Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021
The Rev. Christine Gilson, Priest-in-Charge
The children of Israel were miserable and terribly tired. Wandering in the wilderness, not allowed to go through the country of Edom, with little idea, really of where they were going, how to get there and forgetful of why they were there in the first place. Today’s reading is the final complaint story in the Book of Numbers. They had complained against Moses “before God” but now they had really “had it” and complained not just about Moses but about God. They longed for the “before times” – when they were in Egypt (in the first complaint story they remembered all the good food they had to eat – fish and leeks and garlic). And now their anger is inarticulate – they “have no food and no water and detest this miserable food!”
God, it seems, has “had it” too. As in all the complaint stories, God punishes them, they cry out, God relents, and provides help. God will not let them go. And God provides healing – When Moses erects a bronze serpent on a pole, at God’s command, and those who have been bitten look at it, they will live. God so loved the Israelites that he provided medicine to heal them.
No why do you suppose John uses this ancient faith story to have Jesus refer to himself? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man (Jesus himself) be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”? The fourth Gospel – attributed to John – sees that in Jesus all the faith stories are made real.
Just as looking on the serpent, brought healing to those who were bitten by the snakes, so looking to Jesus brings healing to all people. God so loved all the world –all peoples and nations, all humankind, that God could not allow the world to perish but gave his Son as the medicine that heals. Jesus’ crucifixion is also his exaltation – his lifting up is not only his death, but his resurrection and ascension. And in all of that, he gives life – eternal life. Not just life for the body, but life for the soul – the deepest part of our selves.
Eternal life is life – now. In Jesus we don’t wait for it. I don’t know what you all were taught as children, but I got the impression that eternal life was what happened after we die. I have learned that that definition of eternal life is way too narrow. Eternal life is the life right now that we live in God’s presence. It is the change in our existence that happens with faith in Jesus. As the Children of Israel were to look to the serpent for healing, so the world – everyone –– is to look at Christ for healing.
Now – you may be wondering – what does this have to do with us? Why does any of this matter? Good question. The stories in scripture are, although very ancient, are very new at the same time.
First we can see ourselves as the Children of Israel in 2020-2021. Is there anyone for whom the past year has not been like a journey in the wilderness? We might beg – Please! Give us life in the before times – (like pining for the good times in Egypt). So many people have died – if not friends and family, at least our sister and brother citizens. That is the worst.
But also the economy was good, we could go where we liked and when we liked, we could come to church and sing and shake hands and hug without fear of spreading a terrible disease. And we detest these miserable masks (even when we know they are necessary). Dear God – is there not some help? And even though we no longer think that “God is punishing us” (I pray we don’t), still we are in as great a need of healing as they were, as the people of Jesus’ time were, as people in all times are. Where is our bronze serpent? Well – perhaps the modern day equivalent is the more-readily-accessible-vaccines, the care of so many doctors and nurses and practitioners using their God-given gifts on behalf of the sick.
Even more significant is our spiritual health – the healing of our souls. The frustration and stress we feel does not just affect our bodies – but our spirits – our souls – the inner parts of ourselves that we often just let get by on their own. Our souls cry out to God for healing – and that is where we look to Jesus. For God so loves the world that God gives the son “so that the world might be saved through him.