“ And 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.”
This morning, the fourth Sunday in Lent is the half-way point between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is also known as Laetare Sunday, laetare meaning rejoice. Other names for the day are refreshment Sunday, and if you are in England, mothering Sunday. Being mid- way in the season the liturgical color is rose, a lighter version of the darker purple. Today I am reminded to thank Lil Larivee and Patti Gruber who made these particularly beautiful vestments that we only wear twice a year. Looking forward on this rose Sunday, we celebrate the hope that is to come at Easter. And pausing at this mid-point we are prompted to make use of the season before Lent is over until next year.
While it is nice to have a set end to the season we know that much of life does not give us an exact mid point where we can say, four more weeks and this trial or tribulation will be done. Yet, while we may not be able to pinpoint the exact middle of something it is good practice for us to realize in other trying times of life, that this too will pass; there will be an end. There is hope that comes with acknowledging the finish.
Some years back I attended a clergy conference in which the presenter held up a Bible and said quite loudly, “This is a book about sin.” It took everything in my body not to jump out of my seat in protest to say that “No, the Bible is a book about God’s deep and abiding love for us”. While that conference got off to a rocky start for me I have often thought of that presenter’s remark. And I have come to understand that scripture reveals much about human nature, as well as God loving us through our foibles and sins.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a good example of this. In this passage we find Moses and the Israelites deep into their 40 year journey to the Promised Land. While we now know how long they traveled, at the time they did not know when the wandering would end. They did not have an exact middle point to celebrate. From their perspective it had been a very long time trudging about in the desert since God had released them from being slaves in Egypt.
While at first they had found much rejoicing over their freedom, the journey had taken its toll, and the grumbling had begun. When they complained they were hungry God sent the bread-like substance called manna for them to eat. When they complained they were tired of that food and wanted meat. God sent quails. They were thirsty and God sent water gushing out of rock. They didn’t like the taste of the water so God sent Moses something to sweeten the water.
Over and over God gave them what was needed and concretely demonstrated his love and promise to be with them and to lead them. God was faithful to his part of the covenant.
In the part of the story read today, the people have forgotten that they even have been given food and drink! The human’s side of this covenant has slid far into the background. They have become impatient, frustrated and even said they are ready to go back to being slaves in Egypt where at least they had food they liked! This desert time had worn them down so that they could not see the proof that God provided over and over of how much he loves human beings. The people had become very ungrateful for the gifts God had given them. These humans could only see what they did not have and so they complained. The Bible is filled with stories about human nature as well as God’s deep and abiding love.
So, what did God do when faced with this most recent round of grumbling? He sent poisonous snakes to get their attention! And He did get their attention! The symbolism of snakes from the creation story of Adam and Eve would not have been unknown to them. They must have immediately realized the error of what they had done and quickly asked Moses to intervene on their behalf.
Now I must admit I find what God told Moses to do at that point, strange. He could have sent a snake trap or some type of poison to kill the snakes or perhaps a large rain to drown them. But instead God told Moses to make a pole with a brass snake on the top! Those who were bitten were then instructed to look at the brass snake and be healed. The paradox is that gazing at what had poisoned them would be their cure. Or perhaps a better way to think of it is as a sign of God’s healing. That pole with the serpent on top was a reminder of who God is and who is in charge.
Are there times in our lives where we too can identify with these Israelites? Perhaps right now is such a time. Although there is hope for the end of the pandemic and all its effects, we don’t know the exact date that will happen. And though it seems like we may be over the hump, perhaps at the mid-point, perhaps? But really the end is unknown. What we do know is that we are closer now than we were a year ago but there is still some unknown period of time left.
For many of us we are worn down passing the year anniversary of the shut-down. (Can you imagine a 40-year journey?) We are frustrated, discouraged, angry and may want to give up—Covid fatigue is the name. We, like those Israelites may be at the point of only being able to see what we do not have, rather than the gifts that have been God given during this time.
No matter our exact situation on this Laetare Sunday 2021, we can identify with the Israelites who were no longer slaves but yet still grumbled. And so we may wonder, where is our sign of God’s healing power?
In today’s gospel Jesus refers to this lesson from Numbers as he speaks about what will happen to him. In this conversation with Nicodemus Jesus says that he will be held up, like the bronze serpent was, not on a pole but rather on a cross. And just like gazing at the serpent would bring healing to those who were bit by the poisonous serpent, Jesus tells that through his death he will overcome death for us all. The cross is our most powerful symbol of God’s healing and gazing at it will remind us of God’s greatest gift of eternal life. When the trials of life overcome us or bring us to complacency with our situations, our God-given cure is to gaze on the cross.
As we do, we can look deeper into this paradox, this mystery, that death is overcome by death.