Transcribed from an audio recording.
Gracious God help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
God, with a pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, led them through the wilderness. That’s a pretty good GPS system.
When I first read the Scriptures appointed for today and was thinking about my sermon and started with that passage you heard from Numbers, I confess to you that the first image that came to mind was that terrifying scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is in the pit with all the snakes creeping and crawling around. And he said, “Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?” My sentiments exactly! So as any good preacher who is honest would do, I quickly looked at the other Scriptures appointed for today hoping and praying that one of the others would be more comprehensible, palatable, and preachable. And, of course, they are. The Gospel lesson contains probably the best known and most loved verse in all of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What’s not to like about that? So as I continued to pray about my sermon, praying about which Scripture I was to base my sermon upon, unfortunately the snakes kept coming back. I hated that, to be honest and still do. But in that we’re in the penitential season of Lent when we are called to go more deeply and to look at the things that we often would rather not look at full-face, I knew that I had to wrestle with the snakes.
So let’s start by putting that story in context. You’ll remember that Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of bondage and slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. You’ll also recall that all along the way the Israelites had a bad habit of grumbling: don’t like the water; don’t like the food; don’t like the fact there’s no meat. And in the story we heard this morning they complain once again. But this time it’s a little bit different because they not only complain against Moses; they complain against God. And God sends the serpents who bite them. Some die, which obviously gets the Israelites’ attention. So the Israelites, as they’ve done so many times before, go to Moses; they say, “We have sinned against God.” And Moses goes to God, prays on behalf of the Israelites, and then God says, “Moses, take a serpent and put it up on a pole and henceforth, when the Israelites are bitten by poisonous serpents, they will look up and be saved.”
What a weird story! So what is going on there? Many biblical scholars say that really the snakes are a metaphor for sin and that when the Israelites confess their sin and look up and see a symbol of that sin they know where their true salvation is—holding in tension judgment and grace. In truth it’s such a weird story, I honestly don’t think it would’ve appeared in the lectionary were it not referenced in that gospel lesson from John. When Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus and he talks about, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” for those who believe to have eternal life. And in this Lenten journey we realize that Nicodemus was receiving from Jesus a foreshadowing of his crucifixion and resurrection. And as we are three weeks away from Easter and the time when we celebrate the resurrection, we know that we cannot get to Easter without journeying to Calvary and the cross and Good Friday.
I think part of the answer of what’s going on in that story means that we actually have to go back to Egypt. You’ll recall that the Israelites were in a crushing and oppressive situation—back breaking, brick making. Yet when they leave, they, like us, remember and forget, remember and forget. They engage in collective amnesia thinking about how wonderful life was in Egypt. It’s the Let’s Go Back to Egypt Committee because in Egypt, of course, they had vegetables and fruit and a whole variety of things to eat. But they skipped right over the fact that it was bondage and slavery that they were a part of. And I think that part of what is going on in the story is fear. H.P. Lovecraft has said that “The oldest and strongest human emotion is fear; and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown.” As awful as it was in Egypt they knew where their next meal was coming from. As awful as it was in Egypt they had shelter over their heads.
Going out into the wilderness meant going out into the unknown. Have you ever wondered why, when technically speaking, Cairo is roughly 250 miles from Israel, it took them 40 years? I mean it’s not as if they had a bad cartographer and navigator. God, with a pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, led them through the wilderness. That’s a pretty good GPS system. And I think that part of it was God recognizing that it would take the Israelites a while to live and be freed from slavery, living into what it meant to be in covenant with God and to be God’s people—because you will recall, with the Mosaic covenant that God said, I will be your God and you will be my people if you follow my Commandments. It was going to take a while for them to figure out that ultimately their trust—that they are and all that they have—are gifts from the one true God, not all those gods in Egypt, including the Pharaoh, but the one true God. It was fear of the unknown and a longing for the familiar—a restlessness.
Don’t we all experience a longing for the known? The unknown is very anxiety producing. Don’t we all in a way, when we look at our economy, when we look at the unemployment situation, when we look at all the plethora of issues that we face today- war, the economy, healthcare—long for a time when it seemed simpler because the unknown is scary? But like the Israelites who could not go back to Egypt, we too cannot go back to pre-September 11th. We cannot go back to the time before the economy imploded. We cannot go back to the time before the earthquake shook this Cathedral. What we are called to do, like the Israelites, is to not look down at the weeds and the snakes that would seek to paralyze us and freeze us in our fear and anxiety, but to look up, to look up to the one true God. St. Augustine in the beginning of his confessions, in speaking about God, said that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We are called not to long for a time that was; but, with God’s help, to move forward into the Promised Land and what God intends for us and to remember along the way that we’re not alone in that journey.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Amen.