Monday, March 12, 2018

Like Moses Lifted Up the Serpent in the Wildnerness

John 3:14-21  
4 Lent 

Numbers is a book which shows
to its readers or hearers how God was with the Israelites
even during their 40 years in the wilderness.

In this time in the wilderness, God is an unpredictable
and sometimes dangerous character,
and in this early stage of their relationship between
the Israelites and the all mighty and powerful creator of the universe
the people aren’t really sure how to handle their relationship.

Some people have likened dealing with God in this time
to dealing with a nuclear reactor.
If everything goes well, things are wonderful and great power is harnessed.
But if one piece is forgotten or overlooked,
it’s disaster for everyone involved.

It’s main character in the book is Moses.
The one with the direct link to God.
God and Moses and the people had a complicated relationship.
God would talk to Moses, Moses would talk to the people.
The people would talk to Moses and Moses would talk to God.

In churches we were told to avoid triangulation as much as possible,
having a conversation with someone through another person
to try and influence their behavior is not a good idea.
But right at the beginning,
our first biblical hero is caught in the worst one.

By the time of Numbers, the Israelites
had been out in the wilderness for a few years.
The miracle of the Red Sea was a distant memory to some of them.
And the people were cranky and frustrated.
“Why did we ever leave Egypt” they said over and over.
“Oh, we should have stayed in Egypt.
Things were so much better there.”
Meaning while they were in slavery to the Egyptians.

The people turn on Moses and his brother Aaron repeatedly.
Then God would threaten to do something horrible to the people
and then Moses would beg God not to do it.
And God would usually give in.
And this would be repeated over and over.
It was not a healthy relationship.

In Chapter 21, Moses and the Israelites find themselves
again by the Red Sea.
Where God had done such amazing things for them.
But instead of remembering God’s saving acts,
the people again start whining and crying,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to die?
We used to have food there.
We hate this manna that you’ve given us.”
In other words, we have nothing to eat . . .
and it tastes terrible.

Finally, the story goes, God had had it.
They forgot about what he had done at the Red Sea.
And they insulted food that God has made them.
The nuclear reactor was springing a leak.

So God released poisonous snakes  and the people
were bitten and many of them died.
They begged Moses to go back and tell God they were sorry
and they asked Moses to ask God to take away the serpents.

Now, did God actually send snakes to them?
Or were God’s chosen people having such a terrible time
and  they reasoned that God’s anger with them was the cause?
This is up for debate whenever we read the Hebrew Scriptures.
Regardless  --  Where the snakes came from
is not the most important part of the story.
The remedy is the most important part.

After the snakes, Moses went back to God and,
of course, God gave in.
But the remedy was unusual, a paradox really, a mystery.
The people wanted God to “take away the serpents from us”
But God did not take the serpents away.
God doesn’t even make the serpents stop biting them.
Deliverance does not come in the way that they expected.

The remedy was this:
God tells Moses to make another poisonous serpent --  
a permanent reminder of this episode with the snakes --
and set it on a pole and raise it up in front of the people.
Moses did it, he made the serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole.
Whenever those who were bitten
looked at the serpent, they would live.

God didn’t take the serpents away.
The snakes didn’t stop biting,
the remedy wasn’t to remove the evil.
The remedy was to look at the evil,
the problem, remember the pain,  and then they would live.
The only remedy was for them to look at the snake that bit them.

In the John story, Jesus tells Nicodemus
Nicodemus Visiting Jesus Henry Ossawa Taylor 1899
that he will be like that snake, 
he will be lifted up
so that we can look at him as well
and in the same way, we will live.

We have lived with Jesus death and the cross
as a symbol for so long, that some people
forget what it was:
it was an instrument of torture, capital punishment, 
a public display of the power the state
has to control and subdue silence and oppress

It’s violence that still used today to the same ends.
Like in war, when we dehumanize others in order
to feel good about killing them.
In the systemic racism that has existed in our country
since its foundation and still drives our economy and function.
In mass incarceration of large portions of our population,
In our neglect and suspicion of the poor around us.
When we turn our head and shrug our shoulders 
at the gun violence in this country as if there is nothing we can do about it.
This is the same violence that we see represented
in the cross of Jesus: violence that dominates and oppresses.

Like the Israelites blamed God for the poisonous snakes,
We have liked to say that Jesus died on the cross
to satisfy God’s anger at us.
That makes it easier for us to take,
if it was all God’s doing to atone for our petty and minor sins.

But the cross was not God’s invention, it was ours
Humans made this method of torture
and have made other methods too.
God did not kill his only son to satisfy God’s wrath,
God heard our wrath, our constant request for someone’s blood --  
and offered us his own blood instead.

God’s remedy for all this violence and blood lust was
not to just take it away and pretend it wasn’t there.
Instead, God lifted it up, made it the central symbol of our
religion, a constant reminder of what we are capable of.

Like that serpent in the wilderness,
the remedy to our evil is to look at it recognize it
deal with it, acknowledge it as a society,
as a country, as a whole species, and then we might live.

As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness,
Christ has been lifted up on the cross for us.
Look at the cross, look into the snake of humanity that bites us all.
Because in the face of that snake also is the power of resurrection.
In it also lies God’s power to make life again.

Because, in spite of all we can do and have done to each other,
in spite of the violence, in spite of the hatred,
and cries for blood, and apathy, and greed
and unchecked privilege,
and our comfort with other people’s suffering,
God still so loved this world that he gave his only son
to die for us so that we might live.

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