The following is a sermon I gave on March 18th to the congregation of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla, Alaska.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from God the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Amen.
We start today with yet another story of the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses. And even though they have an unlimited supply of Manna and quail to eat, they are complaining to Moses and to God with unending fervor.
“Moses, why have you led us into the middle of nowhere for so long? My feet are tiiiiiired!”
“God, we’re sick of eating this same food every day!”
And how does God reward their complaints of discomfort?
Now, not only are they sick of wandering and eating manna and quail, but they are getting bitten by venomous snakes and dying by the hundreds!
For the record, I find it somewhat clever that yesterday was an Irish holiday that includes folklore about St. Patrick driving snakes out of Ireland, and in today’s reading, we have a story of God dumping thousands of deadly snakes among the Israelites in the wilderness.
When it rains, it pours, right? Have you ever felt like that—that God just isn’t giving you a break?! I imagine that’s how the Israelites felt at this moment. They went to Moses and pleaded with him to pray to God to take these snakes away from us! And Moses complies—but God’s response isn’t quite what they asked for.
No, God didn’t take the snakes away. He intentionally left them right there at their feet, still striking their legs viciously. Instead, he instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, and put it on a pole, so that when the Israelites are bitten, they could look at that serpent and live.
Do you think that it may have looked anything like this?
There are two important pieces to acknowledge in this reading:
1) God doesn’t just magically take away the things in our life that harm and kill us—like tobacco, alcohol, anger, war, disease… or snake bites—but he does instruct us to trust in him, and turn to that which gets us through those things.
2) God didn’t instruct the Israelites to worship that bronze snake. But the message was and is that if we look to those things that help us, life will become much, much better. If we don’t look, we are condemned to a life that is much more miserable, difficult, and sad.
This image – often used to represent medicine—can be found in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and on medical alert bracelets. In the same way that we now look to medical professionals for guidance and treatment of our ailments, Moses created this bronze serpent in order that the Israelites would take their eyes off the VERY REAL problems at their feet and at an image of these problems.
With fierce, poisonous snakes wrapped around their ankles, I’d bet that the former complaints of the Israelites became pretty insignificant. I’d bet that they would have become very content with having manna and quail for supper every night at this point.
This really becomes a story of perspective, doesn’t it? When we look up from the very real problems laying at our own feet, address our issues, and see the big picture, isn’t it always true that God is with us? He walks with us through it all!
And then we get to the New Testament, and God LITERALLY walks with us.
In today’s Gospel from John, the first sentence makes reference to that bronze serpent that Moses made:
Jesus said: “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. (John 3: 14-15)
Isn’t this the great news of being a part of this Jesus movement? We have Jesus, who is lifted up—lifted on a cross, lifted from the dead, and lifted in his ascension into heaven—to help ease the pain of OUR very real problems.
Whatever the serpents at your feet are; whatever is getting in the way of your ability to recognize all the great things in your life; they don’t just go away when we choose to live a Christian life. But, we have a God who SO LOVES US that he came to earth to walk with us, to hold us through the suffering, and to take on our sins and shortcomings, right to the cross.
In fact, that incredible love that God has for us is explicitly stated in the very next sentence of this gospel. It’s a verse you may have heard before:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. (John 3: 16)
And right alongside that is a verse I absolutely love:
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3: 17)
The next part is a bit trickier, though: let’s read John 3:18:
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Isn’t that language a bit scary? Condemnation and judgment?
I used to be really uncomfortable with this passage. Perhaps because I’m not willing to proclaim God’s love for his whole creation out of one side of my mouth while spewing words of judgment and condemnation toward non-believers out of the other side.
Certainly, I’m uncomfortable with it because I’ve heard preachers sermonize on this text with a strict, literalistic understanding of what Jesus is saying here.
However, we know that the bible wasn’t written in English. And I learned that in its original Greek language, the words used for “condemnation” and “judgment” weren’t used in the future tense—they are words describing a present reality. Judgment occurs in the very moments when we reject Jesus!
So, this really is not a warning to us saying, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell”. Rather, it’s about a choice we get to make every day! We are lucky to be people who have heard the good news—we know about a light that we can step into!
This choice we have—to love Jesus; accept his teachings, and live in that light gives us the opportunity at a new life. New clarity. New vision. In this moment. RIGHT NOW.
A couple weeks ago, I went into the eye doctor for a check up. I left Dr. Wolf’s office with the expected sense of relief that I don’t have glaucoma, but I did walk out with an unexpected mild prescription for glasses. Glasses, he said, that would make night driving easier, ordering off menus, and seeing the back row of the congregation. “You really don’t need them critically, but you can choose to wear them if you’d like to”, he said.
So, on Thursday morning, I stepped out onto 5th Avenue in Anchorage after picking up my new specs, and when I put them on, I was floored! The clarity of the signs on shops across the street! The crispness of the rust on the truck driving ahead of me, and how much more beautiful the Chugach Mountains were on the drive back up to the valley.
I had seen all these things before, of course, but after making the decision to wear these glasses, I was frankly excited about how I was seeing the world anew!
And isn’t that one of the greatest parts of being a Christian? We have made the choice, together, to acknowledge and follow the lead of Jesus. In each of our baptisms, the rest of the Christian community promises us 5 things:
- To live among each other, God’s faithful children.
- To hear God’s word and share in his supper together in worship
- To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through both our words and our actions.
- To serve ALL people, following the example of Jesus
- To strive for peace and justice in all the world.
When we work to fulfill these promises we’ve made to each other, isn’t it like putting on a pair of glasses that are just the perfect prescription? When we do these things, we are actively choosing the life that God calls us to.
And alternatively, when we choose to disregard this lifestyle, we aren’t actively condemning ourselves to an eternity in hell, necessarily—as some would have you believe—but instead, we are choosing to live a life that just isn’t as full. A life that is much less joyful, more difficult, miserable, and fuzzy.
Much like the Israelites were instructed to look up from the problems at their feet toward that which would give them life, so, too are we called to look away from just ourselves and toward that which saves us:
God: The father. Creator. The word. The great shepherd.
Jesus: The Son of God. Son of Man. Prince of Peace. Emmanuel.
Holy Spirit: The wind. Breath. Love. Holiness.
And let it be so. Amen.