The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11 March 2018

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

Background: The Serpent

In the Hebrew Scripture as well as the Christian writings that followed them we have several encounters with the serpent. It was very much a part of the cultural and religious life of the Ancient Near East, and occupied roles that extended from the evil and chaotic to those that were examples of healing and fertility. In Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia, and in Greece we meet these creatures in various roles and guises. In Mesopotamia, the snake was often depicted as eating its own tail, symbolizing the cycle of life. There are several instances of bronze serpents adorning holy places, or being held by deity and ruler alike The Hebrew stories range from the Serpent in the Garden, to the miraculous staff of both Moses and Aaron. In today’s readings we greet the serpent, represented in bronze and used by Moses and Jesus to teach a lesson.

First Reading: 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.

What is this story? Is it an etiology explaining the presence of a bronze serpent in Israel, or tying the story of journey to a locale and its difficulties? Its form is one that is used frequently in the Sinai saga – namely the grumbling motif in the face of either hunger or thirst. It might be a pun, with a point. The verb “to loathe” in Hebrew is nafsheinu and the one of the Hebrew words for “serpent” is naash. The story, discouraging the attitude of the people in the face of God’s gift of bread is played against one of the words for serpent. The force of these two words becomes “the cure” evident in the serpent who heals the serpent’s wound.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. What do you often grumble about in your life?
  2. Has God addressed your needs?
  3. Have you looked on your grumbling as a sin?

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

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3      He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
17    Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.
18    They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death's door.
19    Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
20    He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.
21    Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
22    Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

As I ususally advise, it is good for the reader to experience the entirety of Psalm 107, because the elided verses provide for a more complete context describing the salvation of Israel and its various responses to God’s acts. The initial verses rejoice in the delivery that God has given the enslaved people and has somewhat of a universalistic bent to its description, “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” The biblical materials locate the Jews up in the Nile River Delta, but Simon Schama, in his book The Story of the Jews[1], describes the Jews living in a much broader area than the biblical texts might suggest. He locates them in Elephantine as well, given the evidence of the Elephantine papyri. Thus the verses might suggest that with their directional reference. Or they might have been written or redacted in a period where there was a growing understanding of Judaism’s appeal to a much larger international audience.

The last verses of the pericope used today seem to be a commentary on the grumbling pattern. God delivers them from their hunger and thirst, but “abhor all manner of food.” Yet, God delivers them, and the psalmist bids them give thanks and “tell of his acts with shouts of joy.”

Breaking open Psalm 107:
  1. How does Psalm 107 show the whole gamut of our reactions to God?
  2. From what difficulties has God delivered you?
  3. How was that satisfactory?

Second Reading: 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. But 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 takes a moment from his commentary on the universal church to speak about God’s plan for the entirety of creation. Here again we see the “you/we” pattern in Ephesians. The “you” are the Gentiles who are addressed in this letter, and the “we” are those Jews who are allied with Paul in his ministry. So, Paul looks back on the life of those who have turned to Christ, and remembers what was, “you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” Paul notes that they were not alone in that condition, for “All of us once lived among them.” Now there is a new condition – being made alive in Christ – a contrast with the fate of sin. Paul wants them to understand God’s gift to them, just like the manna in the wilderness, life in the midst of sin and death. That is the plan.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. Where is there darkness in your life?
  2. Where is there light in your life?
  3. How do you look at both aspects?

The Gospel: Saint John 3:14-21

Jesus said, “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.”

In this pericope, we have Jesus’ final comments to Nicodemus who has sought Jesus’ wisdom. Nicodemus’ question of “how can this happen?”, namely the gift of new life, prompts several responses from Jesus, including this one about Moses and the bronze serpent. We are tempted to look at the image of the serpent and wonder about it, but John would have us focus on the verb, “lifted up”. Three times in the Gospel Jesus uses this verb to refer to his death. There is a double meaning to the verb, being lifted up physically, or being exalted. The verb is also used in Isaiah 52:13 where in the Septuagint text the Suffering Servant is referred to as being “lifted high.” Jesus wants Nicodemus to see the full breadth of what Jesus was there to do, and the role and fate that he was to have. Just as the lifting up is both deadly and exalting, so John contrasts light and darkness. We are bidden to see the results of our works of darkness in the light of the Christ who redeems them.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the word “zeal” mean to you?
  2. What in life are you zealous about?
  3. How does that passion match your religious values?

Question: Why have we shied away from looking at and talking about our sin?

1.     Uncover the history of preaching about sin in our tradition.
2.     When did we move away from addressing sinfulness?
3.     The threats that “sin talk” seems to invoke.
4.     Do we have enough redemption talk?
5.     The Community and its role in looking at societies failures, and its role in looking at how it might be redeemed.

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 © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Schama, S. (2013), The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD, HaperCollins, New York, Kindle Edition.


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