Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent - Numbers 21; John 3
I don’t like snakes. Never have. Never will. I apologize to those of you with pet snakes. Everyone needs to have someone love them, even snakes, but I tend to like to take the curse from Genesis 3 that God pronounces on the serpent literally – “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!...he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” A little violent? Yes, but growing up in California with snakes that can kill you, you would understand my hostility. There is a sort of a great antagonism between myself and our slithering neighbors. It is not a romantic comedy.
With that said, this morning I feel the need to offer up to you a sermon in three acts. Three parts that come together as one divine drama that involves snakes, you, and Jesus. So…ACT ONE – SNAKES ON A PLAIN That’s P-L-A-I-N. You see what I did there. Ha-Ha! For the rest of you, look up Samuel L. Jackson and the Oscar winning film, Snakes on a Plane.
The people of Israel, after being brought out of slavery. Brought through the Red Sea. Given food from Heaven. Bread that they could not otherwise find wandering in the desert, and they rebel. They cry out against God and Moses. “How dare you give us this putrid bread. This same bread every day. Same thing. We’re sick of it. We may have been oppressed and killed in Egypt, but at least we had meat pots there, and houses, and normalcy.” Basically the cry of every servant of the Lord. One’s who are called out from slavery of sin and death, and we get sent into the world in a different way and everything we know has changed. Nothing is what it is after Jesus. Both good but terrifying. What we really enjoyed before might be taken away and replaced by this God we profess to serve. A God who can tend to take from us what has become a little deity to us. Eventually, calling to us to take up our cross daily, our own form of execution and follow him, the life of the believer becoming something other than comfort. So I can understand the discomfort of these wanderers in the desert.
But the people of God, here in the wilderness, are sick of God’s provision. Sick of what they have received for free and so turn against the Lord and Moses. We don’t want what you have given us Lord. This putrid, stinking Manna. Literally bread that God sent down from Heaven. A miraculous sign of what God would send later – Remember Jesus’ words, quoting Deuteronomy 8, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Later saying to you, I am the bread of life. Regardless of this knowledge of God being more than our appetites, the people complain instead, so enter the snakes. Fiery serpents. Venomous vipers. Killing the people because of their hatred. Seems horrid to us. What a bad image of God.
But listen, Christ knew this story. He comes to us in Matthew 7 and tells us to ask, seek, knock. Don’t come to God in hatred or stay away from him, but come to him. Rest in him. Knowing he provides. I say Jesus knows this story because he says this in verse 9 of Matthew chapter 7 - Who among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? You can almost see Jesus winking. Remember our ancestors in the desert who turned against God? They don’t want the bread he gives so God says, “Have a snake instead.” The idea of God’s provision being a regular daily thing and yet we turn so often to ourselves. Our wants. Our expectations. Nitpicking every last detail, and we can’t realize the grace at work by God in Christ that no snakes come after us. That we pray for daily bread and it comes.
The people cry out again because of the snakes, recognizing their sin, understanding that healing and salvation only come from this God who took them out of Egypt, and so God gives Moses a job. Make a bronze serpent and put it on a stick. Raise it up for all to see, and anyone who looks to that image of the snake will be saved. God telling the people to look at an image of the very thing killing them in order to be redeemed, to be healed. A very small thing to do, they do it, they receive from God, and life continues.
So we come to ACT TWO – SNAKE IN THE GRASS, basically a repeat of the first, but us instead of the Israelites. The church instead of the desert, although some may think they are the same thing.
If you haven’t noticed over the years, maybe since time began, Christians are not exactly the heroes of the rest of us. I heard someone say this last week that Billy Graham, may he rest eternal, was the last preacher that everyone loved. Our neighbors whom the church is called to love tend to find the church, find Christians less loving. The one’s, called Christians, who look for purity. Who look for the best of society. Want things to be good, and clean, and uplifting. Don’t want to sit with the addict next door, the single mom on assistance, the teen who wears too much black and never talks to anyone. Some in the church thinking that the people whom God loves and sends are not worthy to enter the doors of the church. Could there be someone not welcome to this place? To the seats next to us? To this table?
So then the perception remains. Maybe it is yours. I don’t want to go to church because of all the hypocrites. I don’t want to go because those Christians are so hate-filled, or double-minded, or picky. Too many rules. Too much us and them. Too much, well…sin. The anger or injustice perceived is the notion of all the fakes. All those who think themselves one thing and do another. Coming into what our loved ones, even you, can term the wilderness and being angry because what is found is not what we were told. No land of milk and honey but just this stinking bread.
The problem is looking around at all the Christians with the expectation that the call of the Christian is perfection, love, niceness. That we get “saved” and so life-change happens. Suddenly everything is great. That is the great sin of the American church, that the goal and expectation of the church is to never sin again, rather than regular, daily forgiveness for all the sins we commit each and every day. Why we gather one day a week. One day set aside to hear what it is we need to hear before we go out into the world and are reminded of our frail psyches. Our frail hearts. Our frail wills that see so much around us and like it better than Jesus.
There is no us and them, only forgiven sinners who need to hear it regularly. Otherwise we continue to complain against God, against the church, against fellow Christians because we have been told over and over again, look at me, or look at the church. Thinking we’re the point rather than something, or maybe someone else.
So there is a remedy. A climax and finale to our story. ACT THREE – SNAKE ON A STICK. Snakes on the plain and in the grass, all because we look at the wrong thing. The Israelites look around, look at the daily bread, and spit in the direction of God. Looking at what God is giving without work and hating it. We look at the church, look at Christians, look at the Bible, look at preachers, and spit in the direction of God. Seeing putrid sinners. Sinners everywhere. Never thinking that sinners are the reason we are here.
God speaking to Moses - Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live. Notice the location of the gaze. Where to look. Not at the gifts of God. Not at the venomous snakes. Not at the fiery serpents. A different place. A different thing. Another place that brings life for the dead. That brings remedy for an illness. Look at it, the bronze snake, and live.
Then we hear – Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Just as that bronze serpent was lifted up, raised up, exalted above all else is what the Greek says, so is the Son of Man. Just as so many are in the wilderness, bitten by sin, the sins of themselves and others, the sins we commit against God and those we do to one another in biting and killing each other, so now this Jesus is the one exalted. Raised high above all other things for our eyes to lose their gaze at the fellow sinner, and seeing the one raised up above us.
One interpretation of this text from John is the raising up of Jesus upon the cross. Looking at the cross as the source and meaning for our lives. A dying God who puts to death our guilt, our shame, our sin, our hatred.
Another interpretation sees the lifting up as the resurrection. Jesus rising from the dead, life out of death, for our justification, for our being declared righteous, made right with God before we ever have had a chance to be perfect or not to be hypocrites. The hope being that you come into this church hating church and leave infatuated with the cross of Christ and the love of Jesus for sinners. For those parts of you that are thought so unlovable, Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. All because of you and all you hate about yourself and others. If that isn’t good news, amazing news, amazing works of God for you.
The best interpretation I think of this verse from John and the story from Numbers is that Jesus is exalted above us so we might see him in all his glory, high above you. Jesus lifted up that you might see the source of life. The Son of Man. Not the church. Not other Christians. Not the world. Not the government, politicians, family, friends, work, entertainment. Christ. Only Christ. A dying God for a dying world. Exalted, lifted up in the desert of sin to bring life to you. That even though our lights may shine before all people that they may see our good works, the glory goes to God, to Christ, because we learn that it is only Christ who shines his light in us.
Christ in his glory, the glory of a death and a resurrection. That when we walk through these doors, both coming and going, we see in this cross who we truly are – the walking dead. Those dead in our sins and yet alive in Christ. Those whose existence and life rely solely upon this God who comes to bring life. Life even when we feel dead.
In a few minutes we will do what we always do, break bread and receive this exalted Christ. When I raise the bread above the Table for you to see, don’t see it as just bread. For it is as we say it is – his body broken for you. His flesh torn for you. For your sins. Your daily bread coming from this altar for your salvation. The forgiveness of sin. Each time this table is set and you come to feast, you become again the Israelites in the desert, given the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of life and see in it, instead of putrid bread, the one exalted for you. Jesus himself, able to be taken into your hands and tasted. Feasting on redemption, knowing that even when you come forward alongside your worst enemy, here in this place, Christ is the one for you. Christ. Not the Christian. Not the church. Christ. For you. Thanks be to God. Amen.