Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
A long time ago, on a hot summer day, I was painting a small bench in my front yard. As I reached for the garden hose to rinse paint off my hands another similar “hose” moved on the ground. It was a gigantic snake. My husband still laughs at the thought of me, running around the front yard shrieking, tossing paint everywhere.
I am not the only person who is afraid of snakes. I imagine probably lots of people are, to varying degrees. Though I would like not to believe it, I am actually afraid of a lot of things, as are you, if you think about; as are our congregations. We live in a time fraught with fear, anxiety is high on all fronts. We’re also talking about the Fourth Sunday in Lent (already!) and many of us are racing toward Holy Week and Easter, wondering how we will make this meaningful, how we can be faithful ministers when we can’t even meet with our people.
Snakes typically equal fear. This passage is full of a basic human fear, triggering and terrifying. Can we discuss what we are afraid of? The idols those things have become, the unscalable hills that populate our lives are we grow older and realize just how much we have to lose, just how fragile we are?
Can we talk about what God, who so loved the world, is capable of doing with our fear? Are our fears grounded in wounds? What happens when we take the bandage off and bring our places of fear and brokenness to God?
In Numbers the people are grumbling again. They’ve complained about the water, about the lack of meat. They’ve wondered if Moses even knows where he is going or what he’s doing, they keep losing their tenuous belief in God in the face of, well, a wilderness and walking for a lot of years. We’re tired too, tired of walking our pandemic road, sick to death of our Zoom wilderness. In what places is God showing love and care for us even now? What rocks have been cracked open to bring forth cooling springs?
We can tie up very neatly Numbers and John, as John so clearly references the Numbers passage. We can talk about the bronze snake on a pole that someone was in charge of carrying around for five hundred years until King Hezekiah broke it in 2 Kings. We can talk about images of light and dark in John’s gospel and their possible implications for us today, whether or not we should even use those images anymore.
Or we can go back to good old John 3:16 and examine again how the act of believing invites us in as co-creators with God. We can talk about the word “believe” as the verb that it is. John at times speaks of “the world” with a tongue that seems to drip with disdain, and yet here John tells us that God loves this world, and all of the people in it.
What if we took this old, familiar passage and invited our people into what it means to believe in Jesus? What if we could convince them to turn once more, to take action, to get up and move, to proclaim loudly the awesome love of God? Can we continue the love story of God with humanity rather than watch it bounce back and forth like a tennis match, like something we spectate rather than do. Can we believe in a participatory way?
Paul (maybe Paul? Probably not Paul) writes in Ephesians that we once were dead and now we live. If you choose to go this way perhaps you will, through your own study, appreciate the paradox of being dead, and then alive, and then called to die again. Christ died to live, yes, and invited us into that mystery as well.
Another interesting bit is the wallowing in the passions of the flesh bit. Did we make this sexual or was it originally a sexual statement? Could the passions of the flesh be greed, complicity in systems that oppress? Could Paul be inviting us out of that passionate and fleshy living and into a place where our good works do not save us, but DO save others? Are we asked to bring hope and healing, salvation, as the free and perfect gift that it is? It was, after all, a gift freely given to us.
My prayers are with you this week preachers as you find your jumping off points and wade in.
Alicia Hager resides in West Michigan and is a Postulant to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church. Alicia enjoys spending time with her daughters and her husband, is bonkers about her cats, and blogs at astrawberrypointe.wordpress.com.
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