Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14th, 2021


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Our lessons for the fourth Sunday of Lent are taken from Numbers 21, Psalm 107, Ephesians 2 and John 3. During Lent we continue with selections from the 4th Gospel instead of Mark, and the epistle reading has been chosen specifically to come alongside the familiar OT reading—Gospel link. Unlike last Sunday we have no subtle associations but manifest and clear ones. Jesus himself makes the association. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The great conductor of the symphony of scripture himself lifts the baton.

I want to begin the scriptural reflections for Lent 4 with the verses chosen from Psalm 107. I believe they help us understand what Jesus is doing when he reaches into the collective memory of Israel and likens himself to the serpent which Moses raised as a means of healing and salvation.

Israel cultivated recollection. Memory is a key faculty in her life with God. She was regularly commanded to tell about the past and present to future generations – see Psalm 78 or the book of Deuteronomy or the opening chapter of Joel. Just to the degree that her life with God gave her life and gave her identity, she cherished the past. It told her who she was and who she is. It is the arena of God’s election life with her and defines her life. But the real surprise is the cultivation of the past which involves her weaknesses, rebellion, and unfaithfulness. For that part of her life was precious just because it was her life with God, because God is Holy, and also because it included the memory of God’s patience, forbearance and love.

In Books Four and Five of the psalms especially, we find reflections on the past, and more specifically the past in the wilderness. Israel remembers with gratitude God’s power and mercy in bringing her out of bondage and suffering, through mighty acts, that are recited as though still fresh in her memory. Or just to be sure they are and remain fresh. But she also recalls episodes of failure. Embarrassing moments we would prefer to forget. They are also recited as if yesterday. Because they remind her of God’s patience through it all, manifest in her present ongoing life in him. They are part of the role of the book that is the album of life with God. They are precious for being exposures of her weakness and sin and in just those moments, the discovery that God was more than tit for tat. That he had a love whose purpose was furthering his life with Israel and teaching her through forgiveness more and more about himself.

This morning in Psalm 107 we see a striking further reality. The psalms preceding this one clearly rehearse the past and the scenes of God’s authority in the wilderness, in power and in forbearance. But reading the psalm in its entirety for today we see that the distant past is not in view, but a more recent rendition of it. The psalmist speaks of God’s gathering the dispersed of Israel from north, south, east and west, whose experience of hardship and threat, on land and on sea, are present examples of God’s care, like unto his care in the past but shown to be fully contemporaneous in like manner as well.

When Jesus then speaks of the serpent Moses raised in the wilderness he is speaking in like manner. Of a past that remains real. And of a present in him that takes a form like unto it, and now with the final stamp of his purposes forever.

In the recital psalms where Israel’s punishment in the wilderness is recalled, the past become an occasion for the present reciters to acknowledge the failures of previous generation and in so doing to seek forgiveness and present help. In the case of the serpent of Moses, the generation of Moses cried out for help and for forgiveness. We are at that place in Numbers after the most serious moment of rebellion in the wilderness – the spy story of Numbers 13-14. Israel is ready to enter the land. There was no need for a forty-year wandering. Yet they squandered it out of fear and failure to trust in the manifest power of God, already made so clear to them with Pharaoh and at the Sea. Only those under twenty would enter the land, and the generation who had witnessed God’s acts of mercy would die in the wilderness, save Joshua and Caleb, who had brought a good report. So even with this dire verdict over them, God acts in mercy to save them, in spite of an ongoing rebellious spirit, exceeding even the tenfold description on the occasion of that earlier rebellion. Bitten by snakes and dying they cry out. They acknowledge their guilt. “We have sinned against the Lord and against you.” And the Moses who will die in the wilderness, having bought through intercession the lives of those under twenty, prays for the people here. The LORD provides a remedy. The very means of their punishment and dying becomes the means of their salvation and life.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians. We are all like the Israel of the wilderness. We are dead in our trespasses. In the DNA of rebellion. Even after reprieves we followed the course of this world. In his stark language we are children of wrath. But matching this stark verdict is the serpent of Moses set up high for us to see. In the starkness of death and poison in our veins. To show the power of God’s love. God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world. But to give us access to an entirely new, cycle breaking Son of Man lifted up that whoever believes in him may have not just life but life eternal. Those over twenty, those under twenty, those who believe, who in believing will not perish but have eternal life.

Again Paul puts it well. In looking at the Son raised up. In believing in the power of God at work in him. We are made alive by grace. Seated with him. This is the unearned gift of God, an undeserved serpent on a pole, given in the midst of death and trespasses, with the poison of death in our veins, that a person may look, believe, live and be seated with the one lifted up and bruised that we might have eternal life.

We see of course—or used to see—the words of John 3:18 raised up on a pole, like the bronze serpent, at sports events. The odd looking man with the sign board. In a funny way, one could take this as a sentimental account of the amazing grace of God in sending his son. When in reading John further beyond this single verse we see that the amazing act of grace is not universally received for being so, anymore than the basketball game stops as all kneel down in homage.

Not believing is for John a kind of self-condemnation. It is an unwillingness to accept the potion necessary for life, because this would mean crying out in need, acknowledging as did Israel that our predicament isn’t just environmental but inside of us. The laser beam of God’s light worked with special force with those he chose and loved, the people of Israel, much to their joy and their punishment both.

In crying out for God’s mercy the link to God’s love is made available. One looks on the only son given in love and is saved. The deeds done in God are those which flow from our relationship of salvation in him. Not of boasting. It is not our own doing, as Paul says. Not the result of works. But a gift that enables giving in that light.

And that is why John does not sentimentalize God’s gift of the Son. Jesus was raised high on the cross because of the evil men prefer in their hearts, an evil that has bitten us all. But that same cross is also the means of, the place of, the permanent pole star of, our forgiveness. There is no untangling of the darkness and the light on our side. God’s triumph to win us is into and through darkness, bringing us forth into his life where deeds can now be done in him, which flow from him and his saving embrace of us. In that light the unbearable weight of sin is transformed, conquered and set to a new purpose in Jesus Christ.

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