(Originally preached at AFUMC on 3/15/2015)
Lent 4B: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-20
So that first reading from the Old Testament was kind of a weird one, wasn’t it? It’s kind of a bizarre story, it’s one of the less popular stories in the Old Testament. So let me give you some of the context for the story.
The Israelites have left Egypt, been to Mount Sinai, and have been following God across the desert to the Promised Land. Spies had been sent to the Promised Land to scope it out. Most of the spies painted this horrible, scary picture of the Promised Land saying that the Israelites would never be able to take over the land. So the people rebelled against God, lost their trust in God, so God said that that generation would not make it into the Promised Land, they would wander in the desert until the next generation had come up. So in our Scripture for today, that’s what the people are in the middle of doing-wandering until the next generation was raised up. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother and two of the Israel’s strong leaders, had died. The country of Edom didn’t let them pass through their country, so they’re taking the long way around that country. Right before our Scripture for today, they had just defeated the kingdom of Arad, and I mean they completely decimated them and wiped them out.
So when we get to our passage for today, we see the Israelites are complaining again. This is kind of a common theme in this desert journey. They’re getting really irritated and impatient with Moses and they’re saying “Why in the world did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? At least we had food in Egypt!” Now their complaint here is a little absurd because they really do have food-God is sending them manna. But we read this complaint “There is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” It’s kind of like when your kids were little and they would complain that they’re hungry but there’s no food in the house, and you would open the fridge and show them all the food there, and they change their complaint to how they don’t like any of that food. Did that happen to anyone here, or is my mom the only one who experienced that?
So they had plenty of food, God made sure of that. But the Israelites are just complaining because Moses wasn’t really living up to their expectations. They were expecting some more variety, maybe some beef or chicken every now and then instead of just bread. But they didn’t get that, so now they’re just complaining amongst each other and talking behind Moses’ back about how bad of a leader he is. It’s kind of like what happens when a United Methodist Church gets a pastor that doesn’t live up to their expectations or who doesn’t do what they think a pastor should do.
But then we read that God sent poisonous snakes among them, presumably because of all the complaining and gossiping. And these snakes bit a bunch of people and a bunch of people died from these bites.
Now, I’ll be honest, this is a really difficult passage to preach on. The image of God we get here is very different from the way most of us picture God. Here, God sends these poisonous snakes on His Chosen People because they were complaining and hated the food he was giving them and spoke against Moses. People died from this, and it probably would have been a slow and painful death, that’s just what happens when snakes from that area bite you.
I think it’s especially difficult because I know that I do the same kind of thing the Israelites did that brought on those snakes. How many times have you complained about all of the things that God gives you? How many times have you complained against God and wondered why in the world God isn’t helping you. I mean, he is helping you, but you’re getting bored with it and it doesn’t feel as good as it used to. So you complain about it. That’s what the Israelites were doing-and God sent poisonous snakes and people died from the bites. I mean, this is serious.
So honestly, I don’t know how to interpret that part. I don’t know what to do with this image of a god who sends poisonous snakes on people who are complaining and gossiping. If any of you have insights or if any of you know what to do with this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
But the part I think I can do something with is what God does after the snakes come. When the people get over themselves and humble themselves before God, he responds in a strange way. God had the power to take all of the snakes away and heal all of the snake bites instantaneously. But God doesn’t do that. He has Moses make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten could look at this snake on a stick and be healed.
This is another part that’s kind of hard to make sense of. But I think the work God was doing here was in the symbols. The snake was a symbol of suffering and pain. For the Israelites who were plagued with all of these snakes, that’s the first thing they would have thought of when they saw a snake. But it goes deeper than that. Think back to the Garden of Eden. What tempted Eve to eat the apple and disobey God? A snake, right? And that first act of disobedience brought death for everyone, right? So the snake is a symbol of death and suffering and dying. That’s what it means.
But here, God tells Moses to take this symbol of suffering and death and put it up on a pole, and then says that everyone who looks at this symbol of suffering and death and dying will be healed and will live again. God stepped into the people’s suffering, right into the middle of it, and transformed the snake, a symbol of suffering and pain and death, into a symbol of life and health and peace.
Our passage from Ephesians really picks up this theme. If you want to read along with me in your pew Bibles, it’s Ephesians 2:1-10
(Read Ephesians 2:1-10)
You were dead. You were dying. We were all like a dead person. Like the Israelites bitten by snakes. They were dying. The same with us-we are all dying spiritually. The writer of Ephesians knows this, and he gets specific with it. In verse 3, it said “All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.”
Now, that phrase “Children headed for punishment” has also been translated as “Children of wrath, punishment, destined for wrath.” But I don’t think those words communicate the meaning very well today. The original Greek word used there was the word orge. Orge is a primal force that we all have within us that’s beyond our control. It’s a force of anger and destructive behavior and it is a force that tries to get control of us and leave us at the whims of its destructive anger and passion.
Do any of you know who Sigmund Freud was? He was a psychologist who made some big advances in how we think about the human mind. He thought that the human mind or psyche was divided into three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is what’s important right now because the Id is basically the same thing as the orge. The Id is the unconscious, instinctive, chaotic force that we all have inside of us. The Id is what gives us all of our basic instincts and drives and desires. It hardly ever comes to the surface because it’s meant to remain in the subconscious, or else we wouldn’t be able to function in society, if we just followed every desire and instinct that we had. The orge is like that, but it’s like the Id on steroids. It’s the force that makes us do all of these bad things, it’s the force that makes us behave however we want to behave and do whatever feels good. Normally, we call this our sinful nature-it’s this nature that is inherent in all of us that makes us rebel against God.
The orge is the force that was controlling the Israelites in the desert when they were complaining and rebelling against God and God sent the snakes. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said “The light came into the world and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil.” The orge is the reason that all of us love the darkness more than light, the orge is the thing that keeps pulling us back into the dark.
This is the force that tries to control us every day, that tries to get us to do whatever makes us feel good, even if that means that we hurt people or ourselves. This is the force that keeps us enslaved to our own desires, our own selfishness, our own sins. This is the desire that kills us slowly, each and every day. This is the force that we all have inside of us that draws us into the darkness and makes human life messy and dark and dangerous.
But God came to save us from this. God sent Jesus down to do battle with this force. God sent Jesus to free us from the chains that this force keeps us in, from the prison where we are kept by this force inside all of us. God sent Jesus to defeat this force. This is no high and lofty God that does not want to dirty himself by coming to near us. This is not a distant God who doesn’t want to get any of our dirt on himself. This is a god who inserted himself into the darkness and messiness and sinfulness and brokenness of human life. This is a god who took on our flesh, lived our life, walked our ground, descended to the pit of human despair, defeated this force called orge and defeated death itself. That’s the theme in all of these passages. This is not a god who is just waiting to empty out his wrath on us because of our sins if we don’t believe in Christ. This is a god who loves us enough to insert himself into our dirt, get his hands dirty, and save us himself.
The writer of Ephesians tells us this. “However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.” God gave the Israelites a snake on a stick so that they could look up to it and live. God gave us Jesus Christ on the cross so that we could look up to it and live. Even if we are dying and we can’t get out of this cycle of death, God calls us to look on this cross and live.
Through this season of Lent, we have been learning how to live again. On Easter Sunday, we will receive the true life that is only found in Christ Jesus’ resurrection. So this season, we are preparing for this new life by learning how to live again. The whole rest of the year, our souls have been dying. No matter how many times we try to get back on the right track, it doesn’t seem like we can stop dying. No matter how many times we try to control this destructive force in us, it doesn’t seem like we can ever truly live. This week, God gives us the way to this new life. Look upon the cross of Jesus Christ, the symbol of torture and humiliation and death that God in Godself hung upon. Look upon that cross and receive new life.
Now go and remember that God in all of His divinity has descended into our darkness and is waiting to bring us into the light. Go and step into that light and see who you can bring with you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.