"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sermon, April 12 @ Bexley Hall

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 102:15-22
John 8:21-30

The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for awhile,
the food is lousy,
water hard to come by.

And just before this part of the story of the exodus,
Moses’ brother and let’s be honest,
the people’s favorite,
died after being stripped of the trappings of his office in front of everyone.

The people are despondent,
and wondering, again,

why did we make these choices?
Where will it end?
When will we get there?

Why is following God so difficult and so often frustrating?

So they grumbled and swore
and spoke against Moses
and God.

And then the snakes show up.

And they bite, and many die.

So, after repenting
and begging Moses
to intercede on their behalf,
God tells Moses to make a bronze snake
and lift it on a standard
so that the people may look upon it when the snakes bite
and escape death.

But the snakes still bite.
God hasn’t made them go away,
he has given the people the means to deal with bite.

God hasn’t really let them off the hook at all.

Because the bronze snake doesn’t ultimately save the people,
it’s a reminder of their sinfulness.
standing before it
prevents this particular kind of death,
but it doesn’t really heal the wounds,
it just holds off the inevitable.

And in this way
it is like the Mosaic Law
in that it condemns without pardon.

The bronze snake is a sign of God’s power,
but it’s not actually God

And a thousand years later,
as we join the gospel story,
we find that the snakes still bite.
And that following God is still maddeningly difficult.

The people who challenge Jesus
are, in a way,
still standing in front of the bronze snake.
They’ve expanded it
and developed complex rituals
and refined their understanding of the Law.

The Pharisees
can confidently proclaim
what is required
of every situation
that life brings.

But they have traded the challenges
and discomforts
of following God
for the relative comfort
of serving the symbols of God.

"I have much to say about you," Jesus declares, "and much to condemn"

You and I have chosen to follow Jesus.
But sometimes
I, just like the challengers of Jesus in the gospel,
or the ancient Israelites,
still confuse the symbols of God
with the reality of God.

Today’s psalm begins with these lines;

   Hear my prayer, O Jehovah, and let my cry come to You.
   Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble;
       bow down Your ear to me in the day I call answer me quickly.
   For my days are finished in smoke, and my bones are burned like a burning heap.
   My heart is stricken and dried like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread.

When we are hurting,
when we are afraid,
I think that what we really want
is what the author of that psalm wanted
and what the Israelites of the stories wanted,

a sign,
a symbol of God’s continuing presence.
And Jesus’ refusal to give those assurances in the story
and in our lives
is deeply unsettling.

This has been a difficult Lenten season for me.
Halfway through my time
at seminary,
the initial excitement has passed,
the hopeful expectation of the future has yet to arrive.

I feel a little stuck here in the middle
and I often feel
I have given up so much already to be here,
that life can
sometimes seems
like a balance of not fully satisfactory compromises.

And in the midst of that,
there is the weight of Bill’s departure
and the challenges of the search process.

I feel pulled apart
between profound loss
and the potential of hope for the future.

I want God to reassure me,
to give me a sign,
I want someone to erect a bronze snake
and to say to me,
just stand in front of it and the bites won’t hurt.

I think
we long to encounter holiness
in every aspect of our lives,
but reality is filled with imperfect,
and oftentimes
trying and unpleasant people
and it can be so hard
to trust in a God who can seem unreliable
or ineffective,
so unwilling to reassure.

"I have much to say about you," Jesus declares, "and much to condemn;
but the one who sent me is true"

God told Moses to make the bronze serpent
because he wanted his people to know
that God was still with them.
Even as they turned away,
as they fell short,
as the snakes bit their ankles,
God was still there
and would remain,

because God is true.

It is our misuse
of the symbols of God
that is the real source of our dissatisfaction,
and not the lack of God’s presence.

Of course God seems absent
when we look for God in signs and idols.

"Look, I’m right here!" – that’s what Jesus is telling the crowd - and us.

As Jesus explains to his hearers
if you believe in me,
if you believe
that in what I do
you see the handiwork of God in the world,
if you can see beyond the symbols
and see that with me
you are face to face with God
then you will know the truth
and the truth shall set you free.

Jesus is trying to open their eyes
to the difference
between the signs and symbols of God’s power
and God,
God’s self.

Jesus condemns us
because we are too often
only really comfortable
with what we can see
and what we can touch.

We want the comfort of bronze snakes
that we can engage on our own terms.
if we want to be made whole,
if we want to be healed,
if we want to move beyond death,
we’ve got to put wanting things only on our terms aside.

And following Jesus
is about learning to embrace discomfort,
carrying our crosses
alongside him to the place of execution,
stripped bare
of our illusions of comfort and control.

In Paradise Lost,
John Milton’s epic poem,
as Adam and Eve sit together
in mutual recrimination
Eve suggests
that perhaps they should kill themselves
to avoid the pains of life
and the agony of the human race to come.
Adam counters however
that though they have lost the grace in which they were created,
their lives still have purpose
because it is their job to
"bruise the serpent’s head."

Perhaps Milton was on to something here
because the snakes aren’t going away.
They still bite
we still fall short of our potential
in many ways.

"I have much to say about you," Jesus declares,
"and much to condemn;
but the one who sent me is true"

God is true.
God’s love remains stubbornly steadfast
in the face our faithlessness.

As Jesus goes on to say,
it is this truth,
this true-ness of God
which sets us free.
We are not free of trouble
or of sinfulness.

The snakes are all around us,
but we don’t need to be satisfied
with standing in front of bronze symbols
of God’s power
in Christ
we stand face to face with God.

Following God is frustrating to us
because God does not offer us insulation
from the hazards of the broken world
in which we live.

We are frustrated
because God
does not participate
in our own illusion-building
but commands us to stand
stripped and bare at his side.

Faith is not a guarantee of good food or good water.
It is not a promise of safety or security.

It is unnerving
because it demands
that we engage fully with others
at a level of intimacy
that sometimes makes us squirm.

When we stand with Christ,
when we lift up the Son of Man though
we are freed
by a promise of never-ending love.
It is a freedom to set aside the fears of tomorrow
to concentrate on loving today


  1. I meant to ask, where did you pull the Psalm from?

  2. It's from the Literal Translation of the Holy Bible. It's a neat version that I have an electronic copy of.