The Cure for the Snakes in our World

+ A sermon preached for Lent 4B at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago, IL on March 15, 2015 +

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21


Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This was a big week for technology lovers.   In case you missed it, Monday was an always-anticipated Apple Event where new products are debuted. This time, we got information about a newer and thinner MacBook, a cheaper Apple TV, and the long-awaited unveiling of the new Apple Watch. This new “smartwatch” allows you to text, call people, check your email, look at pictures, listen to music, track your physical activity, control your TV, and pay for things all from your wrist. Oh, and it also tells you the time. Now, if you’re thinking that this sounds remarkably like a smartphone but for your wrist, I think you may be on to something. Presales started on Tuesday and the Apple Watch costs between $350 and $17,000. Yes, I said thousand. Nevertheless, tech blogs were going crazy for this new device.

Reading about this latest gadget and seeing the clamor for it reminded me about the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading. “Why have you brought us up out of the land of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Ok, that last line is one of my new favorites – ‘there is no food, and this food is terrible!’ Anyway, I’m sure that the trip through the wilderness was not easy, but I think the Israelites were being slightly melodramatic. We know from preceding verses that God was supplying the people with fresh manna from heaven each morning and they had access to clean water. God was providing for them, but the Israelites were not content with what God had given to them and longed for more.

Moses and the Brass Serpent, by Judith Mehr

What happens next is pretty troubling and difficult. We are told that God sends poisonous snakes upon the Israelites and many die. But after this, God provides a remedy for those who are bitten. By God’s command, Moses creates a bronze serpent on a pole and if someone is bitten by a snake, they only need to look at the bronze serpent and they live. By gazing at a symbol of death, they find life.

How did these snakes happen? What do they mean? It seems to me that through their lack of appreciation of God’s good gifts, the Israelites separated themselves from God and the snakes, the evils of the world, slithered in. While we hopefully don’t have to worry about poisonous serpents chasing us around Chicago, I wonder what are the snakes in our lives today? What curses do we bring upon ourselves because we cannot appreciate what we have?

“It is Apple that is biting us!!!!” That is what my friend, Tom, started his particularly scathing in his review of the new Apple Watch. He continued, “Consumerism: spend, throw away, upgrade, show off the new gadgets, flashy cars, fancy houses…the rich richer, corporate America controls your life. How many perfectly good vehicles fill used car lots? How many clothes not worn fill closets? … Spend time with common people struggling in the developing world, buy them a package of rice…pay for school books.” Certainly, one of our societal snakes must be consumerism where our own insatiable desire for the newest thing blinds us to those around us. Our dissatisfaction for what we have clouds our vision of those who live without. And that’s one of the things about consumerism – its inherent individualistic nature. Consumerism causes us to condemn ourselves by thinking about our own wants and desires and ignoring others. Where is our bronze serpent that will remind us of our need for God?

Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald

John’s gospel points us to the cross as a cure and tells us, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” John’s depiction of the cross does not focus on an instrument of torture but turns a symbol of death into a life-giving throne. Just as the Israelites in the desert could look to a snake, a depiction of death, and live, so can we look at the Son of Humanity crucified and find life. All who look at Jesus on the cross and believe can live lives freed from the snakes of our world. The author of Ephesians tells us that God has loved us even when we were dead to sin and graciously made us alive again by lifting us up together with Christ on the cross. Through the cross, we are raised up with Christ and saved from our sins. But this saving nature is not merely some individualistic salvation, not something where we can say, ‘I’m in and you’re out.’ No, it’s a gracious gift of God, freely given to us so that none may boast. And it calls us to be in community with each other. Freed from the things that separated us from God, we are able to focus on the needs of those around us. No longer bound by our own discontentment, we are free to serve our neighbors, which is the life God intended for us. God lifts us up with Christ to lives of service so that we can lift each other up and live in community – not merely as self-indulgent individuals.

Our pilgrimage in the Lenten wilderness is an opportunity to reexamine our lives and our society. A time to rediscover the snakes in our lives and turn from their condemning ways. Whether they are consumerism, racism, economic inequalities, or whatever else, we find the cure for our snakes on the cross of Christ. As we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday, may God keep our hearts and minds freed from the snakes of the world, and focused on the people around us.

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