Sermon; Lent 4B; Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
In this passage from Numbers we get an odd and disturbing story about God intentionally sending a plague of serpents to kill his chosen people. Taken on its own it may cause people to question whether or not God really is a God of love. Especially when coupled with his command to Moses to construct a serpent which, when looked upon, would save those bitten from death. This God appears to be more abusive and manipulative than loving.
But our faith is not built on one or two small snippets from the Bible. If it is, that is more problematic than this passage. Instead, our faith is deeper, more complex, and built on the totality of Scripture. With that in mind, we need to look beyond the first-impression, disturbing oddness of this story. We need to look deeper.
The book of Numbers is really the story of the 40-year wilderness wandering. It begins in the desert of Sinai and ends on the eastern shore of the Jordan, the people poised to cross over into the Promised Land. Additionally, it recounts the change in generations from exodus to conquest.
The Israelites have complained a variety of times about a variety of things during those 40 years. They complained about getting trapped at the Red Sea; about the lack of food; about the lack of meat; about the lack of water; about, about, about. As it turns out, today's story is the last complaint story of the Exodus. And it's a doozy, as they complain against both God and Moses.
In retaliation God sends poisonous serpents. In compassion God instructs Moses to construct a serpent on a pole which will be the catalyst for healing. So going beyond this snippet of Scripture and looking more deeply, what can this ancient story of disobedience, punishment, compassion, and healing teach us today?
As I said, this is the last grumbling/complaining story. There are many, many other stories in the Torah in which the people grumble against God and/or Moses. In most of them, they wish they were back in Egypt living as slaves instead of facing death in the wilderness. In some of them, people do die as a result of their complaining. At least once God threatens to kill them all and start over with Moses; that is, until Moses intercedes on behalf of the people. And today the camp is infested with poisonous serpents that do kill many people, but they are saved when they look upon the bronze serpent on the pole that Moses constructs.
All of these stories have two things in common: one, they are based in scarcity; and, two, they are inwardly focused.
We don't have bread. We don't have water. We don't have meat. We don't have food or water, and we detest this miserable food. At least we had houses and food in Egypt. In all of these complaints there is a constant focus on what they don't have. And when God does provide for their needs, it's never enough,. How much is enough? When we are focused on what we don't have, we are unable to do anything.
The second item is their inward focus. Their only concern is for themselves. We don't have . . . we need . . . we were better off. There is no gratitude. There is no concern for others. There is no concern for those who come after.
Both of these issues, a dwelling in scarcity and an inward focus, ultimately lead to death. We see that today. Their focus on scarcity in not having any food, and their inward focus about detesting the food they have, leads to the appearance of the poisonous serpents and the death of many Israelites. What ultimately saves them is looking beyond themselves and looking to God.
The message is clear – focus on yourself, your scarcity, your selfish desires, and you will die. Focus on something outside yourself, something that may even be foolish, and you will live.
Jesus refers to this story in the gospel when he says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must he be lifted up as well. Like the Israelites who looked upon the bronze serpent were saved, so too will those who look upon Jesus, and believe, be saved. And in both cases, those who look outside themselves, those who turn outward, not inward, are the ones who receive life.
In looking at these two stories, it is clear that an inward focus leads to death, while an outward focus leads to life. The Israelites who only focused on themselves and/or what they didn't have, died. Those who looked outside of themselves lived. Jesus says essentially the same thing – those who look outside themselves will live, while those who look only to themselves will die.
Communities of faith face the same choice. When I was in Montana, Joelene and I visited small congregations looking to get energized or revitalized. Those who developed an outward-focused mission, a mission or ministry that looked outside their doors, ended up becoming vital congregations. Those that didn't continued to struggle.
Last week I wrote about All Saints in Chicago. When that congregation began focusing not on themselves, not on their budget shortfall, not on what they didn't have or couldn't do, but began focusing on the community and people around them, they began to thrive. And not only thrive, they began to LIVE.
We here at St. John's are not wandering, complaining Israelites. Nor are we a struggling parish on the verge of closing. We have looked upon the cross and believed in the Son of God. But we do face a temptation that urges us to begin focusing inward. It is a temptation to point out what we don't have or what we can't do because we don't have enough. It is a temptation to live in fear and scarcity. It is a temptation that, if followed, will most certainly lead to death.
We are in the middle of Lent. This is the time when people begin falling victim to temptation. But don't. Don't give in to those voices who say, “No, it's too risky; it's not enough; we need to look inward.” Instead, know that resurrection and new life await. But resurrection and new life can only be gained by looking outward.
As we move forward, both as a congregation and as disciples, we need to ask ourselves where our focus is. Are we, or will we be, only focused on ourselves and our perceived scarcity? Or will we look beyond ourselves and outward into God's abundance?
The choice to live or die is ours.