The Snakes, the Virus, and the Cross

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 14, 2021 +

Text: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21


The people have had it.
They’ve been out in the wilderness long enough and they’re making it very clear that they either want to get to the Promised Land, like right now, or maybe they’ll just go back to Egypt.
That’s right, they’re so fed up that they want to go back to the normal they remember.
Back to where things made sense.
The good old days.
That is, at least, through some heavily rose-colored glasses.
The “good old days” in Egypt were when the people were literally slaves under Pharaoh.
I mean, there’s no doubt that going back would mean certain death for the people and the abandonment of their God-given freedom, but at least it would provide some certainty and predictability.

And this isn’t the first time the people have complained.
Almost as soon as God delivers them from Pharaoh and generations of slavery, the people cry out and fool themselves into thinking that things were better in Egypt rather than trusting that God is guiding them into a new, better, promised future.
It’s a cycle that happens time and time again in the books of Exodus and Numbers: The people complain, God hears them and answers their requests, and the people repent.

But in today’s story from the Book of Numbers, the people grumble and complain and something different happens.
Suddenly, they find themselves surrounded by poisonous snakes.
Now, whether this is really finally God getting fed up with the complaining and sending a little divine wrath or whether the snakes were a result of environmental hazards, it’s hard to tell for sure.
But however they came, the snakes are biting, and people are dying.

Now, I’ll be honest, this is the third time I have preached on this strange text from Numbers and each time I’ve criticized the Israelite’s actions here.
I mean really, God literally saved them from oppression and slavery.
God is guiding the people through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
God is providing them with manna to eat and water to drink.
God has given them a gift of pure love, divine teachings on how to live together in community.
And the people are so ungrateful that it drives me nuts!
And their grumbling doesn’t even make sense!
“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.”
I mean what does that even mean?
They are rejecting everything that they have been given and longing to go back into slavery.
Every time I preach on this text, I cannot comprehend the insolence, the impatience of the people!           

That is, until this time.

During the past week, we’ve been hearing over and over how we are now officially one year into our pandemic lockdown.
We’ve marked all sorts of grim anniversaries, reminders of what the past year has been like in our collective and individual lives.
Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of online worship here at Holy Cross.
And even as hope is dawning on the horizon, even as we are being told that the end finally in sight, we are impatient.
I know I am impatient.
When will it be my turn to get the vaccine? And why are all my family and friends getting vaccinated before me?
When can we go see people again? And why are those people traveling and I’m not?
When, oh when, can we gather together again for worship? And why are those congregations back in person already?
Some people, some states governments even, are so impatient that they are removing all their restrictions—right now!
They have decided to go back into what they see as normal, evidently willing to risk the consequences just so they can finally get out of this pandemic wilderness.

When the Israelites discovered they were surrounded by deadly snakes, they clearly at least assume there’s a connection between those snakes and the people’s sin against God—their doubting of God’s guidance and rejection of God’s loving provision.
So they cry out to their leader, ‘Moses! Save us! Pray to God so we will be saved.’
And God hears the cries yet again and commands Moses to do something…a little strange.
He is supposed to make a bronze snake and mount it on a pole with the promise that whoever is bitten by a snake need not die, but can look at this brazen serpent and find life.
And it’s so interesting to me that the snakes don’t go away!
They’re still hanging out and presumably biting people. But rather than a snakebite meaning death, there is a promise of life—that they need only look and see and trust in the promise God has made with the people, a promise of life and love and a future together.

And there’s a strange, poetic beauty in the symbol of that life, isn’t there?
Because God has transformed the very source of death which the people fear into the sign of the promise that God is the source of life.
By looking directly at their sins, or at the snakes which reminded the people of their sins, the people could be reunited with God, and are invited to see not fear and death, but rather the source of all love and life lifted up before them.

I’ve said it before, but this COVID pandemic has laid bare our sins, our collective failing to live as God intends for us.
We’ve seen how systemic racism and greed have produced inequitable access to healthcare.
We’ve seen how we continue to put our critical workers at risk but how we are reluctant to adequately compensate them more than with applause or banging pots and pans.
We’ve seen the results of the detrimental ideology of individualism and going it alone rather than working together—even to the point of refusing to wear a simple mask.
And now that the vaccine is available, we have seen how those with means, those with technological knowhow, those in the wealthier, whiter areas of town are able to get their shots while others are left struggling to navigate the system to access this lifesaving vaccine.

I’m sure we have all heard the cries to go back to normal, back to the familiar, back to the good old days that make sense to us.
I’ll be honest, I’ve heard those cries from my own mouth, too.
But like the Israelites longing to go back to Egypt, I think we need to recognize what it means for us to go back to normal, back to the way things were.
Because it’s all too easy to forget that the “normal” we’re remembering is based on these exact inequalities and injustices this pandemic has so brazenly revealed.
So perhaps rather than longing to go back, we should be looking to see the new, better, promised future God is preparing for us and trusting that we can achieve that vision together.

And I can’t help but notice that the thing that is giving us hope for the future and the end of this pandemic, this vaccine is the virus, or at least a portion of it.
That similar to the snake in the wilderness, this dangerous means of death, this virus which has terrorized the world, has been transformed into a source of hope, a source of healing, a source of life.

Now we also know that just because the vaccine is available for some, the virus has not yet gone away—that just as the brazen serpent on the pole did not immediately banish the snakes from the people, we still have a ways to go before we overcome this pandemic.
But we also know that we are so close now, that some of us are vaccinated already, and if we just stick it out a little longer, we will make it through, together.

Jesus drew another connection to that snake in the wilderness in today’s gospel text.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he said, “so must the Son-of-Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”
In John’s gospel, this talk of ‘lifting up’ is meant to point us directly at the cross.
It points us to this symbol of imperial power and terror, a cruel instrument of torture and death, so we can see how God is transforming the cross into something new, a symbol that reminds us of God’s love for the whole world, that God is the source of full and abundant life for all people.

And as we heard again today in that familiar verse from the third chapter of John, God loves the world so much that God has come among us in Jesus Christ as a pure embodiment of that life and love.
Coming to us again, just as God has done throughout history from God’s people in the wilderness and through until today, to demonstrate God’s love for us, to teach us how to live together, and to show us how, if we model our collective lives and communities after the deep, abundant, and abiding love God has for the whole world, we can experience the full richness of everlasting life in this world.
That if we finally and fully put all our faith, all our hope, all our trust in God and the future God intends for us, we will see how disease is changed into wholeness, how division is united into harmony, how injustice gives way to divine justice, how hatred is defeated by love, and even how death itself is transformed into eternal life.

And in the cross, we see not only how scandalous this proclamation is to the powers and profiteers of this world order—how threatened they are by its potency and assured coming that they would execute the source of love itself, declaring it a subversive enemy of the state.
But we also see the fullest extent of how far God will go to share this love with the world God so loves.
That God will even die for this love, even death on a cross.

Yes, we know all too well what lies at the end of our Lenten pilgrimage, my friends.
We that this road we are walking together and with our Lord Jesus, is a road that leads to the cross.
And we know that in just a couple weeks, we will hear again the Passion of our Lord, how our God was humiliated, pronounced guilty, beaten, and murdered by the state.
But we also dare to trust that the cross is not the end of the world, that our journey ends not at Golgotha’s grim hill, but at the garden of resurrection.
That just like the snakes were not the end of our spiritual ancestors, just like the COVID virus did not spell our collective end, we are putting our faith, we are daring to put our trust, in a God who is working to thwart death in the name of abundant life.
That out of the most heinous symbol of torture and death, new life will spring forth.
And whether we live or whether we die, we boldly trust in the God who is trampling death underfoot and revealing to us a self-giving, abundant, and living love that is so foreign to us that it would take lifetimes to fully comprehend.
A God who is inviting us into a richness of life so abundant in pure love, we assume it can only be known in heaven—but dare to believe that it is meant to be experienced here and now.

It’s been said that Martin Luther called this section of John “the gospel in a nutshell.”
Perhaps this is also Lent in a nutshell—maybe even our entire lives of faith in a nutshell—a daring, courageous, foolish, impatient journey of striving and hoping to trust in the new and abundant life that God is springing forth from even the most terrifying ensigns of death.
It’s a journey we never fully complete until God completes the promises made in our baptism.
But when our energy wains, when we grow impatient, when we find it difficult to trust in the promise, we can see all the sources of sin and division and injustice laid bare before us and dare to trust that God is working to lead us into a new, abundant future.
That when the powers of this world lift up fear and hatred, we can look to see God’s lifting up of love for the whole world and even glimpse the source of that love.
That we can look at even the most dreadful symbols of death that seek to kill us—the snakes, the viruses, even the cross itself—and dare to see an anti-venom, a vaccine, a cure that is freely and lovingly given to all creation—God’s new reality breaking in, bursting with new, abundant, and everlasting life to bind up our sin and separation from God, flood our doubts, and comfort our anguished cries with the promise of love and life and the future God has in store for our world.

Thanks be to God.

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