The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Lent 4B 2021
Numbers 24: 4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
March 14th 2021
God Made a Move
Today marks the halfway point of our forty-day Lenten pilgrimage to the cross. Being midway between Ash Wednesday and Easter means we have some road underneath us and that our Lenten disciplines have gained some traction. And I would imagine that the tread on our resolves might also be wearing a bit thin, as it has for the Israelites in their forty-year journey to the Promised Land.
After having been led out of Egypt and slavery by Moses, the Israelites are growing increasingly impatient with their freedom, grumbling and grousing their way through the wilderness. In this morning’s Old Testament passage, we hear the last in a long litany of their “murmurings” against God and Moses, that have gone something like this:
First, the water is bitter. Second, we didn’t have enough food, after which,
there wasn’t enough water. And third, please, no more manna—we want
meat. There’s never enough food or water, but what food there is is
miserable and we detest it. Why are we going through what we’re going
through? It would be better to go back to Egypt than to die in the desert.
It would be better to go back . . . haven’t we all been there, thought it, said it aloud, especially during this past year of pandemic, which has been and still is its own kind of Lenten wilderness of withouts, unknowns, limits and lament? Even in the best of times, the most grateful of hearts might occasionally complain and clamor to go back to the way things were, to the good old days that maybe were and maybe weren’t.
But like the Israelites, try as we might, and we do, there’s no escaping the present and the burden of our freedom. We pick up our cross, but then lay it down, because it’s heavy and we’re hungry and there’s got to be a better more-efficient cost-saving way out of this desert we’re in—and then God makes a move—though perhaps not the one we expect; in answer to Israel’s last grievance, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many of the Israelites died. Those remaining pleaded with Moses: We have sinned by murmuring against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.
And so Moses did, and so did God, sort of. God didn’t make the deadly serpents disappear but offered healing and redemption amid them by commanding Moses to make a serpent of bronze and raise it high upon a pole; when the Israelites were bitten, if they gazed upon the serpent of bronze, they would live. God’s gift of life to Israel was that they must look upon their deadness and the poison of their sin. The antidote for a snakebite was a snake. And so it is that they survived.
That’s the end of this rather strange interlude in the Israelites journey through the desert wilderness, after which they set out and camped at Oboth, then set out and camped in Iye Abarim, then set out and camped in Zered, then set out an camped near Arnon, and on and on, ever on the move.
The lesson of this story (and there is more than one) is not that we should never grumble and grouse but should be ever chipper—our God is bigger than that. But like the Israelites our journey is particular and by particular stages and phases, glimpses and signs—bitten by this sin and enslaved—set free—bitten by that sin and enslaved—set free—given life—and enslaved again. We are prone to wander and to leave the the God we love (Hymn 686), impatient, distrustful, and disobedient of God’s leading and our given freedoms.
Our gospel for today picks up in the middle of a faith conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who has come to Jesus at night with questions. Jesus has been teaching Nicodemus about the nature of life in God, but Nicodemus is having trouble grasping the profundity and reality of Jesus’ words in which he refers to our passage from Numbers:
Jesus said: 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. The correlation with the Old Testament may seem obvious; that whoever gazes at Jesus upon the cross will live. The antidote to death is His death. But then Jesus goes on: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
That the world has always been a place of free will and the consequences that follow is made clear at the very beginning, in that story about another snake, the one in the Garden; like Adam and Eve, we’ve all been seduced by sin and taken a bite of the apple. And so—God made a move—he gave his only Son. Here is where I often pause, and if I allow myself to come to a full stop and really take in this familiar oft quoted scripture, I’m left more unsettled than not—and not because God’s gift is altogether radical, unexpected, and completely undeserved—but because it’s too late: the gift has already been given, whether I asked for it or not. Am I able to fully receive such a gift into my restless life? For the power of God’s love—to transform and call itself into being—requires my participation and response-ability that I may have eternal life.
The coming of the light, of Jesus, into the world initiates a crisis of response: to believe or not believe; to be set aflame with the living fire or remain shrouded in darkness; to love madly or love too little. And, it would seem that depending on our choice, we are either saved or condemned, as Jesus goes on to teach Nicodemus: 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.
Indeed, we are taken measure of and judged by the Lord whose property is always to have mercy and whose mercy endures forever. But people—of all stripes, kinds, and colors—alienate themselves from the Holy One by doing wrong deliberately, and living lives of indifferent, immoral, and complicit behavior—by colluding with darkness and doing evil—by choosing sin over repentance and forgiveness. We are agents of our own condemnation and judgment.
In the gospel of John the word “believe” is always a verb and a dynamic of action—to come to the light—to look up upon the cross—to know God and Christ in intimate communion, which is eternal life (John 17:3). In its etymology, “belief” is no mere mental assent but means to trust, to desire, and to love.
Our gospel proclaims that God did not send his only Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it, and that true life in God is accessible to everyone by way of our active belief. But as our Epistle tells us: by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Our light, such as it is, is God’s light shining through us.
Without wandering too far into the dense thickets of salvation theology, I think it’s fair to say that we come to eternal life in God by way of both/and; by our actions of faith, and by the grace of God. All of our scriptures this morning speak to this dynamic tension, and to the eternal giving-ness of God who continues to give new life to all creation.
From the Collect, we prayed: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus
Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the
From the Old Testament: God commanded Moses to make a serpent of
bronze that everyone who is bitten and looks upon it may live.
From the Psalm: The Lord’s mercy endures forever; he sent forth his word
and healed those in trouble and distress and saved them from the grave.
From the Epistle: 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
From the Gospel: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so
that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Life: Love illumined for everyone. Life: God’s fullness of hope and promise. Life: Eternal freedom and forgiveness for all.
This fourth Sunday of Lent can also be celebrated as Laetare Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday, a respite during our pilgrimage to the cross and a reminder of God’s extraordinary love for which we are ever joyful: God so loves you, and you, and you—and all of humanity and creation—that God gave his only Son to you, and you, and you, and all of humanity and creation.
We have three more weeks to prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast. But whether our tires are flat, we’re out of gas or our foot’s on the brake, or we’re raring to go and revving the engine, may we remember the words of St. Augustine, and that ultimately, unto Christ, who is everywhere, we come by love and not by navigation. No matter which way we go, Christ is there, here.
We come to Christ—who is everywhere—not by calculation, prognosis or navigation—but by love.