Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Snakes on a Plain

Charlotte does this cute thing with her hands. She cups them together, comes to a member of the family, and says, “go ahead! Open it!” We uncup her hands and we get a surprise. They stared out as hugs and kisses, but then they became tickles, and then they became strange things like monsters, spiders, and now—snakes!

Very cute when it comes to a 2-year-old's play, but in the book of Numbers, the snakes that come into the camp are very dangerous—poisonous and deadly. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The Old Testament is the living word of God, just like the New Testament, but God spoke through human authors—divinely inspired human authors—but human authors nonetheless. Man's interpretation of things that God does is based on how we treat each other. In other words, what God SEEMS to do and what God actually does are two different things.

A good example is God threatening to wipe out all of Israel and Moses pleading with him and getting God to change his mind. Arguing with God and convincing him to relent are things that we think are possible, because Moses did it! But knowing that God is good all the time—that he is patient and he is kind—theologians have worked on these seeming contradictions in scriptures for thousands of years and have concluded that God never intended to destroy Israel. The discourse between Moses in God was all about Moses being tested in his faith. This is what God does. Moses thinks he is arguing with God and changing God's mind when what is really happening is Moses is discovering how God thinks and arriving at God's mind through a well reasoned argument with himself.

Another great example is Pharaoh's heart being hardened. After the first plague, he is willing to let Moses' people go, but “God hardened his heart.” We think, “hey God! He was going to let everyone go, what, do you just want to torture Egypt some more, so you can show off?” What God was really doing was not hardening Pharaoh's heart, but releasing Pharaoh's heart to its natural tendency. He relaxed his grip on Pharaoh, and Pharaoh responded by being wicked. The only reason Pharaoh had enslaved Israel instead of just slaughtered Israel was that God wouldn't let him. From Moses' point of view, it seemed that God had hardened Pharaoh's heart, and so that is what he wrote.

The world is evil, not God, so when something Good happens, we can be assured that it was due to God's influence, and when something evil happens, it is because God allowed the world to do what it naturally does.

So Serpents! Israel complains and so God punishes them angrily but siccing serpents on them. That sounds mean and evil. BUT knowing God is good, we have to have faith that what happened was something different. Picture the devil and his minions poised outside the camp of Israel in the darkness with serpents, just itching to release them into the camp. God will not allow this. He is all powerful, and he physically keeps Satan from acting. Then Israel complains. They are impatient. They set themselves against God. They are essentially saying to God, “stop protecting us. We don't like you. You have not acted like a genie in a bottle, giving us all our wildest dreams, and therefore we reject you.” That is what impatience and complaining tells God: “we don't want you.” So, God obeys. He loves us to the point of obeying. He says, “you don't need me anymore, I see. On your command, I will relax my protection of you.” Suddenly, the devil realizes that God is no longer stopping him from releasing snakes into the camp, and so he does.

Once we get our minds around that, we can see how this passage in the bible relates to God and life and healing. Here's what we learn. First, we are impatient. We always want God to act immediately, and when he doesn't, we complain. Second, by complaining, we place ourselves against God. Third, when we place ourselves against God, he is unable to protect us from the poisons of this world, the cancers in life. When I say God is unable, of course, I mean that he allows our will to be sovereign. As C.S. Lewis writes, we either pray the Lord's prayer and say to God, “THY WILL BE DONE,” or we reject that notion, and God says to US, “THY WILL BE DONE,” and our wills are not pretty. Our will is that snakes be allowed in the camp. Our will is death and destruction. God's will is everlasting life.

So, sickness and death come through those three things. Remember the three things: we're impatient, we place ourselves against God, God allows our will to reign, and our will is poison. We lose health, as a society, as individuals, and we die.

But then what happens in the Numbers narrative? Israel confesses its sin, and as a result of the confession, God provides a way of salvation, in this case, a serpent symbol on a staff. This is true for us today, too. If we confess our sin, we find that God has provided us a way of salvation, something which we can all look upon, turn to, have faith IN, and live. What is that way of salvation for us?

Jesus tells us himself in our Gospel reading. It is himself. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus compares himself to things in the Old Testament and reveals each time that he is that way of salvation. In John 3, he tells Nicodemus that he is the serpent on the staff. Furthermore, Jesus is not just the symbol of life, he IS life. This is the passage where we get John 3:16, probably the most famous verse in all the bible. We all know it by heart:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” We all know it by heart, but how many of us think about the serpent on the staff when we say it? Nobody. Yet, that is the context for this verse. We should have a picture in mind of what God did for Israel in Numbers when we think on this verse. How many of us even think of the book of Numbers? How many of us have forgotten that Numbers is even a book in the Bible?

In context, John 3:16 is expounding on this passage in numbers. As the verses go on, we read that God did not send Jesus into the world to CONDEMN it but to SAVE it. In other words, Jesus is not a poisonous serpent bringing death, but God's bronze serpent on the staff, bringing salvation and life. Our wills bring the poisonous serpents into the camp but God's will brings the bronze serpent. God lifts up Jesus onto the cross, so that the world can see him and live, just as Moses lifted up that bronze serpent on the staff.

It's not just looking at the son or the bronze serpent. It believing in the son or the serpent. It's having faith that the serpent is going to work. It's having faith that the son is going to save. It's not magic. God is not a genie. It's not a computer program. If I look at the serpent then I will have life, and so I can go right back to complaining and being impatient with God. No, repenting of the sin and accepting wholeheartedly the lifted up son is essentially the turning away from the world and turning toward God that we have been practicing this Lent. It is the path to true healing and everlasting life.

Belief includes repentance. There can be no true belief without it. Without repentance we are not willing to look on the bronze serpent. Repentance allows us to humble ourselves enough to gaze upon the symbol. Without repentance we still have the poison in our veins, we are still on the wrong path, turned away from God's provision, moving toward darkness, away from the lifted up serpent, the lifted up son.

You may have heard that the Old Testament is Christ predicted and the Gospels are Christ revealed. Well, the New Testament letters are Christ explained, and no one was better at explaining Christ than the apostle Paul. Our reading from Ephesians explains it all. Think of the bronze serpent as I read this. Think of Jesus telling us that he IS the bronze serpent. Think of Jesus being lifted up on the cross as I read and embellish this:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world,” being impatient and complaining, “following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient,” also known as the devil, who through our will is allowed to release snakes into our camp. “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,” and we had the serpents' poison coursing through our veins, killing us, “made us alive together in Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him,” like the bronze serpent, like the man on the cross, “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.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Paul just said in seven verses what it has taken me twenty minutes to preach. As we come forward for blessing and healing today, let us think about the bronze serpent, the cross, and the object of salvation and healing for the whole world: Jesus Christ.