4th in Lent
March 11 2018
Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
Does anyone here like snakes? For me, they are the things of nightmares! Some years ago in Rwanda, I was encouraged to look out into Lake Kivu where there was a python swimming. I was looking the other way, I tell you, and moving that way as soon as I could without seeming too much of a coward!
Of all the trials the people of Israel endured in the wilderness, the one I would like least is that of the snakes. But our Old Testament lesson is not simply an incident in the exodus story. It has clear lessons for us today. It reflects human nature and it speaks of salvation coming from God.
The ignorance of the people leads God to send the serpents. So often we find ourselves in situations of our own making – we have within us the capacity to do good or evil, but the evil looks more attractive, more exciting, more edgy. Then we find ourselves in trouble.
Plagued by these poisonous snakes, people are dying. They cry out to God to take them away, but he doesn’t. God tells Moses to make a bronze version of a poisonous snake. He tells the people to look at it. That’s the last thing they want to do! They want God to take the snakes away, they want to look the other way, as I did by Lake Kivu! But God say: Look at it!
So often when we have a problem the last thing we want to do is to look at it. We want to look anywhere but there.
How often have you been fed up and the last thing you want to do is to think through what is making you feel that way? How often in troubled relationships – especially in marriage – the last thing the couple want to do is to look at the problem? How often when people get caught speeding, they make all sorts of excuses, instead of admitting that they simply drive too fast?
But God says, look at the snake, and then the poison becomes ineffective. “Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
How widely this applies! Everywhere, we see leaders and citizens turning a blind eye towards what their country is doing.
The evidence for climate change is now almost irrefutable, but we see President Trump refusing to look at the science. The British arms trade is fuelling conflicts in many parts of the world, but most people in the UK don’t want to know. We would rather be poisoned by the snake than look at the icon.
There is much I love about Israel. But the longer I live here the more it seems to me that most of its citizens are turning a blind eye to the snake in its midst. That snake is the huge injustice being done to the Palestinians. God is saying look at it, only then can it be sorted!
The story of the snakes has a lot to say to us today. But it also had a lot to say to the people of Jesus’ time.
Today’s Gospel reading is characteristic of John. Jesus is approached by, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and that story leads on to teaching, in a series of sayings only very loosely connected. One of these refers back to the story from the book of Numbers: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that, whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
I think it is right to take this as referring to the crucifixion. It is not too much of a stretch to paraphrase it as saying: “To believe in Jesus you need to look carefully at the cross.” As the people of Israel needed to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, so too we need to look to the cross for our healing, our salvation. In the Greek of the New Testament, it’s the same word.
For the early Christians, the death of Jesus on a cross is a shame and a disgrace. We are so used to the idea of the crucifixion that we don’t appreciate this. It is one of Paul’s radical theological ideas to call Christians to associate themselves with the disgrace of the cross. But that theological principle has then been sustained in the church ever since. Far from looking away from the cross, we are called to affirm our belief in Jesus by looking resolutely at the cross. It is the source of our strength, our comfort and our hope.
What does “looking resolutely at the cross” really mean for us in the twenty first century? What does it mean to take up our own cross? Following Jesus, reflecting in our lives his life, teaching and priority for the poor and the marginalised often require a willingness to accept the same way of disgrace. It is about finding a lifestyle that has integrity alongside the story of the life of Christ and can involve shame, disgrace and even exile from those we love.
Living with integrity is not easy. A young mother had left her six-year-old and eight-year-old playing upstairs when suddenly there was some terrible shouting from them. It was all so angry that she ran upstairs to see what was going on. “What are you two arguing about” she said – her daughter replied – “we’re not arguing – we’re just playing mummies and daddies!”
In the reading from Ephesians Paul picks up the vital understanding that as Christians we are saved by grace. We have no reason to expect God’s forgiveness or God’s love, but the amazing truth is that we are saved by grace.
Why then does the passage we read from this letter end with the verse it does? “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
It links back to the heart of our reflections on the cross of Christ being the icon on which we all need to look. Looking to the cross is about living out a lifestyle that reflects something of the life of Jesus.It is seen in the care we give to those neglected by others, in the way we work for justice. It is seen in how we live our lives working for peace between all people, or doing what the sheep do in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
God’s graceful salvation is not given to us to make us feel better about ourselves, or so that others might admire us for what we are. It’s given to us to free us from the consequences of our failings, the consequences of our sin, so that, set free, we might live our lives in the way of Jesus – “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Lent is a period in the church’s year set aside for self-examination. As we move towards Good Friday and Easter may we examine our hearts again to see how far our belief in Christ, our acceptance of salvation by grace, our looking towards the cross, really is making a difference in the way in which we live, how we behave towards others, how we work for a better world, how we do “good works”? At the heart must be the challenge in life to learn more of love and to live by it.
May each of us grow through this year’s Lenten season – so that by the time we celebrate Easter we may be a little more like the people God wants us to be. Look to the cross, look at the bronze serpent and look to living more in the manner of Jesus.