180311 Lent 4B
Numbers 21.4-9 & Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22
IMAGE AT LEFT: A bronze serpent that evokes the cross has been erected beside the Catholic Church on Mt Nebo, so pilgrims are reminded of the biblical texts we hear today. [Photo by Gregory C. Jenks, 2015]
† In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What are we afraid of? The Israelites in the desert had a fear of snakes but they learnt that they needed to trust God. St John sets us thinking about what we might fear, and the possibility of trusting God. We might fear people finding out what we are really like or worse, being exposed to God’s light because of fear of what would be revealed. How can we rejoice and be refreshed with fear lurking about?
The Desert of Sinai has a variety of snakes. Some hide in the sand and attack without warning. Both the Israelites and the Egyptians had a great fear of snakes. A bite by a poisonous snake often meant a slow death with intense suffering. Once the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and were in the desert, it didn’t matter what happened, the Israelites complained, until they learnt an important lesson.
Every parent knows the shrill whine of a young child – a slow, high-pitched complaint that grates on the eardrums and aggravates the soul. The tone of voice is difficult to bear, but the real irritation is the underlying cause – discontentment and disobedience. As the children of Israel journeyed from the foot of Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan, they grumbled, whined, and complained at every turn. They focused on their present discomforts, faith had fled, and they added an extra 40 years to their journey. God used various methods to teach them the way they should go, the lesson was long and sometimes painful. God even used venomous snakes to punish the people for their unbelief and complaining and many died.
But the symbol of a snake on a pole, for them to look on, to be healed from the snake bite, was also used as a sign of love, compassion and healing. One thousand four hundred years later, the cross was used to teach people of the salvation and gift of eternal life, which is received when we look up in faith to Christ on the Cross.
When the bronze snake was hung on the pole the Israelites didn’t know the fuller meaning that Jesus Christ would bring to this symbol. As St John says, Jesus explained that just as the Israelites were healed of snakebite and their disobedience, by looking at the snake on the pole, all believers today can be saved from the sickness of sin by looking to Jesus’ death on the cross. It was not the snake or the cross that healed, but the belief that God could heal. This belief is demonstrated by obedience to God’s instructions. In the same way can we continue to look to Christ for grace and salvation?
What was it that brought the trouble for the Israelites? Psalm78 mentions some of the sources of Israel’s complaining. Their spirits were not faithful to God, they refused to obey God’s law, and they forgot the miracles God had done for them. We can at times be no different from the Children of Israel and we complain to God. Our complaining often has its roots in one of these thoughtless actions and attitudes. If we can deal with the cause of our complaining, it will not take hold and grow in our lives.
Psalm 107 reminds us that thankfulness to God should constantly be on the lips of those whom he has saved.
It hints at the distress in the desert at Sinai but the psalm was written to celebrate the Jews return from their exile in Babylon and the verses included in today’s pew bulletin refer to the sinful in distress and how God rescues them. So much God has done for his people, that it is impossible to keep silent and not be thankful. In fact, when we live in God’s presence we will not be able to keep this glorious experience to ourselves.
As we ponder the life giving grace of God, we are reminded of The song of God’s Mercy which is included in the daily prayers for Tuesday. This is taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and in chapter 2 verses 1-10 he reminds us that the church is brought near to God, and made alive in Christ. When we unite ourselves with Christ’s perfect life, we can become good in God’s sight. We do not need to live under sin’s power, because the penalty for sin and its power over us was miraculously destroyed by Christ on the cross.
Through faith in Christ we stand acquitted, or not guilty before God. God does not take us out of the world, or make us robots, we will still feel like sinning and sometimes we will sin… The difference is, that before we became Christians, we were dead in sin and were slaves to our sinful nature. But now we are alive with Christ. Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know that our bodies will also be raised from the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:2-23) and we have been given the power to live as Christians now.
These ideas are found in Paul’s image of sitting with Christ in the heavenly places, and eternally blessed as children of God.(Ephesians 1:3)
Our eternal life with Christ is certain because we are united in his powerful victory.
Our salvation and even our faith are gifts from God, so can we respond to him with gratitude, praise and joy?
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)
We have salvation and eternal life through God’s unmerited grace, not as the result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. Out of gratitude for this free gift, we will seek to help and serve others with kindness, love and gentleness and not merely to please ourselves. We are not saved only for our own benefit, but to serve Christ and build up the church. (Ephesians 4:12)
Today is Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday and we have traditional Simnel cake which we will bless and share after the service. Simnel from the Latin simila meaning fine flour. There are many stories attached to simnel cakes, some regional and some fanciful. Traditionally the cake has marzipan in the centre and on the top, with 11 balls of marzipan representing the apostles, and their part in sharing the word of God, presumably before Matthias was chosen to replace Judas,
However, can we remember, we are God’s work of art, his masterpiece. Our salvation is something only God can do. It is his powerful, creative work in us. As God considers us his works of art, we dare not treat ourselves or others with disrespect, but can we live, loved and cherished lives and share God’s saving love with others? Can we rejoice, be thankful and be refreshed by the Mothering unconditional love of God who heals and saves, and remember this as we eat Simnel cake today and share our lives with others this week? Amen.