Sunday, March 11, the fourth Sunday of Lent

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.

Instant gratification, often rendered as “I want what I want and I want it now!” (or words/actions of that sort) are not new.  The ancient people, following Moses on that long journey out of Egypt and slavery to the Promised Land and freedom, were quick to start complaining about the inconveniences of the journey.  God did not trifle with them, and they quickly realized that endurance and fortitude were required of them by God.  God did not abandon them, but there was a stiff price to their whining.  While it has been a long time since I have considered wrapping a bronze snake around a pole (a very ancient symbol of the medical and healing arts) to convey the wonder of God’s abundant grace despite our complaints and brokenness, I frequently remind myself and my congregation that God’s does not invite us into a relationship of convenience, immediate gratification, power, or privilege.  Rather, God invites us into the long slough of being patient in serving our God and God’s whole creation.  Sometimes that may involve suffering and sacrifice; but, God will never abandon us in whatever wilderness we may find ourselves. 

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures forever.

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.

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.

In Greek, the first seven verses of this passage are one sentence.  The core subject and predicate are contained in verses 4 & 5 in bold above:  God makes us alive through the revelation contained in the full story of Jesus the Christ.  Verses 1-3 reveal the “dark side” and verses 6-10 reveal the consequences of God’s actions in the Incarnation.  All that is left is for us to choose which path we follow; the path of darkness or the path of light, of death or life.  Also, contained in this passage is the proposition illuminated by Martin Luther in the 16th Century, “salvation by grace through faith,” underlined above.  This is a core value of Pauline theology.  While free will allows us to say “Yes” or “No” to God, God achieves our salvific restoration by God’s grace in response to our faith affirmation, not our own meritorious works.  Still, Paul will argue in other places that if we have faith we cannot help but manifest good works that reveal the faith.  This too is a core part of his theology.  

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.”

This portion of Chapter 3 of John is preceded by a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nicodemus’s, a Pharisee, faith tends to be informed by what he would think of as “objective evidence.”  He wants Jesus to provide evidence of his special nature.  In a famous passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” in order to fully realize and understand the Kingdom of God.  Of course, this kind of invitation to a deeper experience of faith confounds our Pharisee.  Jesus then points back to the passage from Numbers about Moses raising the snake on the pole (remember, this was to offer a means of healing to those who had disparaged God and were going to die from a snake bite) suggesting that the “son of man” (a messianic allusion) must likewise be lifted up in order to provide God’s people a pathway to redemption (healing) and “eternal life” (the idea of unity/union with God).   Jesus then makes the very famous declaration of John 3.16. “For God so loved the world . . . “Verses 17-21 provide the consequence of God’s saving act in Jesus and tracks closely with the Pauline teaching we see in the Ephesians passage above. 

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