Today we welcome back our seminarian, Steve Slepecki with music by Ed Kapsha. Photo by Prasad Panchakshari on UnSplash
Serpents and Wilderness
“We’re now nearly two months’ removed from Pastor Scott’s resignation. As challenging as it might be, it’s time, if we haven’t already, to start making a concerted effort to move on… and for some, depending on their level of attachment to Scott, that may be really hard to do. People may feel like they are disrespecting his memory by moving on too quickly. This may be a sad thing, but it is also perfectly normal. The last time I stood up here, I spoke about how many in the community are grieving Scott’s loss in their lives almost as if he’d passed away, rather than resigned. Surely, the fact that many of you didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to him in person, didn’t help. Sometimes we get stuck in the various stages of the grieving process because if we actually allow ourselves to go on with our lives, with our loved one no longer a part of our routine, it adds an air of finality to their loss, putting a period on the end of that chapter in our lives.
It’s time to begin looking ahead to the future. We’ve got an interim Pastor coming who has agreed to work with us and officially starts next month, after Easter. Those who have met the individual have come away with extremely positive impressions of them, and relate there is much to look forward to. Your congregational council is also discussing the possibility of live, in-person services to be held for Palm Sunday and Easter, and that would really lift the spirits of many right now. I dunno about you, but I sure could use a real worship service where I get to see all of you face-to-face… or maybe I should say, mask-to-mask.
As we continue our Lenten journey this week, our Gospel for the day contains probably the singular most well-known, often quoted verse in all of scripture. Surely every one of you have seen “that guy” at sporting events, concerts and other televised events, holding a sign somewhere in the background, with the quotation in big bold letters: JOHN 3:16.
(I recall this verse was read during a service I officiated at St. John’s last year, and I asked the question in my sermon: “Exactly what is it that guy is doing, anyway?? Can someone please explain it to me? What does John 3:16 have to do with sporting events or concerts??” After worship, a woman greeted me and told me very matter-of-factly, “They’re doing that because they’re trying to share their faith, in a way that will get the most exposure, because they know they’re on TV.” Which of course, made perfect sense and made me feel rather dumb that I didn’t realize that, it was so simple. So much for my fancy seminary education.)
So, this incredibly popular verse is the “Gospel in a nutshell”, right? It has everything we need to know? So, I’m not really needed, I can go home right? We’re done here? Ok, see you all next week, thanks for watching!!
On one hand, well-meaning, evangelically minded Christians use this verse as a missionary tool, perhaps giving it just a bit more credit than is due, when things are never quite as simple as we would like them to be. But on the other hand, there are equally well-intended teachers, preachers, theologians and the like who critique this and perhaps go a bit overboard with deconstructing the commonsense wisdom of the people – “Here are all the reasons everything you think you know about this verse is wrong” – because if the people can teach themselves, what do we need teachers, preachers, and theologians for?? While it might be an exaggeration to regard this verse as though it contains everything we need, I can’t deny that it’s a powerful evangelization tool. If there’s only one verse that I can get people to remember, it’s this one. As evidenced by the fact that I built my children’s sermon around it today.
There is, however, always a danger in isolating any passage from its surrounding context, even if the passage in question is giving us lots of good news and warm vibes and fuzzy feelings. Because if we only focus on the candy-coated part of scripture (or anything else in life, for that matter), we forget what a precious gift it is, in contrast to the alternative.
Jesus’ words here in John come specifically as he calls Nicodemus’ thoughts back to our Old Testament reading, from the book of Numbers. In the Numbers reading, the Israelites are trekking through the wilderness, journeying to the Promised Land, and as usual they’re grumbling and complaining to Moses, one of their favorite things to do. They’re hungry. They’re tired. They’re bored. (More sand to look at, how refreshing.) The sun is so hot. Maybe we were better off in Egypt, some of them say – which is absurd, of course, since in Egypt they were enslaved and oppressed and marginalized – but at least there, they were well fed. God gets tired of hearing them complain, and decides to do something highly disturbing – a horde of poisonous snakes are sent into the Israelites’ midst and begin to attack, and many are killed.
God doesn’t seem quite so warm and fuzzy now, as he does when we read John 3:16 in isolation, does he?? Particularly for the significant share of people who are afraid of snakes, this is an especially horrific scene. What in the world kind of God, could possibly do this?
Of course, one could possibly ask the question: Did God actually send the serpents, or did the author of the book simply assume that was the case, because they were culturally conditioned to assume God is intentionally lurking behind everything, and in reality, this was a freak occurrence, because the Israelites just happened to pass through the area where the serpents nested? But then, if it were the latter, an all-powerful God could have still intervened to stop the serpents, couldn’t he??
In truth, maybe it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that, at their darkest, weakest point, while wandering in the wilderness, tired and hungry and afraid, the serpents attacked the Israelites. It seems that often we find serpents in our lives when we are in the wilderness, and most vulnerable. Even Jesus experienced this. That old serpent we call the devil attacked Jesus with temptation at the most opportune time, when Jesus was weakened and most ripe to be tempted. The serpents of our lives often strike at the moments when we’re least prepared to defend against them. If they attack when we’re at our strongest, we fend them off without much trouble. But we remember those moments when we’re attacked by serpents and we have trouble fighting them off.
But when the Israelites found themselves attacked by serpents in the wilderness, God also found a way to sustain, save and heal them. And God does it in a way that seems a little ironic, perverse, and almost darkly humorous.
God tells Moses to fashion a bronze statue of a serpent – the very thing that’s attacking the people – and put it up on a pole. All the afflicted Israelites have to do, is look upon the statue, and they’ll be healed. Couldn’t God have chosen something more attractive to put on the pole?? – but that’s what God chose. As he always does, God turned the wisdom of the world on its head and subverted expectations. It was obscene to ask the people dying of snakebites, to look to an image of a snake for their healing, just as it was obscene for God to allow his own Son to die humiliated and naked and broken on a Cross, and ask the human race to look upon that, for healing from the serpents of our lives. But that’s how God works, sometimes using the unexpected, the absurd, and even the obscene, to heal us, reminding us of our sin and the reason why forgiveness is needed in the first place.
Friends, I certainly understand that this sermon might seem a bit dark. I know you come here looking for a word of inspiration and hope. And that inspiration and hope is still there, as our friend, “that guy” at sporting events holding up the John 3:16 sign, reminds us. But it is true, today I’ve done things a little bit backwards. In my seminary training, they teach us that ideally, the sermon flow should move from Law – the focus on our brokenness – to Gospel – the good news of God’s healing. Today, I kind of went backward and started with Gospel, and now have moved onto Law. My point in doing so was simply to observe – if we only focus on the good news, we start to take for granted what an awesome gift it is that we have a God who never abandons us, even in our darkest moment, when we’re in the wilderness battling the serpents of life. We forget what a blessing is the light, if we don’t take time to remember the darkness from whence we came. And that is, after all, what the Lenten season is about. This is that season in the church calendar when it’s appropriate to consider the serpents in our lives, so we remember why Christ had to die.
Sometimes, the serpents we encounter are our own creation – the results of our own individual sins and failings. In what ways this past year, since last Lent, have I not been the best spouse? The best parent? The best daughter or son? The best co-worker, boss, or employee? The best friend, the best citizen, the best congregant? In what ways have I failed others through hurtful or selfish words, actions, or even inactions? Then, as we leave our house in the morning, we battle the serpent of shame, also – everyone else looks like they have it more together than I do. I must be the only one who’s secretly so screwed up. What a mess I am. Everyone else’s life is so together and I’m the only one that’s this broken.
Other times, the serpents we encounter are the brokennesses in life that are not of our own making. We’ve been wrestling with a particularly nasty serpent called COVID for a year now. Our congregation has been wrestling with serpents of anxiety regarding our future, for six years now, ever since the Mendis’ retired. Pastor Scott helped keep that serpent under control for a little while, but it seems to be loose again. The serpents which we battle in our lives, come in all forms.
And though their attack starts externally, those serpents then begin to nest in our souls, in the form of fear. Doubt. Depression. Anger. Hate, directed both at others and ourselves, as we contemplate our own brokenness. Hopelessness. Faithlessness.
But, God is present with us as we battle the serpents. And note that God never promises that the serpents will be taken away, or that we won’t be bitten, or that it won’t hurt. But when the serpents of life seem to be overwhelming us, God always provides a lifeline. God never forgets about us. Even as those serpents of fear and doubt try to nest in our hearts and minds, there is also Christ there, just as he always has been and always will be, providing that inner strength and peace that helps us to go on even when things seem their darkest. Those times in life when we suddenly find our spiritual and emotional second wind, and we’re able to keep going despite feeling overwhelmed with despair just moments ago – those are the moments when he comes to us by grace. God finds us there, even when we’ve lost the strength to look for him.
Easter is coming, sisters and brothers. There is light at the end of the tunnel – light which we would not be able to appreciate, if we first hadn’t journeyed through the dark to get there. Lent is about acknowledging that dark, for what it is.
And, if we ever lose our way, all we need to do is turn on a sporting event or a concert, and I’m sure “that guy” with his John 3:16 sign will be there, to remind us of the reason for our hope.”