a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B]
Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
It has been one year since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and life as everyone knew it changed. It’s been a year of worshiping on-line, learning how to live-stream, hook up microphones to our smartphones, and upload videos to YouTube and Facebook. One member sent me a couple of photos from a year ago this weekend that showed a group of us crowded into the new parlor holding worship on Instagram Live and Facebook Live around the makeshift studio altar we had thrown together. We weren’t even wearing face masks back at that point because we weren’t even sure how this virus really spread. Little did we know that Joseph’s and my televangelist careers would begin that day. I don’t know how he feels, and please don’t take this personally, but I’m ready to have my televangelist career come to an end. The blooper reel alone from this past year provides enough comedy and blackmail material to bankroll a capital campaign.
This week one colleague of mine posted on Facebook the following question: “If you could go back in time one year from right now, what would you tell yourself?” I was amused at some of the answers people gave. Several people said they tell themselves to buy stock in Zoom. One person said, “Move to New Zealand right now.” Another said, “Get a massage. You won’t be touched for a year.” Poignantly, one person said, “Go visit grandma in the nursing home.” What would tell yourself as you launch into a process of lockdown measures that dragged on longer than most of us expected? What would you tell yourself knowing now that a year of all kinds of tumultuous social changes would occur and the political divisiveness would get worse?
I can think of several things that might have bolstered me through all that would come, but I try as I may I can’t come up with anything better than the third verse of the hymn we just sang, which, ironically, is not even one of my favorites:
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come;
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”
It is God’s grace that has allowed us to continue to have a congregational life together without really being able to be together as a congregation. It is God’s grace that sent us numerous people who had the right skills to guide us through this time—those with computer and technology skills, those with creative ideas and energy, those with the far undervalued gift of patience. It is God’s grace that sent us things like parents who called the church saying, “I know it’s a pandemic, but we want our child baptized and however you think we can do that, we’re on board.”
It is God’s grace that has provided a way through the wilderness of disappointment, pain, cancellations, and complaining that we’ve all faced and, if we’re honest, taken part in. Yes, I would have told myself “Look, remember that God’s people have come through so many ‘dangers, toils and snares’ before. Phillip, trust that God’s grace will lead you through.” That is what we sing to ourselves today, for, sadly, this time of wilderness is not yet finished.
It sounds like the Israelites could have used a little reminder of that in the middle of their wilderness, which is where we find them this morning. There is disappointment, there is impatience, and there is complaining. And this is epic complaining. This is far worse than complaining that we can’t sing in church or that facemasks make it hard to breathe. Worse than complaining that the school board made a decision we disagree with. Or complaining that the vaccines are being rolled out quickly enough. I mean, we’ve complained a lot this year, myself included, but the Israelites take it to the extreme.
For, you see, God has delivered them from their hellish existence in Egypt. God has given them manna to eat each day and quail, too. God has found water for them in the middle of the desert. God has brought them through life-or-death toils and snares, but they seem to have already forgotten that and just want to mumble and grumble. They start taunting God, almost. One modern paraphrase of Scripture has the Israelites asking God, “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to have us die in this godforsaken country?”
And I don’t know if it’s that God has had enough of their attitude or what but he sends snakes to start biting them. At least, that’s how the Israelites remember it. The point is, there’s a snake infestation at this point and people start dying.
A culture of complaining is venomous. It starts to poison everyone—the people who make the complaints and the people who hear them. It slithers around and finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every situation. Studies have actually shown that complaining—or being complained to—for thirty minutes or more physically damages the brain. It also releases the stress chemical cortisol into our bloodstream, which impairs our immune system and can lead to other problems like diabetes and heart disease. Venomous snakes are probably an effective way to have the Israelites reflect on their behavior and what’s really killing them. Horrified, they come to Moses and confess their complaining and ask for the snakes to be removed. But God doesn’t remove them.
It may be, at first read, the most baffling story we ever read. Snakes are killing people and God doesn’t just simply take them away. But God does find a way to save them from the snakes. Moses is told to make a bronze version of the snake and lift it up on a pole high enough so that everyone will be able to see it. If they get bitten, they can just look at it and the power that the snakes have to kill is taken away. The people still get bitten, and I assume the venom still hurts, but the control it has over them is removed.
It’s not too different from this COVID vaccine and how it works. It’s pretty evident that we can’t eradicate this coronavirus. Like these snakes, it will lurk in our midst probably for the rest of time, or at least for the foreseeable future, infecting us and passing from one person to another. But thanks to science and medicine, whose very symbol has roots in this story, we’ve found a way to lift up a little version of it inside our bodies so that if we get bitten by the virus, COVID won’t kill us.
This event in the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness might have become one of those lesser-known stories you never hear about if not for the fact that Jesus uses it to describe his own reason for coming. One night a leader among the Jews named Nicodemus comes to him to learn more about who Jesus is and the things he is doing. They have a conversation about how to perceive the kingdom of God in the here and now, and about being born from above, or born again, and about having a relationship with God that gives eternal life.
All of these things are interrelated, Jesus says, and critical to having any of it—the ability to live in God’s kingdom now and to be born anew—is being able to look at Jesus as he dies and see life, see salvation. Jesus will be lifted up on a pole just like that serpent in the wilderness so that people who see him will have a life that conquers death.
It’s a seeing that is more than just looking with the eyes. It is a seeing with the heart and the mind—understanding that in Jesus’ death on the cross God is doing something save the world from all the venom and poison and sinfulness that infects us. Because when we see Jesus, the Son of God, dying, we see the harm that our sin does to God and to others. It’s laid bare for us to deal with, lifted high so that everyone can see. God doesn’t just take sin away, but in Christ he gives us the way through it. And that’s important, for in order to be saved, we need to be honest about what is really killing us, what we’re being saved from.
When we look at the cross of Christ, with Jesus hanging on it, we see the evil of violence, the damage it does. We see the wickedness of hatred and bigotry and the way they corrupts who we really are. What else do we see? We see the dead end road of trying to justify ourselves before our Creator, that we can sacrifice something or stake the blame on someone else in order to clear our name. None of it works. All of it is worthless, and it’s painful to be bitten by that realization but God wants us to see that in his dying Son so that we can come to terms with it. It will help save us.
When we think of racism, to use an example that has bitten us quite a bit this past year, we have learned will not find a way to heal from it if we keep ignoring it or complaining about it or justifying the stances of our past. We have to confront it, especially in ourselves. I can lament the political divisiveness in our country until the cows come home, shake my fists at the media or the politicians, but the division not going to miraculously disappear. I have to look at how I actually might be participating in it, unawares, and how my comments or apathy contribute to the decay. That will be the way through it.
And so forth and so on we go about all that poisons us until we realize that also hanging there in the loss and the death is God himself. There, present in the wilderness, all along, present in the decay and despair, present in the hunger and the thirst—present, faithful, steadfast, in spite of our complaining is God the Son, given—always given—never, ever taken away. There, never letting us go, in a place where everyone can see, is love. Love that will heal us, love that will forgive us, love that will let us lament all that we’ve lost this year and love that will persist with us until the end. Love that will never condemn. Love that will be sign that God will always deliver us to the other side.
This miracle, my friends, is not on us. We alone will not find the way out, we alone will not brave the dark of sin and triumph over it—but God, stooping low to be lifted high, will do it for us and with us through every danger, toil, and snare…and every online worship video too.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr
 The Message. Eugene Peterson