Fourth Sunday in Lent
11 March 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
I learned to ski in high school. In grade 12 and 13 some of us from the school went on a 10 day trip to a small resort in southern Tyrolia, on the border to Italy. On the second trip, during the last three days, the more advanced skiers went to another, very large resort nearby. Conditions and weather were beautiful, but there was a little hick-up on our first trip up, much of it by T-bars. Some of us got to the top before others did and it was cold at 3000 m and the wind was blowing. Somewhere in between, when it seemed that some were just taking too long, I must have said something to our teacher about being cold and freezing off my little behind and I remember my teacher taking a strip off me for being so selfish. Selfish, was part of my vocabulary but not usually as applied to me. It stung and I still remember it.
I suppose I hadn’t thought about how cold our teacher must have been who was bringing up the rear.
Our first reading presents us with a common theme of the wilderness journey of the people of Israel. The people complain and grumble. And their complaining is directed not only toward Moses but toward God. They question the point of their sojourn and doubt God’s promises. They remember the good old days and want to go back to Egypt. The musician Gil Scott-Heron has these great lines in his song ‘B-Movie,’
“ … this country wants nostalgia
They want to go back as far as they can …
Even if it’s only as far as last week
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards
And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes
Riding to the rescue at the last possible moment
The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse.”
Those lines can describe a lot of people. They can describe the church that longs for the good old days, and they describe Israel in the wilderness. The thing for Israel and the church is that nostalgia is a problem because it remembers neither God’s past faithfulness nor God’s purposes. Nostalgia doesn’t need God at all. When the people of God fall into the trap of nostalgia, they are a people without memory. Not only because God never promised that being God’s people would be easy or that following Jesus would not entail hardship. But also, in the context of the story before us, God had just answered their prayer and helped them defeat the Canaanites, and immediately following they grumble against Moses and the Lord and wish themselves back to Egypt. They are a people who suffer from spiritual amnesia.
They missing the larger context and only thinking about freezing off their little behinds. They are not thinking of what God has called them to and what God is about to do.
The usual pattern in the exodus narrative is that the people grumble, God wants to punish them, Moses intercedes for the people, and God relents. But not so here and that is what makes this passage difficult for us whose favourite songs are Jesus loves me and What a friend we have in Jesus.
We are shocked that God does not seem nice because we would prefer a god who is nice. That God is more than we can understand is difficult to accept.
Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that all this happens in the context of Israel’s election as God’s people. Without election they would have died at the hands of their Egyptian slave masters, but with God’s election they are still going to die. Being God’s people is about the resurrection but it is not about avoiding death.
Hauerwas says that “the death Israel faces is not just any death; it is a death determined by Israel being God’s beloved. … The story of Israel is the story of her training to become a people whose survival depends on learning to trust God in a snake-infested world.”1
Our story in Numbers 21 speaks of poisonous serpents, yet for us Christians there is a connection to our drowning in the waters of Baptism and our rising with Christ; to losing our life for Christ’s sake that we may find it. While we believe and trust in God’s promise of eternal life, dying with Christ is part of our calling.
So why the bronze snake? Of course, we may think of the Rod of Asclepius, or we may think of the prohibition of graven images, but I think that is more going on here.
Last fall Jackie and I went to Germany. It was work mostly, with visits with family and friends thrown in. It was good to be there. While there we had a brief holiday in Berlin. One thing we came upon while there was not only the Holocaust memorial or the memorial for Sinti and Roma, but Stolpersteine, stumbling blocks.
Stolpersteine commemorate victims of the Nazi regime. The stumbling blocks are concrete blocks (measuring 4” x 4”) inserted into the pavement in front of the last voluntarily chosen residence of victims of the Nazis. Each Stolperstein has a brass plate attached to its top, bearing an inscription of the names and fate of the people who once lived there. What makes them unique is that they name the victims and tell at least part of their story, and in a place like Berlin – where the installation began started – they are almost ubiquitous.
Growing up in West Germany I learned that the victim’s story was also my story. It was my forebears who had done evil or at least had not resisted evil, and whether we liked it or not, the histories of victims and perpetrators were forever linked.
And so the bronze snake was not an idol, nor did it perform magic, but it was a reminder of the people’s rebellion and as a reminder it was an antidote against the people’s spiritual amnesia. Looking at the snake made of copper they could neither forget not could they live in denial.
At the beginning of our Sunday worship we confess our sin, thus remembering that we are sinners.
On Ash Wednesday we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Every time we remember our baptism by tracing the sign of the cross or dipping our hands into the water of the font, we remember that we have died with Christ and have risen with Christ, we remember that dying and rising are part of what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus.
So when the Israelites fix their eyes on the bronze serpent on the pole, they remember who they are and their self-understanding includes their history of mistrust and rebellion.
Hearing the story, confessing our sin, and tracing the sign of the cross, saves us from being a people who prefer our yesterdays to God’s tomorrow, even if tomorrow looks challenging. Hearing the story, confessing our sin, and tracing the sign of the cross keeps us from living in denial and opens us to God’s future.
We know the story of Israel, Israel had a future and still does, and so do we.
Thanks be to God!
1Working with Words, On Learning to Speak Christian, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books 2011, pages 4-5