The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2015

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

Background: Serpents
The serpent makes several appearances in both the Hebrew and in the Christian Scriptures.  The primary image is that of the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in his playing with the notions of wisdom and knowledge.  Moses uses a staff that is changed into a snake. This is not the only instance in which Moses is associated with a serpent.  In the desert, as the Children of Israel wander from Egypt to Canaan, Moses puts up a copper serpent, wrapped around a pole as a sign of healing and salvation. Later, it is King Hezekiah who removes the serpent of Moses from the Temple and destroys it. Finally, in the Gospel of John, we meet Moses’ serpent again, where Jesus refers to it and compares himself to it in his conversation with Nicodemus.

The serpent, in the ancient near east often was a symbol of fertility and often of resurrection – seeing that concept in the shedding of the serpent’s skin.  It is also representative of sexual desire, an outgrowth of its identification with fertility. The cult of the serpent was well represented in Canaanite religious life, and archaeological remains of such cult object have been found in abundance. They were also an integral part of Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite religions. It is no surprise then, that this symbol makes an appearance in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but 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? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Once again we introduced to the pattern of complaint that is firs introduced to us in Exodus 17 and that is common in the story of the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness. Here it is a complaint about the “wretched bread” with which God has supplied them. This sets the psychological stage for the story that is to follow; for the people have detested the very bread that God has given them. Their complaint is met with an immediate response from God who visits them with “fiery serpents”, the “fiery” part more than likely referring to the effect of the venom. What we miss in the English is the pun that is in the directive to Moses to make a serpent (naash) out of bronze (neoshet). One wonders if this story doesn’t serve as an etiology to explain the ubiquitous presence of bronze or copper serpents throughout the region. None-the-less we have another example of the complaint/response pattern in which the people complain, God punishes, and God repents of the original judgment.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. What complaints do you have about life?
  2. In what ways do you think God is responsible for these troubles?
  3. How do you talk to God about that?

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.

Let all those whom the LORD has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.

They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death's door.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.

He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.

Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

The initial word of this psalm is “thanks”, and so we recognize here a thanksgiving psalm. The active verb of the second stanza underscores what the thanksgiving is all about – redemption, here redemption from “the hand of the foe.” So this is not a spiritual redemption, so much as a political redemption. The following verses, however, tie it to the situation recounted in the first reading, which may serve as a spiritual backdrop to the actual thanksgivings of the psalm. “He gathered them out of the lands,” gives us a clue as to what the psalmist is thankful for, perhaps the return of the people from the land of exile during the sixth century BCE. Regardless of the specifics, the author of the psalm has a much more cosmic intent, “from the east and from the west (actually, ‘from the sea’.) from the north and from the south.” Our connection to the story from Numbers begins with the verse that reads, “Some were fools and took to rebellious ways, and were afflicted because of their sins.” The text goes on to speak of their abhorrence of any kind of food – a further symbolic connection with the first reading. Here as in the Numbers text, God intervenes and delivers them. Here it is God’s Word (read “intent”) that delivers them. God saves them from “the pit”, namely sheol – the place of the dead, and because of this great dead a sacrifice of thanksgiving is offered.

Breaking open Psalm 107:
  1. For what do you give thanks, right now?
  2. If you were saved from something, what was it?
  3. How will life be different now?

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Paul loves comparisons and here he compares our status as dead, and yet alive. Also present here are the so-called “you – we” comparisons, where the “you” represents the Gentile Christians who receive the letter from Paul, and the Jewish Christians, “we”, who are associated with Paul. Thus he begins the pericope with, You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” What follows is an example of a tri-partite reality to which Paul yet gives credence: the heavenly realm, “the power of the air” – an intermediary realm, and the earthly realm. It is this intermediate realm, namely Satan, that has power over “you”, and that serves as an obstruction to being “alive in Christ.” The obstructions are many: passions of the flesh, following the desires of the flesh and senses, and our nature as “children of wrath.” The picture here is not only of obstruction but also of a humanity that is in opposition to God and God’s will. As in Numbers, God greets us with grace, abundant grace, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.” So Paul introduces this gracious gift of God, known and intended before all time.

Breaking open Ephesians
  1. In what ways are you dead?
  2. In what ways are you alive?
  3. What makes for the difference?

St. John 3:14-21

Jesus said to Nicodemus, "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.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and 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."

This pericope is part of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ question, “How can things like this happen?” namely being born again. Jesus will talk about our being begotten again in the Spirit, but points out the necessity of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Here Jesus uses the symbology of the first reading as means to see Jesus’ own role – being lifted up (as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness). The following comment is very important, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is not just the one event of Jesus being lifted up on the cross, but a continuous being lifted up – on the cross – from the tomb – into the heavens. Jesus presence obviates the old pattern of complaint, judgment, and restoration. Here Jesus comes not to condemn but to save. At this point John highlights the theme of the light that not only exposes the deeds of evil people, but also the light that reveals the gifts of God.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Has your faith ever remade you? How?
  2. Have you seen others who have been transformed by what they believe?
  3. What is God shedding light on in your life?
 After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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