Fourth Sunday in Lent Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Lent 4 B March 22, 2009 Textweek

Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The readings today are quite complex; they seem to be a long way away from our contemporary and rational understanding, almost to the point of verging on the irrelevant. God sends poisonous snakes to kill his chosen people; Moses makes a bronze serpent, sticks it on a pole and that saves the day. How can we understand that as illustrative of our relationship with God?

One of the ways to do that is to begin by acknowledging that we enter a world of ancient wisdom. We’re not looking at the readings, we’re not listening to them with our TV eyes and our TV ears. It’s not an advertising sound-grab, there's no jingle attached. We’re going into the realm of the Divine and we enter through the narratives of holy scriptures into a timeless worldview that uses narrative and symbolism to explore the very nature of life. It’s not a situation comedy, it’s not a series; it’s not the next episode of The Bill that tells us how life is going on. This is a timeless world.

The snake is one of those really ancient symbols and the snake speaks almost ambiguously of Life and death. From the Garden of Eden we hear the snake - from the place of Life. It speaks of Life and yet holds within its mouth the poison of death.

The Old Testament readings so far during Lent have been exploring our ‘Covenant’ relationship with God – through Abraham, through Moses we’ve been seeking to explore what is the interaction between human and divine? Today we hear that covenant is put to the test, which is the very process of the journey of Lent into the wilderness - putting to the test.

The people of Israel are in their wilderness; they are impatient; they’re grumbling against God, they’re grumbling against Moses, they’re grumbling against each other. Today what we find is the people of Israel in the modern world - distrusting, doubting what their faith holds for them, and looking rather to their own self-interest, looking to their own self-sufficiency in order to find satisfaction.

The covenant relationship is gone, the relationship that sought to form the people into an instrument of blessing for the families of the earth. That covenant relationship has faded; self-interest has gained the foreground; the covenant is forgotten. That forgetfulness of the covenant relationship with God brings out the poisonous serpents. Death comes. In terms of the Old Testament narrative, what we find is that death comes from God – God sends the poisonous serpents. This is presented as God’s response: it’s just worth holding that - God is the giver of Life; God is also the giver of death.

Then we remember the rainbow - seemed only a week or two ago that we heard the promise of God that life would not be extinguished, the flood of death will never return. And so today another option is identified, and again we go back to the symbols in the narrative: God engages Moses in building a new ark - the bronze serpent. This becomes the means of restoring life and of countering the poison. It also is an option, a choice for the people: ‘everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live’. This new ark of Moses has a sign of a serpent on a pole; it’s quite different to the sign of the rainbow. The sign of the rainbow overarched the whole of creation – this was God, making fully visible to the whole of the earth, the promise of the covenant. In today’s reading that’s changed: the sign is still there, but we are given the option of seeking it out, of looking to it in order to find life.

So what we have in the Old Testament reading is an illustration of the process of restoring covenant. The object, the focus of restoration is the bronze serpent, and that too is a telling symbol because it is a coming together, a coming together of the natural order - the snake, a coming together of the Divine specifications - God’s instructions to Moses, and a coming together of the work of faith - the making and raising of the serpent by Moses. The bronze serpent is an object of co-creation: a coming together that transforms, just as the transfiguration was a coming together of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The people of Israel in their modern wilderness were transfigured, restored again into covenant with the Divine.

In the second reading Paul opens up exactly the same ancient wisdom for the church at Ephesus. ‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses’ – even when we were in the wilderness of snakes – ‘made us alive together with Christ’ - by grace you have been saved – ‘raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’.

If you google ‘Interlinear Bible’ and key in those verses, you’ll get the English and underneath it you’ll get the Greek. What it enables you to do is see how the Greek was written. And the interesting thing in the Greek for tat passage is that the three verbs in it all begin with the same prefix, they all have an ‘syn’ prefix, as does ‘synergy’, a coming together. ‘Made us alive together with Christ’ – that verb begins with the same prefix as synergy; ‘raised us up with him’ - same prefix as synergy, coming together; ‘seated us with him in the heavenly places’ – third verb, again with the prefix of synergy, the coming together. And it’s those life movements where we can see that coming-together that we determine our future.

If you watch our politicians, you can see from their reference points the movements (or lack of movement) that they are generative of, you can see the process of creation. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are far more interested in themselves and in each other than they are in any other reference point; they are so illustrative of Israel in the wilderness, and perhaps as we look into the mirror of Lent we can see through that illustration our own predicament. The reference point becomes the self - impatience and grumbling, self-orientation (self-funding), the closing the borders, the looking after me first. We wander in the wilderness of sin with the divine covenant fading into the background of forgetfulness.

Then we hear the Gospel: ‘And 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. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ The same process that we heard of in the Old Testament of Moses in the wilderness with the people of Israel we now hear again through the gospel, calling us back to that ancient wisdom, calling us back into the Divine promise - a call into the covenant relationship that speaks only of Life, Life forever.

And the process of synergy is again evident. The bronze serpent was an object of co-creation - a coming-together that transforms. In Christ, the Divine is made manifest – comes together - in Humanity. Heaven and earth are one; the veil is lifted, the Light overcomes the darkness. We are invited to look to Christ, lifted on the cross and lifted from the tomb.

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris