Friday, March 31, 2006


Texts: Num. 21.4-9; Eph. 2.1-10; John 3.14-21.
4th Sunday in Lent

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus. Amen.

A long time ago. Before cell phones; before the internet; before PlayStation. Before cars, before electricity. Before Martin Luther. Before Pastor Jim was the pastor here at St. Paul’s—which really was a long time ago. Way before all that, there were the people of Israel.

The people of Israel, led by Moses, wandering in the wilderness, halfway between the prison land of Egypt and the promised land of Canaan. The people of Israel, wandering for, oh, quite a while now in the wilderness, still not quite making it to the promised land. The people of Israel, beginning to murmur and complain. “The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses: why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” It’s not a new complaint, of course; Moses first heard it way back at the Red Sea, when it looked like the waters would not part and the Egyptian army would catch up with them. ‘Why did you bring us out in the wilderness?’ The people spoke against God.

And then the Israelites start to get bitten by poisonous snakes. Lots of them. So they go to Moses, appropriately chastened, and ask him for his help. And Moses prays about it, and does a strange thing: he builds a serpent out of bronze and puts it on top of a pole. And when anyone is bitten by a snake, Moses raises up the bronze serpent over his head, and the person is cured.

God’s response to the Israelites may strike us as a bit harsh. Most of us try our best to be kind and forgiving to other people, and to not lash out at them when they criticize us or complain about us. But here God seems to be behaving differently. What could Scripture be trying to teach us by telling us this story?

Part of the answer, I think, is the radicality of God’s response to sin. Israel’s hearts have begun to turn against God; they’re starting to doubt God’s care and guidance for them. They’re starting to pine for Egypt, for the very slavery that God worked so hard to liberate them from. And God’s response to this sin is not proportional. God’s not interested in playing tit-for-tat with the children of Israel, getting back at them when they do something wrong. God’s response is radical: God wants to get to the root of the matter. God is saying, in effect, look, this is how bad sin really is. You guys are sick. You need medicine.

It must have been a painful diagnosis. Sin, like snakebite, is poisonous—to our hearts, to our lives together as Christians, and to our love of God and neighbor. And the ones who need the medicine are not only those Israelites then, who clustered around the bronze serpent, but all of us. All of us are snakebit, ever since that first serpent bit our parents in the garden so long ago.

A long time ago—not, I should add, in a galaxy far, far, away, but it might feel like it. This scene takes place not in the wilderness but in the promised land of Israel, and its protagonist is not Moses but Jesus. Jesus is having a friendly midnight chat with Nicodemus. And in his discussion with him, Jesus weaves in some imagery from the Old Testament: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is. And Jesus tells him: If you want to know who I am, look at the bronze serpent. What am I about? I’m about healing. I’m about saving. I am the antidote for everyone who has been poisoned by this sick and sinful world. To some, the Old Testament story seems to portray an angry or wrathful God. But it’s worth noting that the image the New Testament appropriates from that story is not one about God’s wrath, but one about God’s healing. I did not come into the world to condemn the world, Jesus says, but in order that the world might be saved.

We’re past the halfway point in Lent right now, and we’re closing in on the finish line of Holy Week. Lent isn’t exactly the most popular season of the church year. Ash Wednesday is popular: people line up around the block to get ashes on their forehead. But then a lot of them disappear until Easter. It’s hard to know what do with Lent. Lent is supposed to be a solemn season of repentance—but I seem to spend a lot of my time asking myself if I’m measuring up to Lent. Am I giving up something for Lent? Is what I’m giving up big enough? Should I give up something bigger? Am I feeling solemn and repentful? Should I be feeling differently? Am I doing it right?

If I’m thinking like that, though, I’ve already lost my way. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we are or aren’t doing for Lent, but what Lent is really about is focusing on what God has already done. Lent is a time for us to sit with the reality of how costly God’s love is. When Jesus says that he will be lifted up like the bronze serpent, he not only looks backward in time to healing, but forward to suffering. Jesus shows us not only his desire to heal, but his commitment to that desire—a commitment even unto death. The God we see revealed in Jesus is nothing but love—but it is a resolute, determined love, a costly love, a love as hard as flint.

III. A long time ago, only about 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus. The author of Ephesians is tossing off a letter to the church there, trying to keep those rambunctious Ephesian Christians in line. And his words are a brilliant summary of the Gospel message: “By grace, you have been saved through faith,” he writes. “This is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Sin is the sickness; Jesus is the medicine. And the medicine is free. This is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.

As some of you know, I went to college at Yale. And as my parents never tire of reminding me, Yale is not a cheap place to attend college. And while I was at college I met someone who had an amazing story about how it became possible for him to attend Yale. This guy was brilliant, a straight-A student, bright and personable, just the kind of person Yale wanted. Yale was his first-choice school, and so he was delighted when Yale let him in. But he was less than delighted when he received his letter from the financial aid office. The financial aid they offered him simply wasn’t enough to get him over the hump; even putting it together with his family’s pretty limited resources, he still fell short by about $10,000 a year, or $40,000 total. He reluctantly started making alternate plans.

And then an amazing thing happened: he received an anonymous $40,000 donation. To this day he doesn’t know who it was from. How do you live when you’ve received a gift like that? How do you act? What do you think?

My friend only thought two things: first, he could go to Yale, and second, he could go to Yale because someone else had sacrificed $40,000 for him. The door that was shut had flown open again. And for the next four years, he lived like a man whose life is made possible by someone else’s costly generosity. He threw himself into his education: he could never say school wasn’t that important, or that what he did with his life didn’t matter, or that he’d made it there by himself. I find that people like him, who are where they are because of someone else’s great and costly gift, live strangely purposeful and humble lives.

A long time ago, God gave us all such a gift. God gave us healing for our sin and reconciliation with himself; it cost God everything, but it costs us nothing. Let us live like people who know the value of this gift, and how much it cost the one who gave it. Amen.


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