Sunday Homily - March 14, 2021 - The Serpent in Our Midst

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21


My family has lived around this part of Arkansas
 for almost half a century now,
  having moved to Vilonia in the early 1980s.

My mom and dad lived for a few years
 in an A-frame house
  just a little down south of Vilonia,
   truly out in the country.

My dad, being the hands-on type of handyman
 worked on our family vehicles,
  and instead of a fancy lift or a floor jack,
   he had poured a concrete slab
    that had a stair-step compartment
     allowing him to simply pull the vehicle he was working on
      over the top of that hole-like compartment
       and work on them without having to lift the car. 

Even though this little compartment was cramped,
 and you had basically the distance of the car to the ground breathing space,
  It was a pretty neat setup conceptually.

One day, 
 he was working on changing the oil in a little Chevy Sprint,
  a little 80s model hatchback car,
   and he had an unexpected friend join him in that little compartment.
A snake. 

Now, the retelling of the story can easily bridge onto tall tales,
 but all that aside,
  Dad must have somehow channeled his rubber powers
   and somehow got himself out of that little compartment
    our from under that little Chevy Sprint
     in a record amount of time.
      Or, at least quickly enough to keep from getting snakebit.

When you are in a situation like that,
 the last thing you need is a dangerous animal stick in there with you.
  And snakes are often those animals
   that can either caused incredible feats of human accomplishment
    (getting oneself out from under a Chevy Sprint with no jack or lift)
     or in a less-humorous way,
      can really lead to serious injury. 

In Arkansas,
 snakes are no joke.

Not a year goes by without the Arkansas copperhead making an appearance 
 somewhere near our house in Vilonia.
  And the pigmy rattlesnake is almost ubiquitous
   across the Ozarks Mountains. 

There are indeed non-poisonous, non-threatening snake species all over the place,
 but for most people,
  the image of the slithering snake, no matter how close to you it is,
   prompts many reactions of caution,
    ranging from keeping your distance
     to downright hightailing it out of there.

Snakes are not just a threatening image to us here in Arkansas.
 Snakes are also a symbol of threat
  in many places throughout the Bible.

The crafty serpent in the Garden of Eden.
 The Psalms and the Prophets
  referencing the danger of snakes,
   and the completely upside-down way that the prophet Isaiah
    describes the totalizing peace of God
     in the image of the child playing in the cobra's den,
      in Isaiah chapter 11.

Snakes, and the image of snakes,
 are often a dangerous,
  and indeed lethal image
   in most of our Bible.

But, there is a snake story of the Old Testament 
 that Jesus himself uses
  as an image of the salvation he will bring
   by his cross and Passion.
    And understanding these snake stories
     are necessary and informing images
      into the depth of God's love and sacrifice
       on behalf of you and me.


In the book of Numbers,
 which we heard this morning,
  we get a story that we don't tell very often.
   A very odd story
   that happens to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.

And it is about snakes.

In the book of Numbers,
 immediately prior to this passage,
  the LORD had done two miraculous things for the people:
   He provided fresh water from a rock (for the SECOND time)
    and He had defended the people against another army by his power.

But a constant throughout the entire book
 is that although the people are eyewitnesses to God's miraculous action,
  they complain constantly against God and Moses. 

Which is why the beginning of the passage
 read in the context of these things
  is one of the most offensively evil things that could have been said:
   "...Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? 
    For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Ah, by the food, you mean the Manna, right?
 The literal bread that fell from heaven that God Himself provided?
  And you also mean the water that came out of a dadgum rock?
   Those things that God Himself provided for you?

The complaining, critical spirit of the Israelites,
 or at least the loudest Israelites,
  betrayed another presence in the midst of the people:
   the poisonous serpent.

You see,
 remember the very first place that a serpent shows up in the Bible:
  in the Garden of Eden,
   as the tempter and the liar,
    a soft and smooth word in your ear saying,
     "You don't really need God,
      and God really doesn't have your best interests in mind."

Just as poisonous snakes are deadly,
 so also is the inward poison of the serpent of old, the Devil,
  in tempting us away from God's care.

And in the context of Numbers,
 how were the people healed?
  The Lord told Moses to mount a serpent upon a pole,
   and for the people to look at it.
    And those who were bitten didn't die.

 this is an act of looking directly at the Israelites own sin.
  Of looking it in the face and, in a way, naming that sin.
   Exposing it to the light.
    And facing down the ill that it brings.
     Only then can healing begin. 

So now,
 when we get to Jesus using this story and the symbol of the serpent,
  there is an added layer of depth and meaning
   to what Jesus is getting at concerning his own crucifixion.

And notice with me,
 when we hear the Gospel again,
  the close connections between the themes in Numbers:
   the disbelief of the Israelites even though they saw God's miracles first hand,
    the temptation to disbelief,
     the exposure of sin,
      the looking at it,
       the true enemy being the shielding of evil in the darkness
        and healing only happening when it is exposed to light:

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him 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 this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


Jesus, in his crucifixion and bodily resurrection
 was indeed the light than exposed our weakness,
  that laid bare our utter need and dependence on God 

And, just like Israel,
 we so often forget the provision of God
  in our everyday lives.

How often do we forget that the food we set upon our tables
 doesn't just come from the grocery store,
  but originates from God's bounty to sustain our lives?

How often do we forget that the water readily available in our homes
 isn't manufactured by us,
  but is in fact the same water that has been cycling around our planet
   for way longer than you or I have been around?

We are recipients of the gracious gifts of God,
 every single day.
  And yet it is so easy to fall to the temptation of the serpent:
   that we did it ourselves,
    and that God need not apply.

And, of all seasons in the Church year,
 Lent is not the time to hide those errors inside of ourselves,
  but to honestly and humbly expose even those dark corners of our souls
   to the light of Jesus Christ,
    that we may be healed of that malady
     and that the poison may not kill us.

That's exactly why Jesus came in the first place.
 Jesus didn't come to shame us or condemn us,
  but rather to seek and save us who are lost.

In response to this fact,
 we must, every day,
  come to terms with the depths of our own frailty:
   our frailty of forgetting what God is doing for us even this very day,
    and in that blindness to allow the the serpent to kill us
     with the poison of pride, complaining, and destructive criticism.

And we must, every day,
 repent and return to the Lord,
  exposing ourselves to the light of Christ,
   that we might walk in the light as He is the light.
And in so doing, be saved from our sins.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Popular posts from this blog

Reflections on Priestly Formation: Listen Up!

Sunday Homily - August 30, 2020 - "Wherever He leads, I'll go"

Sunday Homily - January 10, 2020 - A Fork in the Road