Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
THE REV. PORTIA SWEET
The way things went in my parents’ home was like this: Daddy earned the moneyand Mother spent the money. She first spent the money on necessities, including our food. She prepared the food and got it on the dining table. The rule that was sternly and consistently applied was: you will eat at least a little of everything on the table and you will eat everything on your plate. Picky eaters were not permitted, except my brother, who did not like white food. Mother solved that with beet juice or green peas nested in mashed potatoes, etc. If one of us decided we did not like the dinner offering, we had the opportunity to change our mind when the same thing appeared on our breakfast plate. OR – we stayed seated at the table until we ate the food or it was bedtime. The Israelites in today’s O.T. story would not have been happy at our dinner table. Looking back, I am glad there were not an abundance of poisonous snakes about.
The Israelites, just like we kids put themselves into an unpleasant predicament by their disobedience - their sins. They refused to be content with gifts from God and instead complained that their liberated life did not meet their expectations. Sins are acts which block out God. Sins are actions we take as defense against God. News Flash: We are All Sinners. We are all sinners throughout our lives. Even in the Prayer Book prayer commending the soul of a departed person to God's keeping, we identify the person as "a sinner of your own redeeming."
In the readings this Lent we are again given the Ten Commandments and as we hear them read, we may be tempted to say, “Well, I haven’t really done anything horrible. I usually obey those.” Are we like the Pharisees proud to claim we obey the laws and thank God we are not like the people who get covered on the ten o’clock news? Maybe we need to look a little deeper.
There is idolatry in the smugness of looking at our wealth, individual good health and sexual morality while ignoring the causes of and our possible contributions to poverty, public health threats and society’s moral decay. This is where the Israelites found themselves. God kept saving their lives and they kept turning away and refusing to recognize the gifts he poured upon them - they were not in the form they expected. So, the poisonous snakes appeared, and their bite was deadly. The snake or serpent has been a symbol of sin since the Garden of Eden story. But look what happens.
The people turned to Moses and confessed that they had sinned against God and against him and begged him to ask God to remove the snakes - take away their sin. God then demonstrates God's readiness to forgive by, in effect, saying, if your sin overtakes you, look to me and it will not kill you. I will overcome the death bite of sin. Note that sin was not eliminated. We are still tempted and, without God's help, we are so capable of getting entangled in wrong doing, wrong speaking, wrong perspective, that our resulting way of living can kill us.
Do we focus on sin or on forgiveness of both ourselves and others? Do we blame those folks in the 10 o'clock crime reports: the poor, the thief, the prostitute, the murderer and say, “Thank God I am not like that.”? Or, through true repentance for our own sins do we, with God’s help, step up to act to eliminate the root causes of poverty, crime and the seeming breakdown of civility and morality in our society? We know these causes: greed, lust for power, self absorption and the self-righteousness which allows each one of us to convince ourselves that our way of living, our perspective, our circle is THE righteous “Christian” way. This is a defense against God and is often done in God’s name.
In Advent we heard the call of John the Baptist to repent. In Lent we need a reminder to repent because of our inherent memory lapses – just as the Israelites experienced. The Greek word from which the word repent is translated is metanoia, and means a change of perspective, a change of outlook or a transformative change of heart. Metanoia is more than a simple, "I'm sorry." Through repentance we can experience God's grace. Jesus sometimes would say to a person whom he healed, "Go and sin no more." But we are who God made us, and we continue to be the creatures God made, unworthy, yet worthy indeed by the grace of God through Christ.
We can infer from the section of Paul's letter read this morning that the Ephesians were also in need of metanoia. Paul said, "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient." Paul minces no words in telling them and us that living a life focused upon our own needs is to live a life focused on a god of our own making and we become the god at the center of our universe. We do this in order to control that world - the world of people pleasing, extreme consumerism, (i.e. greed), lust, and all those other juicy behaviors that Jimmy and his friends talk about on Wednesday nights.
Yet, even though the Israelites were way off the straight and narrow; even though the Romans, Greeks and Jews of the First Century were way off; even though we, the people of this community get way off, God loved them and God loves us.
There is much happening in the world around us, both in our back yards and across the oceans that we might feel righteous in strongly condemning. Jesus, however, stressed though word and action, relationship with those whom others condemned. For only through relationship can we begin to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection, the name, Christian. John tells us that when God sent his Son, Jesus, into this world, it was not to condemn or punish his people. Rather, he came to show us how to live a life saved from sin.
Jesus told Nicodemus to look to the risen Son of Man, just as the Israelites looked up to the serpent on the pole; look and believe in the risen Lord for the sake of your soul's salvation. To be Christ-like is to engage the people around us - those for whom we pray each week in this room and those we read about and meet in our daily walk through life. We, for our sake and theirs are to meet them and lead them to that cross by how we walk the talk and tell them of the availability of God's love and grace.
God loved us so much that he brought us life together, made us one with Christ. As Christians we have a special status; we are to be channels through whom God's gifts to us may be shown to the world. These are the great and life-sustaining gifts God pours upon us. Repent - Believe - Be filled with God's Grace.
Lift to Christ - not animal sacrifice or self loathing; not by giving up, but by looking up at the Christ, risen from the Cross on which he bore our sin, in true repentance - metanoia.
Then, having received the grace of absolution from a God whose mercy never ends, offer your feet. Move into the world of cruel realities with compassion and God's love and blessing.
This is the Good News: we can repent. Even our failures are redeemed and we are lifted up and given new life through the one resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.