The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
A few years ago our family was on a short hike in the hills near our home in California, on a warm, sunny dry day like so many others there. (I’m just saying.) We came down the side of a ravine and were about to cross a wooden plank bridge over the dry creek. Just as Frances stepped onto the bridge, we heard it – a long, loud rattle of warning, coming from underneath the bridge. Frances jumped back, we all jumped back, and we peered into the darkness of the creek. We couldn’t see anything. So Jim picked up a stone and tossed it onto the bridge, and there it came again, another rattle, and a sort of rustling sound in the dry grass. We retreated again. After a long period of waiting and staring, we picked up the kids, left the trail, made a wide detour downhill, and gingerly picked our way over the dry creek to the other side. From there we tiptoed back, and saw the long, golden tail of the rattlesnake extending from the dark shade of the bridge. Thank goodness Frances heard the warning and understood what it meant, and we came home from our day hike with a little story instead of a big, tragic one. Or you could also say, thank goodness God saved her from the snake. It depends on how you tell the story.
During this year’s season of Lent our readings from the Old Testament have focused on the idea of covenant, on the relationship between God and God’s people. All of scripture is the story of that relationship, beginning with Genesis. Not all of the relationship is rosy, of course, but overall in Genesis we hear about God’s desire and love for us: our creation, the rainbow promise of Noah, the long friendship with Abraham and his descendants. Exodus continues this story of love, with God freeing his people from the slavery in Egypt. But if all of that’s the love story and the happy honeymoon, then the book of Numbers, where today’s reading comes from, is the account of the marital problems. It’s one long wandering in the desert from start to finish, and everyone behaves pretty badly with each other all along the way. All is not well in the relationship between God and God’s people.
We can hear it in today’s story. The Israelites are complaining and impatient. The king of Edom has said they can’t go through his land on their way into Canaan, so they must go the long way around. They’re so close to the Promised Land, and yet still so far. They’ve survived for 40 years on manna and a few quail, but now the prospect of better food in Canaan makes them sick of what they’ve got. They and God have quarreled back and forth several times already, and God has got so fed up that he’s sworn that none of the generation who came out of Egypt will make it into the Promised Land, only those born along the way in the wilderness.
So behold, God responds to the people’s complaining by sending poisonous snakes to bite them. Those who are bitten by the snakes die. The people immediately repent of their lack of trust, of God and of Moses, and beg Moses for help. When Moses prays and intercedes for the people, God gives the cure – look at the image of the serpent and live. And they do. All better.
Now, we might have some real problems with this story. God did something like this in the days of Noah, wiping nearly everyone out because he was so outraged at their behavior – but with the rainbow, God promised never to pull that kind of thing again. Through all the shenanigans of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families, through much of the wilderness journey of the Israelites, God has been quite merciful with Israel. And the first covenants with Noah and with Abraham show that – they’re really one-way promises, God promising to forebear with humanity’s foibles and to multiply the people of Israel. But now the people have the Law, the commandments that Moses has received on Mt Sinai and has taught to the people. Now God’s people are themselves bound by the covenant – their part of the relationship is to follow the commandments, love and trust and honor God, and care for each other in peace. And when they don’t, there are consequences. Every time they break the covenant, refusing to believe God’s promise, refusing to trust God and Moses’ leadership, God responds with anger. A pattern starts to develop: God’s anger comes out in an explosion of some kind, there’s repentance on the part of the people and relenting on the part of God, and they move on again. But the relationship is never entirely healed – Moses and Aaron and all the people who came out of Egypt with them don’t get to see the Promised Land, and all that history of anger and punishment becomes a part of the story, a scar that doesn’t go away.
That’s the way we tell the story, anyway. The story of God and Israel through their long history together is told as a narrative of punishment and repentance. God gives commands, Israel breaks them, God punishes Israel, and they start over again. It’s a repeating cycle through the whole first five books of the Bible and on through the prophets. The moral is, there are rules to follow, and when we break them, then God cracks down on us. The two-way love relationship of us and God turns out to have a pretty hefty imbalance of power, understood this way – either we love God in return, or God smacks us. If this is a marriage, it’s an abusive one.
And when Jesus comes along, the same narrative pattern is applied. Look at what we hear from Jesus in John’s gospel today: ‘Those who believe in [the Son of God] 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.’ And how do we usually understand this? ‘Believe in God through Jesus and God will save you; if you don’t believe, then God will condemn you.’ Cause and effect. God loves you and wants to marry you, but if you say no, God will destroy you.
Is that what got you into church today?
When we raise our children, we might start out with this kind of discipline – do the wrong thing, and consequences will follow: time out, no TV, no cookie. Behave, or I will be angry with you. But of course we don’t want that to continue as our relationship with them as they get older. We want them to start doing the right thing because they themselves understand the possible consequences without our providing them – who they will hurt, or what danger they will be in, and so on. And even better, we want them to learn to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing, never mind the consequences. Which means we have to love them and allow them to make stupid decisions for themselves, and to grieve and suffer when they suffer and make others suffer too. So it is with God and us also. We’re not programmed robots, nor are we trained seals who behave because of reward and punishment – we’re human beings, meant to be mature human beings, free to choose relationship with God. That choice is what a real love relationship depends upon.
So we might look at scripture stories like this one about the snakes as stories of us humans in the childhood of our race, when God had to punish and reward us in order to train us into right behavior. But we might also see that our way of telling the story might itself be the problem – that we have interpreted punishment and discipline in situations where instead, we were simply living out the natural consequences of our choices, ours as individuals and ours as part of all humanity in the world.
The book of Numbers and other texts from scripture are written according to a particular understanding of the world, one that attributed a lot of things to divine agency rather than natural causes. If we were telling that story today, we might notice that the Israelites were so busy complaining about their food that they didn’t notice they had camped next to a rattlesnake nest. Instead of saying God sent those snakes to bite them, we might realize how bitterness and focusing on what we don’t have can blind us into making dangerous mistakes. There are many different ways to spin the narrative, and depending on how you tell it, cause and effect and consequences work out different ways. Did God keep that rattlesnake from biting Frances on our day hike? Or did our previous experience teach us the caution to avoid that? It all depends on how you tell it.
And it matters how you tell it. In the gospel reading, Jesus goes on to say, ‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ This is the judgment – people right now choosing the ways of darkness instead of the ways of light. The judgment isn’t a result later of what God will do to us because of what we did – the judgment is now, in how we live. When we live in darkness – when we dishonor and mistreat other people, when we put ourselves as primary instead of love of God and neighbor, when we react in fear rather than trusting God to do all things for good – then darkness is the consequence. The world is darker, our hearts are darker, we suffer and we make other people suffer. When we choose the light, it is all different – right here and right now, in our own hearts and in the way the world is, it is all different. We create the world we live in. We can know now what the kingdom of heaven is like.
It’s not just about how we tell the scriptural story. It’s how we understand God in our lives today, and our own responsibility to live as God’s people here and now. The covenant agreement between Israel and God is our covenant as well. It is an agreement about what the world looks like when it is in balance. It’s mutual relationship, mutual responsibility between us as people and between us and God. Trusting in God to work all things for good, living the way of Jesus, treating others as beloved fellow children of God – all of that makes this world a place of light. The grace of God’s love for us, the good news that we hear in scripture, is that throughout our missteps and outright revolts against the good way we have been shown to live, God continues to desire us, to woo us, to help us to pick ourselves up and try better next time. God’s light still shines no matter how dark we may make it. There is always reason to hope, always love, always light.