Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Fourth Sunday of Lent
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – March 11, 2018
“So open up my eyes to a new light
I wandered ‘round your darkened land all night
But I lift up my eyes to a new high
And indeed there would be time
And in the cold light I live to love and adore you
It’s all that I am, it’s all that I have
In the cold light I live to love and adore you
It’s all that I am, it’s all that I have
Why do I keep falling?
Why do I keep falling?”
Although it came out in 2016, this Mumford and Sons pop song might have resonated with the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. Leaving the only thing they knew and setting out for the unseen Promised Land, they were growing impatient and losing hope, wandering around the “darkened land all night.” And so they did what any person would do: “Moses, are we there yet? My feet are tired. I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. I’m so sick of having the same food day after day – why doesn’t God change the menu?” But their ungrateful kvetching was met with poisonous serpents. Yikes! As Indiana Jones would say, “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” So the people confess their sin and ask Moses, about whom they’ve just been complaining, to pray on their behalf. Moses prays and God responds, but not with the answer the people were hoping for. God doesn’t remove the snakes or keep them from biting. Instead, there is a remedy that is given. When the snakes bite, the people are to look at a serpent made of bronze and placed high on a pole. In doing so, they will not only live but remember that God has provided the way to life.
In the words of the song, they “lift up [their] eyes to a new high” and they, too, realize “in the cold light I live to love and adore you; it’s all that I am, it’s all that I have.” But the question of the song, the Israelites, and of us remains: “why do I keep falling?” Why do the snakes keep biting? Why do I keep sinning? Why do I keep turning from God? Why do I keep falling?
The story of the snake on a stick is definitely one of the stranger stories in Scripture and yet, the Wednesday Bible study group helped me come to a new appreciation of it this week. Not only did we talk about a “snake on a stick” as something that sounds like a state fair food, but we talked about it as a metaphor for sin and salvation in our life. It struck us that the snakes keep biting and that the very thing given as a cure is not the removal of the problem, but something that looks just like the problem itself.
We know from our experience of life that we’re going to get bitten. We know we’re going to make mistakes and inflict wounds on others, too. And very often it is the things we complain about and struggle with that are the very things we need to face in order to mature. However, as Phyllis Tickle cautions, “…it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith for it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it.” We can’t face the snakes by ourselves. We need to look to the One who has come into the world in order to save the world. The One who has come to make the world – to make us – whole once again. In the words of the Psalm: “You sent forth your word and healed them and rescued them from the grave.”
The bronze serpent on the pole and Jesus lifted up on the cross are not about punishment or payment, but about healing and salvation. These stories ask us what we’re looking at. Are we looking at God, the source of all forgiveness, love, and healing, or is our gaze turned toward other things? Toward the distractions of the world? Toward the narrowness of ourselves and our perspectives?
God doesn’t remove the temptations, the distractions, or the glittery baubles that might catch our eye. Instead, we are taught to pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We know sin is there and it will trip us up, but help us not to go down that road. Help us not to be ensnared. Save us from sin, death, and the devil. Save us from ourselves.
And so we look at Jesus, lifted up on the cross. We focus our eyes, our attention, and our lives on the One who is glorified in this act of sacrificial love. Because even when we were impatient and grumbling, blind or distracted, God loved us. Even when we failed to give thanks or to worship God with reverence and awe, God loved us. Even when we were following our own desires or dead in our sin, God loved us. By grace you have been saved. It is the gift of God.
The cross is where we go for life – all of us sinner-saints gathered together around that life-giving tree. “‘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.’” Look at me, Jesus says, and live. Keep your eyes on me and experience life and hope and joy. Know love, forgiveness, and abiding peace even though the snakes might continue to bite, and the fiery sting of sin may pursue you.
I’ve learned more about God, myself, and, life with others from experiencing my brokenness and sins and in the struggles on my journey. Ideally, I would be learning without all the sins, imperfections, and repeated mistakes, but, guess what? I’m human! Knowing this about myself, I can honestly say that anything I’ve learned is nothing but God’s grace at work – the generous and astonishingly beautiful gift of God. You see, it’s in those moments we are confronted with our own sin – with fiery serpents slithering after us – in those moments all we can do is behold Jesus with love and thanks and believe. It’s when we are broken open, seeing our sin for what it is in the light of day, that we see Jesus lifted up, powerless and vulnerable out of love and for our sake, becoming the antidote, the remedy, and the way to life.
I think that’s why there’s both ugliness and beauty in the cross. It’s ugly and brutal not only because of the violence and the shame suffered, but also because it’s the very thing with which we struggle – dying to our sin. Dying to our selves. It’s hard to look at our own failures, offenses, and wickedness because we’d rather keep them in the darkness, locked up and hidden away from others. But in order to experience healing and new life, they need to be brought into the light, faced, confessed, and repented of so God can transform us.
Because this is the God who takes our wounds, the bites we’ve inflicted and received, the poisonous sin within us, and our venomous acts, and transforms them into a means of repentance, forgiveness, learning, and life. “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…” This is the God who acts when we were dead in the water, drowning in sin, and raises us up to new life with Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. May we look upon him with fresh eyes as we journey toward Easter. May we lift up our eyes to a new high and live to love and adore him. It’s all that we are and all that we have. Thanks be to God! Amen.