Fourth Sunday in Lent Sermon

March 10, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Okay. So the Old Testament story today is just weird. It starts with the Israelites out wandering in the desert. They’re worn out – tired and impatient – so they start complaining. Again.

Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food. There’s no water. We hate this nasty food you give us.

Mind you: The food they’re talking about is “manna” – what later generations will venerate as the “Bread of Heaven” – that mysterious food God provided them in the wilderness to survive. But now they’re tired of it. It’s lost its allure. Earlier in the book their complaints on this front are even better:

If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at (Numbers 11:5-6).

The Israelites are exhausted and disillusioned, an extreme version (perhaps) of what some of us may be feeling by the fourth week of Lent: Our initial zeal and good intentions have dried up and we’re starting to get a little whiney:

I just want a beer at the end of the day.

Or, This whole praying thing isn’t working. I’m tired of being pathetic or feeling pathetic and wish God had made me a better pray-er.

But to the Israelites’ defense, their plight was frightening. They’re escaped slaves, totally vulnerable in the wilderness; it’s been a long time. And any reading I’ve done of people living in concentration camps or things like that where food is scarce, it is easy for fear and hunger to join forces to create some pretty desperate behavior. So they start to complain against God and against Moses. Again.

And how does God respond? Well, that’s the disturbing bit. God sends poisonous serpents into the camp that start killing people. The actual Hebrew word used here is “Fiery Serpents.” That’s even worse. But once the snakes start wiping them out, they recognize that maybe they shouldn’t have been such whiners and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf.

This is where the story goes from disturbing to just plain weird. God tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent and hoist it up on a pole so that whenever someone is bit, all they have to do is look at it and they’ll be healed. And that’s what Moses does. He makes a bronze serpent, sticks it up there, and it works!

Now, apart from this being strange, it actually seems pretty idolatrous. It seems to stand in direct opposition to the Ten Commandments they’d just received from God.

Commandment number 2:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath it (Exodus 20:4).

Now, technically, God didn’t say, “Make an idol.” And he didn’t tell them to worship it. Just, “Look at it.” But it seems awfully similar. In fact, jump ahead several centuries and see what happens during the reign of King Hezekiah when the Israelites were totally given over to idolatrous worship:

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord …. 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; it was called Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:3-4).

Nehushtan?! They’d even given the blasted snake a name.

So what was God doing?! Why on earth, when the people repented from their complaining, was this the solution God offered them? Why make something that reeks of idolatry and would, in fact, become a source of idolatry in the years to come?

Here’s my theory:

Where, in scripture, does the serpent make its first appearance? Genesis 3, the Garden of Eden, where the serpent deceives Adam and Eve. And the heart of his deception is to make them believe that God is not good, that God is not to be trusted, that they’re better off without God, taking matters into their own hands.

And in that ancient story, one of the consequences for this is that God curses the serpent.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers,” God tells the serpent; “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

So when God sends the serpents into the camp of the complaining Israelites, it’s as if God’s saying, “I have done nothing but provide for you, delivered you from slavery and given you everything you need. But because the circumstances are still difficult, you’ve chosen that old lie again – to call me untrustworthy and worthy of condemnation. You prefer the deceit, so I give you the deceiver.” And into the camp come those fiery serpents, with their cursed enmity.

And how much are we like the Israelites? are we like Adam and Eve? always poised to believe God is letting us down or is unreliable. Things aren’t going the way we want them to: We don’t have the marriage we want or the prayer life we want or the happiness we want or the freedom from cancer we want or the new hardwood floors we want… so we conclude God isn’t good because life isn’t as pleasant as we would prefer.

And so we grumble. We’re normally not honest enough to complain outright at God, so we just complain in general. But the spirit’s the same. If our hearts are set on whining and feeling hard done by, we have already given ourselves over to the serpent. So why should we be surprised when the serpent starts to bite? I’m not saying that God is punishing us. I am saying, we’ve taken our eyes off the truth and chosen a deceit. And a deceit will never love us. There is no falsehood that desires our good.

Except! (you may ask) – what about that bronze serpent up on the pole, that false god (as it were), that actually does save them from death? What on earth was God doing?

Here’s what I think: Even when we turn from God, even when we denounce God or (as is most often the case) simply disregard God, and turn instead to false promises and false gods, God in God’s mercy, will allow those falsehoods to preserve us for their season. Our lives are filled with these kinds of functioning falsehoods – survival skills or coping mechanisms we’ve learned to trust:

It may be status and all the accolades we get at work for being so smart and indispensable. That’s enough to keep us going for a long time. What need have we actually got of God when our life and our skills and our reputation are so immensely satisfying?

It may be wine. That’s a different kind of coping mechanism, that – to its credit – can be fairly effective. For a while.

It may a sex addiction – affairs or pornography. They offer plenty of excitement and thrill and anticipation.

It may be gossip, a tasty morsel that’s always welcome, that – in the sharing – wields a delicious power and superiority over our victims.

It may television or Facebook – no sin until itself – yet still the destination we turn to for comfort and commentary on what this life is all about.

All of these things, and countless others, do actually work. They do give us a kind of meaning and purpose and refuge and comfort. And all the while, God is there – waiting, watching, loving. And God – who knows our beginnings and knows our ends – says, “Have your serpent for its time. The day will come when the lie is revealed for the lie it is. And when that happens I am here. I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Our serpents work. They really do. Any number of things sustain us day after day, yet all the while without loving us. They are – in fact – destroying us. And, mystery of mysteries, the day arrives when something else is lifted up upon a pole:

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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17).

When we are ready to be done with our serpents and false Gods, God in Christ is ready for us, to turn our eyes and gaze on the one who does love us, who does save us, who does offer us life of the truest sort. It is a life filled with mercy – a mercy to be received, and a mercy to begin sharing – for if we are truly turning to Christ, then we are joining with Christ as those bringing healing to this broken, venomous world.

And, like God is portrayed in these stories, it is reasonable when we are confronted by other people’s brokenness – other people’s bad behavior and coping mechanisms – to be annoyed at first. It is fascinating to see how God’s response moves from a somewhat pissy, “Fine, have your fiery serpent” reaction, to “let me, through my Son, be lifted up, that you may be healed.” It gives us permission also to make that same movement – from irritation to compassion to sacrifice.

As a church, during Lent, we’ve been experimenting with Loving Kindness Meditations – a deliberate, prayerful broadening of our love for the world. And I’ve been most intrigued by how it’s affecting me as I pray for strangers and for those I hold in contempt. It is very easy to be annoyed by people I don’t know who are in those outer circles – those poky, aisle-clogging people at Costco or political figures.

But this is what I’m finding: When I chose to hold then tenderly, to align my spirit with God in wanting their good, something shifts in me. I’m less inclined to give myself over to annoyance or outrage. I already feel invested in their well-being. Admittedly, for some it’s harder. But the process has begun: Just like me, you’ve made bad choices. Just like me, you’re struggling to survive in this world. Just like me, you’ve been wounded and you wound. May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be well, in body and spirit. May you have what you need for today.

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.