Sunday, March 18, 2012

So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt?

The title's a nod to the late Keith Green, whose music and ministry helped shape my early days in the faith. His song of that name was playing in my head the entire time I was writing this sermon.

I appreciate the writing of David Kalas, and the joke I "borrowed" from the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, in helping me write this week's sermon. And yes, I "borrowed" "bamanna bread" from Keith Green.

The very idea that I could hope to unpack the depth of Jesus comparing his crucifixion to Moses' lifting of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is sheer folly at best, and deadly hubris at worst. I barely scratched the surface, and likely bungled some bits even at that. Happily, the congregation is good at forgiving me when I do that. They've had a lot of practice, y'see...

Here's the audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Ephesians 2:1-10
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. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

John 3:14-21
“And 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.”

Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It’s a pretty safe bet that, if you open up the book of Numbers at random and put your finger down on a page, you’ll be pointing to a passage where the children of Israel are worrying, doubting, and/ or complaining. Honestly, I don’t know how Moses put up with it all those years.

Especially in this instance! They complain about having no food… and in the same sentence say they hate the food. Um, what?

Well, yeah, there was food, enough to go around. Manna. Every day.

For breakfast, manna waffles, with a side of manna eggs and manna sausage, washed down with a nice hot cup of manna coffee. For lunch they had manna sandwiches: manna between two slices of manna. Or you could get real adventurous and have a manna club sandwich – three slices of manna! For dinner, manna pot roast. Maybe for dessert, manna pound cake or bamanna bread…

Yeah, manna. Lots and lots of the same old thing every day.

And instead of the monotony pushing the people to look forward with hungry anticipation to where they were headed, the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, they grumbled about what they’d left behind, back in Egypt.

Sure, they’d been slaves. Yeah, they’d had to work constantly on the Pharaoh’s building projects, backbreaking labor that drove them to an early grave. But man, remember the food? Olives as big as your fist! And the bread! So soft you could use it as a pillow. Oh, how we miss the food…

Imagine: God had brought them from slavery in a foreign land, through the Red Sea, had provided for their needs, protected them in battle, and was sending them (or, well, their children, anyway) to a glorious new land of abundance, full of fields they had not plowed, homes they had not built, orchards they had not planted…

It reminds me of the story about this company that had fallen on hard times. There wasn’t enough work to keep the people busy, but rather than lay everyone off, the owner told the employees, “I am sure things will improve soon. In fact, I’m going to keep everyone on full salary; just come in on Wednesdays to maintain the machinery and keep the place clean.”

From the back of the group, someone said, “Do we have to come in every Wednesday?”

The children of Israel wished they could go back to Egypt, undo all that God had done for them, even if it meant being captive again. So the Lord sent serpents. Poisonous snakes.

Now, I’ve read a lot of preachers and bloggers and commentators who are very uncomfortable about this passage. It brings up a lot of questions about the nature of God, and causes people to struggle to reconcile our idea of a loving, New Testament God with an angry, vengeful and capricious Old Testament God.

And what does it say about a God who would send snakes? Real, live, poisonous snakes, the kind that like to kill people? After all, they were just doing some whining, for crying out loud! Isn’t that like burning down a house to kill a mosquito?

I want to suggest to you that if God’s intention had been to kill the children of Israel for their doubt and complaining and unbelief, for wanting to go back to familiar slavery, comfortable servitude, the soothing routine of the crushing burden and the cracking whip to their backs, then God could have – would have – simply killed them. All of them. Instantly. Or, if God’s plan was for the children of Israel to die slowly, in terror and agony, God could have simply offered no remedy, ignoring Moses when he came to plead on the people’s behalf.

So, was God simply looking for an apology? For repentance? Well, if that was all there was to the story, then the serpents would have disappeared the moment they all ran to Moses, admitting they’d been boneheads and begging him to intercede. Asking, in fact, that God take the snakes away.

No, the snakes don’t leave, and people didn’t stop being bitten, but God does provide a cure. A strange, counterintuitive cure.

The cure had nothing to do with raining antivenin down on the encampment, or teaching the people how to extract the venom from the bite, the way the old Boy Scout’s first aid manual did.

The cure was another snake. A metal one. On a pole. When someone got bitten, they had simply to look at the metal snake on the pole, look at the image of the thing that was causing them to die… and they would live.

God did not want the people to die, you see. God wanted the people to trust.

In the dark of night, something like eight hundred years later, a figure emerges from the shadows in the narrow streets of Jerusalem and knocks on a door. A young man answers, wiping sleep from his eyes, and a few minutes later the shadowy figure steps into the courtyard of the house, and settles next to the fire to speak with Jesus.

Nicodemus was a man with questions. I imagine him as a fellow who had spent his life following the rules, keeping the rituals, playing the game the way it was meant to be played. But lately, he’d seen the edges of his carefully woven tapestry beginning to fray. He saw his fellow Jews who, just like him, were doing all they knew to keep the Law, make the sacrifices, pray the prayers, but things just kept getting worse. Food was scarce, all the money went to the foreign occupiers, the leaders of the very Temple of God were in collusion with the Romans, and there was no end in sight.

Perhaps Nicodemus had been in the Temple the day Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, had heard him yelling about making the house of God into a Super Wal-Mart, and had known, deep in his heart, that this dirty, nondescript rabbi from some Podunk town in the middle of who-knows-where was right.

But there in the courtyard, warmed by the fire and the cups of wine, Nicodemus grows ever more confused by the things that Jesus says. Being born all over again? Born of water and the Spirit? What does it all mean?

I wonder if it all clicked for him when Jesus referred to Moses’ snake on a stick? After all, hadn’t Nicodemus been thinking that the world was a sick place, snakebit with corruption and greed, dying beneath the crushing force of Roman occupation?

All of Judea prayed for the Messiah to come, to re-establish the throne of David, drive out the oppressors, and institute the eternal, perfect, but earthy, Kingdom.

They’d asked for God to send the Roman snakes away, but God hadn’t, and every day it all seemed to get worse and worse, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that God really had forgotten the Jewish nation, or worse actively wanted to destroy them, kill them all.

“And 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.”

Perhaps, Nicodemus thought, God didn’t want them to die. God wanted them to trust.

Crucifixion had been perfected by the Romans over the centuries as a way to not simply kill their prisoners, but to humiliate their enemies and terrify their subjects. Crucifixion was doubly terrifying to the Jewish people, because the book of Deuteronomy says that anyone who was hung on a pole was cursed – so not only did they endure the pain of death, those that believed in life after death knew that their afterlife would be doomed as well. All in all it was an exquisitely slow and painful way to die, and the Romans made sure and did it on a hill, on a cross big enough that everyone could see the suffocating, naked body of whatever cursed soul had crossed the Roman governor that day.

“And 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.”

What does this mean to you and I, today?

It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that the world we live in is cursed, even today. While much of the world struggles to find enough food to eat, other parts of the world deal with an epidemic of obesity. While part of the world woke up this morning dealing with the after-effects of too much to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, in other parts of this same planet there isn’t enough clean water to drink. While part of the world worries that the video games our children play are too violent, in parts of Africa children are kidnapped in the night and forced to fight and kill on behalf of armies rebelling against a government not much better, in practice, than the kidnappers themselves. Power and wealth protect and enrich themselves, while the middle class disappears and the poor grow ever poorer.

Even when we don’t struggle to feed our families, even when clean water is as far away as the nearest tap, even when our children can sleep in their own beds, knowing that Joseph Kony won’t sneak in during the night and steal them for his army, there’s plenty enough curse to go around: the curse of resting our self-worth on the things we own, where we live, our race or our gender.

We are snakebit, and we die a little more from the poison of greed, affluence, and self-absorption every day.

The image of the snake saved the children of Israel from death. All they had to do was look to it. All they had to do was trust… to have confidence… to believe.

In Galatians we read that Christ became the curse, in order to redeem us from the curse of the law.

Christ became the curse, became the image of the very thing that is killing us.

“And 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.”

We who live under the curse must look to Jesus, who became the very image of the thing that is killing us, and far from simply keeping that poison from destroying us, looking at the Son of Man lifted up brings us the promise of the Kingdom, the assurance of eternal life.

And please understand, this is not an exclusionary event, something done to separate the “good people” from the “bad people,” to offer a way of quantifying “us” and “them.” I have said this before, there is no such thing as “us” and “them.” All of us, left to our own devices, will move immediately as far from God as possible, will wallow as deep in the poison of the curse as we can get, and do so as quickly as we can. In the language of this cursed world, we are all “them.” And, as the book of Romans reminds us, God demonstrates God’s love this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Or to use the words of Jesus, “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.” And later in the Gospel of John, Jesus states, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So we who have looked upon Christ, lifted up, the image of the curse, we who have been brought from death into life in Christ, have a choice to make.

We can continue living as if we are under the curse, letting the advertisers and the infomercial producers tell us what to buy and how much to spend on it so we can be better than the other people who didn’t buy this or spend that. We can continue letting the politicians and pundits and talk show hosts tell us whose fault everything is, who to hate, who to distrust, who to fight… or we can lift Jesus up, in doing the things that are true, and draw everyone – everyone – to Him.

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