. And there are many remarkable examples of people offering forgiveness. About 2.5 years ago Dylan Roof attended a bible study in a small church. He opened fired and killed 9 people. Within two days, family members of the victims were speaking about their feelings toward the gunman. Instead of condemning the young man, they forgave him. Even at his trial, 5 representatives of the nine families spoke about and offered him forgiveness.[ii] This act of forgiveness stunned many in our nation for it is counter-cultural. With some quick research, I found that such acts of forgiveness are not as uncommon as we might expect and I can only hope and pray that I would have the strength to forgive under such circumstances. Even with situations not so extreme, this is where transformation happens, in offering and receiving forgiveness.
In our current culture, it is so easy to condemn one another. We hear those who condemn perpetrators of violence and we hear condemnation for our government officials. Condemning others is not what we are called to do. Condemnation doesn’t even belong to Christ. As the Gospel says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The passage becomes confusing because it goes on to say how “those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already.” This difficult passage clearly says that Christ is not condemning us, but we should also realize that God is not condemning us either. Our condemnation doesn’t come from our actions, good or bad, but from our inaction.
God loves everyone equally. God loves you as much as me. He loves me as much as Dylan Roof. No matter what we have done, good or bad, God loves us the same. Or as Paul says God, “out of great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace, you have been saved.” We are condemned when we do not recognize that God has come into the world and is with us; when we do not recognize who God is in our lives. We condemn ourselves because we avoid transformation; the transformation that is needed to accept God’s grace and love.
Let’s look at Dylan Roof again. If he spends time in prison and is unable to speak of the crime he committed, then he prevents himself from being transformed. Without acknowledging his sin he cannot repent and he has no way of accepting God’s grace.[iii] In the decisions he made and the actions he took, there is no way that he can make amends for what he has done. He cannot bring back the lives he has taken. But all hope is not lost. Even if the people he has affected will not forgive him, God will still forgive him. God’s love is so deep and his grace is so abundant that all we have to do is turn to him and accept his grace.
This is the paradox, kind of like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? God’s grace is always within reach, waiting for us to accept it. In some cases, by accepting this grace, we will be led to repent; allowing us to be transformed. While at other times, repenting will lead us to God’s grace, also allowing us to be transformed. Either way, it is in our control, not Gods or Christ’s. By not turning toward God, it is not God who is condemning us; it is us who condemn ourselves. Even if Dylan Roof does not repent or accept God’s grace, God still loves him as much as he loves you. But it is up to Dylan to accept God’s grace and repent.
Through Christ, we do not need a brazen serpent to be healed. We do not need sacrificial animals to repent. Our actions do not determine how much God loves us. Our actions only demonstrate how much we love God.
[i] Midrash Rabbah: Numbers. Translated by Judah J. Slotki, volume 6, pages 770–71. See also Midrash Tanhuma Chukas 19. Reprinted in, e.g., Metsudah Midrash Tanchuma. Translated and annotated by Avraham Davis; edited by Yaakov Y.H. Pupko, volume 7 (Bamidbar 2), pages 135-138.
[iii] Based on a thought from Cathie Caimano, Master Class, backstory preaching 3/7/2018