SCRIPTURE: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21



In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!


          During the Lenten season the focus of the sermons is on the “Promises of God”. I have mentioned that God provides skylights as a means for hope and how God commits to us by telling us that he will be God to us and our offspring throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.

          A United Methodist minister tells about his experience as a camp counselor for the Annual Conference elementary camp. Besides the regular church kids a number of at-risk kids were invited to participate in the camp. The minister said that in spite of the sleepless nights, he enjoyed the camp. And from his many years of attending church camps, he thought the camp food everyone was served was much above average.

          The minister said that one of the at-risk kids wrote home every night to his single parent mom describing in savory detail what he ate at every meal. In contrast, the minister wrote, some of the more affluent church kids complained loudly and insensitively at every meal about how bad the food was.

          In the Numbers story the people of Israel are having a different kind of camp experience during the Exodus. Yet their complaints about the food sound like a bunch of spoiled kids as well. The people rant incoherently. They don’t have food or water but they “detest this miserable food.” It sounds like they have been in the sun too long.

          Yet we too have been there haven’t we? We too have majored in the minors complaining about inconsequential things. Detesting food is a matter of taste, not of truth.

          They have forgotten the truth of their situation that God is delivering them from the pain, the suffering, and death of slavery. They are discovering perservance isn’t easy. They are discovering that moving from oppression to freedom, from slavery to salvation, from where they have been to where God wants them, is not easy.

          Snakes, somewhat plentiful in all desert environs, have a prominent place in Middle Eastern history. The term “poisonous serpents” here is from the Hebrew word “seraphim” which comes from the root meaning “to burn.” These are not just ordinary snakes. These are divine agents. They are active in the call of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah chapter six. Their fire is life threatening. Yet they also are able to purify the prophet.

          According to the tradition, the cobra, often depicted on the Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress, was said to spit fiery venom on its enemies. Its purpose was to protect and destroy.

          In our Numbers account God sends his seraphim to punish Israel for murmuring, but also to heal them. Once the people have confessed their sin and requested intercession, God instructs Moses to place a seraph on a pole as an antidote to snake bites. This action is an attempt to lift and transform the cause of their pain to be their cure. It is an effort to lift their complaints about taste to grateful praise for gracious freedom received.

          The seraphim are agents of death or life depending on the nature of the actions of the people. Trivial and self-indulgent complaints lead to death; by them we will kill our own spirits and too often fatally infect others.

          Yet even in their most trivial moment of pointless haranguing, God devises medicine to heal the people of Israel. Two weeks ago I spoke of the promise of God to be God for us. The healing action of God is evidence of God’s commitment. Neither the people of Israel nor any of the rest of us can become so terminally ill that God is unable to heal us. God will develop the medicine. Will we take it? Will we let God lift our pain?

          Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Revelation”, about Mrs. Turpin, who had all kinds of people and relationships categorized on a scale from terrible to exceptionally good. The young women in the story, Mary Grace (what a name, a combination of Jesus’ mother and what Jesus offers to us) hits Mrs. Turpin in the head with a textbook on developmental psychology. It’s a very symbolic action. When we refuse to see grace that saturates our world, God needs to hit us on the head, or the heel as with a snake, to get our attention.

          Our pain, so much of it is self-inflicted, needs to be raised to a new level. If we are going to complain, let’s at least complain about something significant. Also, there is something about God, that can, even in our pain, lift us to a higher level of existence.

          Nestled in the verses from the Gospel of John today are those wonderful words which Martin Luther called “the gospel in miniature:” “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.” (3:16)

          For John, “the world” is those people who are at odds with Jesus and God. John proclaims here God’s love for all of us, even those who would reject God’s love. Those who trust God accept the gift. For John, the judgment is not some future event that comes at the end of time. It is how we live now, in relationship with God or not. The way we act in the presence of God’s light, accepting it or hiding from it, is the defining mark of our identity.

          John refers to Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness, and says Jesus being lifted up on the cross is parallel. The verb means both “lift up” and “exalt.” It is the lifting up of Jesus, his crucifixion, that exalts him.

          This is John’s use of irony. The cross of humiliation becomes the throne of grace. Jesus lifts the pain of his own murder to be the healing grace of our reunion with God, our salvation. It is a demonstration of how utterly and completely God is with us.

          For the gospel writer John, Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, are one continuous event. That’s how he can do the play on words involving “lifting-up” in death and exaltation. Tony Campolo described our life situation this way: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

          There are times when we live as though our whole lifespan is on Friday. We are dead and deadly. We are robbing our own lives and the lives of others. We are going down, way down. But the light has come into the world. “The light that shines in darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5). In Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross the light shines on our deadly ways. Looking through an empty tomb we see the way. We see the journey to new life. Our pain is lifted.

          A young mother recently lost her father to death. She is mature, with an incredible depth of faith. Yet loss hurts all of us, even those with deep faith. Her four-year old son one night at bedtime said, “I have an invisible Daddy” (he has a flesh and blood Dad too). “He’s really nice,” the four-year said, looking at his mother expectantly. She responded, “Do you think I could have one too?” His eyes lit up, “Yes,” and her little boy waves his hands ceremoniously, and says, “Now you have one too and he’s really nice.”

          She asks, “Is he like my real Dad?” “Yes, and you know what that means?” he son asks rhetorically. “That means he knows how to fish. And he can give you hugs and he can give you kisses on the cheek. He lives inside you now.’

          The mother reflected on this and said, “So I don’t know whether this was the voice of God, the spirit movements of my Dad, or a very intuitive and loving four-year old. But I don’t care, because now I have an invisible Daddy living inside me, and he’s just like my real Dad. And this was a moment that would have brought my real Dad to tears.”

          Lifted pain! Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross lifts us to the reality that there is an invisible one who loves us always.

          Thanks be to God.