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Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.


Psalm 107:1-9

1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever. 2Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe. 3He gathered them out of the lands; from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 4Some wandered in desert wastes; they found no way to a city where they might dwell. 5They were hungry and thirsty; their spirits languished within them. 6Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 7He put their feet on a straight path to go to a city where they might dwell. 8Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children. 9For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.


Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.


Gospel: John 3:14-21

14{Jesus said to Nicodemus,} “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”


Hope Lifted up

Back in 1971, The Five Man Electric Band recorded the song Sign.  The words of the chorus are, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.  Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”  For those familiar with the song, I apologize.  Now, it’ll be stuck in your head for days.  I know, cuz it’s been rattling around in my head since Tuesday!  In one way, the question, “can’t you read the sign,” could be asked because we fail to see the signs.  We’ve all done it.  We’ve had that epiphany moment when we suddenly see something that’s been sitting there for weeks, months, or even years.

It might be a simple trinket that was picked up by the spouse at a yard sale, or a huge Billboard placed along a familiar route.  Things happen all around us, day in and day out, that escape our notice.  It’s been that way from the beginning I suppose.  Things creep into our lives seemingly unnoticed, and sometimes these things affect our lives in a profound way.  So, it was with the ruling king of the Jewish Southern kingdom circa 716–687 BC.

It was a mystery.  Hezekiah, the thirteenth king of Judah, the father of Manasseh, asked around about the mysterious bronze snake, named Ne-hush-tan, on display in a corner of the temple.  Encouraged by the prophet Micah, Hezekiah wanted to restore and strengthen the monotheistic religion of his forefathers.  In his estimation, the veneration of a “graven image” was inconsistent with the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham and Moses.  He enquired, but no one could remember the origin of the thing.  Hezekiah didn’t bother to research the matter further; he simply ordered the snake to be destroyed.  That put an end to idol worship within the walls of the temple.

Much later, some Jewish rabbis took the dusty case records out of the files and more earnestly did the research.  They concluded that the destroyed bronze serpent had something to do with the plight of their ancestors in the wilderness.  The historical records revealed that the Hebrews in the wilderness had camped for a long time at a place called Kedesh, a place about fifty miles south of the land of Canaan.  The Hebrew people, of the time, were losing their fear and amazement of the spectacular rescue from Egypt orchestrated by God through Moses.

The more the monotony and bleakness of the wilderness dampened their spirits, the louder their cry was to return to the “good old days” in Egypt.  Their continuous complaining and quarreling with Moses were testing God’s patience.  Finally, God speaks: “The Lord said to Moses, send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.  From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders” (Numbers 13:1-2).  10 of the 12 spies sent would come back and convince the people that the plan to move forward was foolish.  They argued, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”  And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored.  They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it.  All the people we saw there are of great size.  We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim).  We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (vs. 31-33).  But the other two spies told a different story.

Joshua and Caleb said that the Lord has promised the descendants of Abraham a “Land flowing with Milk and honey,” and we should trust God to give us this land: Caleb said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (vs. 30).  The people chose to listen to the 10 unfaithful spies.  And because of the people’s lack of faith, God sentenced the Hebrew people to wander the desert for the next 40 years; one year for each day the spies were checking out the Promised Land.  This of course wasn’t the first, nor the last, time the people would rebel.  Even after turning back from looking into the Promised Land, the people would forget all God had done, and was doing, for them and they would rebel.  Maybe this is why God accompanied much of His work with signs.  Think about it for a moment.

Almost from the beginning, God gave visible reminders of His work.  When expelled from the Garden of Eden, God set an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance.  After the Flood, God set a rainbow in the sky.  At Babel, He confused the language of the people.  When Lot’s wife looked back to Sodom, she was turned into a pilar of salt.  When God made His covenant with Abraham, He instituted circumcision.  The 10 plagues to free the people from bondage in Egypt.  The dry land to cross the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud by day, fire by night, the bronze plates from the censors of those killed by fire for rebelling, Festival days…I could continue into the New Testament with the signs of water, wine, and bread, but I think you get what I’m saying here.  God gives us visible signs as reminders for us to recall all God has done, and is doing, for us.  In the case of the Hebrew people, God responded to their repeated rebellion in different ways.  This brings us to our Old Testament reading for today, to the bronze serpent.

Between the time of their refusal to trust God and enter into the land of Canaan, and God sending them back the way they came, the people complained and rebelled, so the Lord sent poisonous serpents to attack the faithless people.  The people recognized the error of their ways and quickly repented and confessed their sin against God and Moses.  After Moses appealed to God, God directs Moses to place a bronze serpent upon a pole as a sign of their deliverance from the serpents.  In faith and hope, the people could look at the serpent and be delivered from the jaws of death.

Later they would remember that God and His grace were manifested in three gracious signs: the manna, the pillars of fire by night and smoke by day, and, third, the bronze serpent.  The bronze snake in the temple hadn’t been placed there to encourage idolatry, it had been placed there to remind the people of God’s mercy and deliverance in the wilderness.  In certain ways, the time in the wilderness had some positive results.

I entered the Air Force in 1979 and during my career was never stationed in my home state of Arizona.  Over the years, I would return for visits, but I would simply fly in and fly out, seldom venturing out more than a couple of miles from mom’s house.  It would be years before I began to ride around with Mark and begin to really notice the changes that had taken place in the Phoenix area with the passage of time.  On one particular outing I remember going back to my hometown of Chandler.  I knew the names of the streets, but I realized I couldn’t rely on my memories of where to turn and when.  Chandler had been my home for 19 years and many years had passed since I had left it.

On my last trip home, it was my job as the executor of mom’s estate to oversee the details of getting the house ready to sell.  Even though I had been back for my mother’s passing, it seemed so much had changed.  As I stepped into the living room and looked around, the years of memories came flooding back.  As I reflect on that week, I realize that the recalling of memories sometimes smooths the rough spots and highlights the good times; the moments of laughter, the moments of family solidarity, challenges met, and the obstacles overcome.  The positive overshadowed the more difficult memories.

Perhaps that was the purpose of the bronze snake in the temple, like the signs God uses of His work in our lives, so too was the bronze serpent in the Temple a reminder of the hope God raised for them in the wilderness, of not only their sin and failings, but also of God’s goodness to them, of their deliverance from Egypt, and of the fulfillment of God’s promise made to their ancestor Abraham.

So what does a snake in the wilderness have to do with us?  According to the gospel writer, John, who quotes Jesus, there is a connection: “… 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” (John 3:14-15).  Jesus predicted His own elevation upon the cross.  The Greek word used here for lifted up doesn’t imply that Jesus is the snake, it points to the “elevation,” (or the exultation of Jesus), that there is salvation.  The Hebrew people looked on the bronze serpent for God’s healing and hope and we look to the person of God hung on the cross because we believe in His work of salvation.  When the Jews looked at the elevated snake, they were rescued from death; today we look at the crucified Christ and we are likewise delivered from sin, death, and the devil.

Visitors to Jerusalem today go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to see an enclosed marble chapel many believe marks the spot of the tomb of Jesus.  At the other end of the structure are the remains of the hill of Golgotha, barely visible behind stone walls.  The visitor is offered the opportunity to “see” the place where the cross was raised, raised to inspire abiding faith.

Emperor Constantine came to the Roman throne at the beginning of the fourth century in part through his spectacular victory in his face-off with Max-enti-us in northern Italy.  Constantine, a non-Christian, prayed for victory in the afternoon before the battle.  He had a vision, a cross of light in the heavens accompanied by the inscription, “Conquer by this!”  God appeared in a later dream and commanded him to use the sign of the cross in all encounters with his enemies.  Constantine prevailed, relocated the Roman capital to Byzantium, sent his mother, Helena, on a trip to the Holy Land, and convened the first of four Christian ecumenical councils at Nicaea in 325 AD, a meeting which began the process to define the orthodox Christian faith.  The hope, literally “lifted up” in Constantine’s battles, paved the road for the Christianization of the western world.

Sometimes, God lifts up hope when we desperately seek hope.  In the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, the “chosen people” were driven to the search for hope by God’s punishment.  Perhaps the story implies that they were heading in a hopeless journey of abandonment of the God who had delivered them from slavery.  God needed get their attention.  The fiery snakes were only a foretaste of their future if they continued down the path.  More “fiery snakes” would await them in a future of godless misery given over to false worship, idolatry, self-indulgence, and pride.  The only recourse was for the people to cast their eyes upon the bronze snake of healing.  Hope was restored and the road to the Promised Land was rediscovered.

Today, like the ancient Hebrew people, we too are not safe from the temptation to turn away from God and look to ourselves and our own understanding.  The story is told of a well-known gambler who answered the altar call at a revival.  The preacher asked him to burn his cards and his gambling equipment in front of witnesses as a testimony to his conversion.  He answered, “I can’t do that because if I did, what would I do if I backslid?”  Lent is the time to confess our propensity to abandon life in and with God.

When we’re “in the money,” we forget where our help, hope, and blessings come from.  We forget our Baptismal promises to keep God first in our lives and to love our neighbors.  We complain if we’re losing the battle to keep up with the Joneses.  We’re tempted to complain that the Manna and water, given to us by God, are not enough.  We covet the best wines, the high-end automobiles, and want to live in spacious homes with at least three televisions and an entertainment room with stadium seating.  We begin to believe that what God entrusts to us is ours, not gifts given for us to work in God’s kingdom and to share with others in God’s name.  So God places signs in our lives to wake us up, to drive us back to our senses, to see all God is doing and has done for us.

Helen Keller, as a child, was taken hundreds of times by Miss Sullivan to the well with the pump.  Her tutor held Helen’s hands beneath the flow of water and patiently spelled out the letters, w-a-t-e-r, on Helen’s palm.  Helen, deaf, mute, and blind, didn’t seem able to grasp what was going on.  Suddenly, one day, Helen grabbed the hand of her teacher and in turn spelled out the word, w-a-t-e-r.  The months of patience paid off.

Why did it take so long for Helen to recognize the freedom and grace offered to her by her teacher?  Why does it take so long for some of us to come to realize the life saving grace God has to offer?  Later, Helen Keller said of herself, “I was a no-thing living in a no-world and I did not know that I was.”  Too many people today struggle and hobble along in lives that are only half-lives.  They are, in part, “no-things” living in a “no-world” and don’t even know that they are.

As a young man, Augustine, lived a life of pleasure-seeking and abandon until, alone in a garden in Milan, prompted by a soft voice, he began to read the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans.  His eyes fell upon the words, “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13-14).  Further inspired by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, the young man gave up his concubine and became the Bishop of Hippo, and perhaps one of the greatest Christian thinkers the world will ever know.

Augustine was driven by the fiery poison of his loose living to gaze upon the Christ on the tree and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The young North African replaced the destructive fire of reveling and licentiousness for the fire of faith in Christ.  It can happen to anyone: a felon in prison, a corporate head who turns from greed to compassion for their employees who depend upon the company pension, a runaway teen who returns to the love of the parental home.

God revealed His salvation and healing to His people in the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  God revealed His love, salvation, and healing again in His Son on the cross.  Jesus reminds us in our gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave [us] His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  The signs are all around us.  All we have to do is look, see and remember.


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