Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 19; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was 1979. Mother Teresa had just received the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize awarded to her for her work with the Missionaries of Charity that cared for the sick and the dying in the slums of Calcutta, India, and around the world. After receiving this prestigious award, Mother Teresa was asked to speak to a gathering of catholic bishops in Rome. In her brief address to them Mother Teresa spoke on John 3:16 – that familiar verse which we hear today: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
That verse is probably one of the most well-known in the Bible, it is one that many of us have certainly heard a lot. We’ve probably heard it so much that even when we hear it we don’t really listen to it anymore. Kind of like when your on an airplane and before the plane takes off the flight attendants do the whole airplane safety spiel about the seatbelts and the no smoking in the bathrooms, that some spiel we hear every time we get on an airplane and we we’ve heard it so much we stop listening – like some of you have already stopped listening to this sermon. That’s how John 3:16 feels to me – familiar, safe, and we have heard it a 1,000 times.
Which makes what Mother Teresa did all the more extraordinary. This is how she read John 3:16 to those bishops in Rome, translating it this way: “Today God loves the world so much that God gives you. God gives you to love the world, to be God’s love, to be God’s compassion.” It’s brilliant what she does – she takes this familiar verse and puts you in the center of it. For God so loved the world he gave you.
Could that really be true? Could our birth actually be a sign that God so loved this world that you and I were born? If I am a sign of God’s love to the world, then I have fallen very short of living like it were so. Is it true? Are you, am I, God’s chosen?
Centuries ago a nomadic people made their way through the desert wilderness, a place the book of Deuteronomy describes as “an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.” These people were God’s chosen, the Hebrews. And as we quickly learn, being a chosen people does not insure that one’s life will be easy. The Hebrews knew they were God’s chosen precisely because of how difficult their lives were. Case in point: to punish them for their impatience and complaining, God sends poisonous snakes which bite and many of the Hebrews die.
This brings up all kinds of difficult questions that pertain to the nature of God, such as: why was God impatient? Why did God assault the chosen people, the Hebrews, with snakes? What do these actions say about God? All fair questions to ask. My answer is simple and brief: context. We need to understand the context in which this story was told. We need to understand the story behind the story. And this is the story behind the story: The story of the Hebrews in the wilderness perilously assaulted by serpents sent by God was likely written following the Jewish exile to Babylon. Prior to their exile, the Babylonian armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem, desecrated the sacred temple where they believed God resided, took away all the gold temple appointments including possibly the ark of the covenant. Many of the Hebrews were forced into exile under the hand of Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon at the time.
The Hebrews had all kinds of questions: why would God allow Jerusalem and the holy temple be destroyed? Why would God allow the chosen people, the Hebrews, to be forced into exile out of their homeland to Babylon? What God would do such a thing? Answers were hard to find. It was likely around this time in Israel’s history when the story we hear today in Numbers was written. Just as the people could not find answers to these vexing questions regarding the purpose of the temple’s destruction, the purpose of exile, perhaps the authors of this story so deemed that there would be no answer given to why the serpents plagued the Hebrews centuries before in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, the Hebrews appeal to their leader, Moses, begging him to apologize on their behalf to God, that the poisonous serpents might go away. Moses obliges, and receives instruction from God to fashion a serpent out of bronze and affix it to a pole. Moses is instructed to raise the pole with the bronze serpent affixed to it and instruct the people that if they look toward the bronze serpent, they would be healed.
Incidentally the symbol for medicine, the serpent wrapped around a pole likely comes from this story because when the Hebrews looked to the serpent on the pole, they were healed.
We’ve looked at the story – God sending serpents to punish the complaining chosen people. We’ve looked at the story behind the story – that of the destruction of Jerusalem and its hallowed temple, and the resulting exile which likely were the circumstances that created the story we hear in Numbers. Now I want to briefly consider the story after the story – the story of how Jesus explained the Numbers story to his followers. Hundreds of years after Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness, Jesus looks back to this story, and says to those gathered around him what we hear in today’s Gospel: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also will the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Jesus is drawing a comparison between the bronze serpent on the pole Moses lifted up and himself and his looming crucifixion, when like that bronze serpent, his body will be affixed to a cross. As the Hebrews gazed upon the serpent and were healed, so to does Jesus suggest that those who gaze upon him crucified will understand, finally, the completeness and absolute healing that comes from self surrender.
Self surrender, giving – that brings us back to Mother Teresa. If ever a person lived who was known for these values, it was her. Many are the images of her kindness – wearing her robes in the streets of Calcutta, tending to the poorest, the sickest, those dying from HIV. We might imagine that Mother Teresa’s faith in God was strong. It was. But what is less known is her struggle with doubt and her experience of unendurable silence from God. In writings published after her death, Mother Theresa writes of the inner spiritual void she felt – of the pain of God’s perceived absence and emptiness.
Why would God seemingly turn a deaf ear to prayers of Teresa, a saint who is a model of Christian service and now a recognized Saint in the catholic church? Why was her experience of God silence and emptiness? Why would God allow the holiest temple dedicated to God’s name be destroyed by the hands of an invading foreign army? Why would God send serpents to assail his own chosen people?
Why the suffering, why the pain? It is because God loves the world. That’s not a reassuring answer, but it is true. God loves the world enough to push the limits of all pain and all suffering. If God loves the world, that is why God created you. God created you to walk the vulnerable and often painful path of suffering, not because it is easy, but because it is a holy path. It is your path. AMEN.