The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 14 March 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
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.
Background: The Serpent
The serpent plays a role in two of our readings for today – as a menace to people, as a sign of health and salvation, and finally as a reference in the Gospel. Such various roles befit the serpent who was a significant part of the cultural and religious life of the peoples of Egypt, Israel, Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Greece. In these cultures, the serpent was symbolic of wildly divergent ideas. It was the symbol of healing and fertility as well as chaos and evil. In the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent is an agent of disruption and temptation, while for Moses and Aaron it was a sign of their participation in the power of YHWH, who would lead Israel out of slavery into freedom. In Mesopotamian literature, a snake steals the immortality of Gilgamesh. It is also depicted as a symbol of the cycle of life, the snake devouring its own tail. Remnants of snake figures have been found throughout the Levant, Mesopotamia, and even in Hittite ruins. That this image should have such a universal recognition reminds us that the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures merge out of a common culture and understanding. One last example is the cult serpent, Nehustan, that was placed in the Temple and that was destroyed by Hezekiah (see II Kings 18:4).
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.
Here we have an example of one of the numerous murmuring tales found in Numbers and in Exodus. In this story, the people murmur against the bread, which they find distasteful and loathsome. What may be the motivator as to God’s reaction to this murmuring is that the bread that they loathe is the manna, the gift of bread that God has given them (see Exodus 16:1-36, and Numbers 11:1-9). The denigration of this divine gift invokes a divine wrath.
In the description of the poisonous vipers or serpents the word used is seraph, a “fiery one.” Also used to describe the fiery angel that guards the gate at Eden, or the seraphim that fly about YHWH’s throne (Isaiah 6). Thus we see a double aspect to this idea. That duality is further emphasized when Moses builds a bronze serpent that the people are bidden to look at and be healed. The text offers us a double meaning here as well, a pun in the Hebrew. The word for serpent is nahash, and the word for bronze is nehoshet, form a pun on serpent/bronze. Preachers may also want to look at YHWH’s promise to be a God of healing in Exodus 15:22-26.
Breaking open Numbers:
1. Who are the serpents in your life?
2. How might they be dissipated by looking at them and dismissing them?
3. Whom might you thank for your healing?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Confitemini Domino
1 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.
This psalm is a recasting of the story from the First Reading for this morning, and it is a shame that verses 4 through sixteen, which further describe the incident, have been elided, as well as verses 23-43 which further explicate God’s healing actions. I am certain that this was done for brevity’s sake, but it is a shame that the congregation cannot experience these verses in this context.
The psalm is a thanksgiving psalm, sung by the whole community. The notion of redemption in verse two needs to be seen in their release from captivity, and in the healing that God offers them. There is even a deeper level of meaning that comes even after connecting this psalm to the wanderings in the wilderness after release from Egypt. In verse three we read, “(God) gathered them out of the lands.” This may be a reference to the return of the people from exile in Babylon and may serve as a clue as to when the psalm was written. In verse six (which is in the elided section) we see a refrain, “And they cried to the Lord from their straits” that is repeated again, indicating that this psalm may have been used liturgically.
The verses that deal with the distastefulness of food certainly relates to the story in Exodus/Numbers, but their plight is further described in the twentieth verse, “saved them from the grave.” The Hebrew is not as pointed, indicating only “from their pit”, i.e. “from Sheol”, from near death. The final verse of our reading invites the offerings of thanksgiving and song – further indication that this may have been a temple song from a later period.
Breaking open Psalm 107:
1. How and when have you been close to death?
2. What redeemed you?
3. How do you use your freedom from death?
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.
You might want to begin your study of this section of Ephesians by reading through chapter one of the book. In it Paul discloses God’s plan of salvation – “as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world.” He then goes on to see the fulfillment of that plan in Christ, and our participation in that plan as heirs and members of Christ’s body. Our reading, however, begins with a prior state, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” Paul then details salvation and redemption. It is the same picture of a healing God whom we have seen in the First Reading and in the Psalm as well. Paul keeps his contemporary readers in mind as he discusses “the ruler of the power of the air.” Here he recognizes the ancient cosmology as he strives to describe the life that is better lived in Christ. Paul contrasts what once was with what will be in Christ. He takes pains to describe what had been the Ephesians past (“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.”), and then lifts up the entire enterprise as one in which in spite of it all God still loves us, and gives us the gift of the Christ.
Breaking open Ephesians:
1. In what ways was your past a spiritual difficulty?
2. In what ways have you been lifted up out of that?
3. What are the gifts that God gives to you?
The Gospel: St. 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.”
Our selection from John’s Gospel comes in the midst of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who wants a further understanding of this man he recognizes as a teacher come from God. Jesus appeals to Nicodemus’ understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures as he introduces into their conversation the story of Moses and the Bronze Serpent (see the First Reading, above). It’s a stunning image and one that foreshadows Jesus’ own destiny in his last visit to Jerusalem (this is his first). In this conversation Jesus uses the idea of being “lifted up” in a double sense – the literal being lift us, as in the crucifixion, and in the sense of being exalted. Even this image would have been familiar to Nicodemus having read of it in Second Isaiah who sees the Suffering Servant as being “lifted high.”
Jesus, in John’s telling, also uses another image – and it is made even more poignant in that Nicodemus has come to him in the middle of the night. Jesus sees himself as light, “light has come into the world.” The problem that Jesus outlines to Nicodemus is that the people prefer darkness, and the acts that happen in darkness. Here John outlines the conflict of two natures within us. There is a part of living that prefers the darkness, and a part that yearns for the light.
In his prologue in the first chapter, John uses the Creation as a model for his speaking of Christ. He uses the image of light – the light that God has separated from the darkness, the light that is given to us for use in our own life, the light of John the Baptist, and the light that is Christ. What we see in the light can be apprehended with either faith, or disbelief. A choice must be made. Saint Augustine has an interesting comment in this light, “they love truth when it enlightens them, they hate truth when it accuses them.” So we are encouraged to see Jesus in that light that is the gift from God.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What questions might you have of Jesus?
2. Where do you find light in your life?
3. What darkness has been overcome for you?
General Idea: Looking for Healing
Idea One: Looking at our demons (First Reading)
Idea Two: Looking for God’s healing (Psalm)
Idea Three: Looking at God’s Plan and finding Healing (Second Reading)
Idea Four: Looking at Christ as Light and as Healing (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller