I don’t know about you, but I find the older I get, the more fearful I become.
This, of course, is born of some recent experiences over the last decade or so.
Experiences like tripping over my own feet and then learning to live with the inconvenience and pain of a broken ankle, a sprained arm, a swollen toe, or a fractured wrist; all these things have taught me well how to be in relationship with family, friends, and sometimes even congregations!
These experiences have helped me to know how hard it can be to ask for help, to rely on others, and to stay the course with patience, perseverance, and where possible, with good humor.
The other thing I’ve learned traveling the highways and byways of the Kootenays, the central heartlands of Alberta, the Lower Mainland, and now back to the Okanagan valley, is this: I am really good at getting myself lost.
I’m really good at stubbornly following my nose instead of the ‘how to’ instructions sent by worried friends and family or worse yet, trusting the instructions of my GPS to get me where I need to go.
Two words I would use to describe me in this present moment is my inclination to self reliance and blindsightedness.
These same words come to mind for me as I consider the characters in our texts from scripture this day.
Here, we have two stories about folks who have got themselves good and lost and who are badly in need of instruction as to how to get ‘unlost’.
Here, we have two stories about folks’ struggle to see more clearly and understand more fully what it means to be in faithful relationship with God and with each other.
We begin with our story from the 21st Chapter of the Book of Numbers which brings us into contact with the Ancient Israelites, our faithful forebears.
Still journeying in the direction of the Promised Land, they succumb to their fears around the rigors of the journey.
in their frustration and fatigue, the ‘murmuring’ begins.
From there whispering quickly gives way to complaining and complaining gives way to recalling how things were so much better in the good ole days.
Listening to the story, it feels as though there’s a kind of a ‘Let’s get back to Egypt’ committee forming as the people rail against their leader, Moses, and also against God.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness”, they intone. (Harper Collins Study Bible, 1989, p. 241)
And much to our surprise, we find that God, not only listens to their lament, God responds in a surprisingly punishing and retributive punitive way.
Here, we are with the community as they experience their wake-up call.
Indeed, there can be worse things in the wilderness than a lack of water and miserable food.
Worse things, say, like fiery, winged, venomous serpents!
With venomous snakes everywhere, things continue to go from bad to worse with many people dying.
Coming to their senses finally, the wandering ones realize how far off track they’ve veered, and how lost they’ve become in their unwillingness to trust in God’s guiding hand.
Seeking out their leader, Moses, they petition him as their emissary:
“You go and tell God how far off track we’ve gone. We confess we’ve been blind-sighted by our own fear, our own frustration, and our own tiredness.
But more than anything else, ‘Go and tell God we’re sorry for straying so far away from God’s plan for our lives.’”
And so it is, Moses takes this petition to God on behalf of God’s people.
Here, we learn the God perceived as punitive and retributive can also be redemptive and tenacious.
Here, we are with the community as they re-discover a patient, gracious, and hopeful God who meets God’s people exactly where they are at.
But first, God instructs Moses exactly what to do so that the people will not forget.
Moses creates a bronze serpent and lifts it up on a pole for the ancient Israelites to gaze up to keep before them a symbol of their most dreaded fears.
Ironically, staring their fears in the face is what will bring them to healing and to wholeness.
It is indeed a strangely weird and wonderful story, isn’t it?
For me, it’s a cautionary tale for all the times when my own fears and frustrations and my own foibles get in the way of my relationship with God and with the God we find in community.
Turning now to our gospel text this morning, we begin at verse 14 of Chapter 3.
Here we jump into the deep end of a theological discourse, words attributed to Jesus but composed by the author of John’s gospel.
Starting here, we miss the question about being born again posed by Nicodemus, learned Pharisee. Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, because, well, because it’s safer that way, is having a hard time wrapping his mind around what Jesus is saying.
Here in the opening verse of this reading from John’s gospel, in response to Nicodemus’ inability to understand, Jesus predicts his own lifting up, his own exaltation, and his own inevitable return to God.
Echoing the words from the Book of Numbers, we hear Jesus saying: “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.” (Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 2018)
Here, in the third chapter of John’s gospel this morning, we hear of a God who so loves the whole of the cosmos that his beloved Jesus’ body will soon be given over to the fearful authorities as a way of quelling confusion, misunderstanding, and hatred and as a way of stifling change and the birthing of a new day.
Once again, we find ourselves wondering what to make of these puzzling words from John’s gospel about living and dying, about belief and trust, about healing and wholeness, and about a God whose passion for the healing for the whole of the cosmos in the face of death and dying is almost beyond our comprehension.
For today, it feels enough to be attentive and intentional about noticing how our fears, our frustrations, our fatigue, and our foibles get in the way of our relationship with God and with each other.
It feels enough to remind ourselves that our temptation to get things back to the way things used to be is in fact, an exercise in futility.
Building up the ‘Let’s get back to Egypt’ committee is neither productive nor is it worthwhile.
Better to remind ourselves and each other, instead, that our redeeming God loves us more than we might ever ask or imagine.
Our redeeming God longs to bring us into relationship with God and with each other. In dying to our fears, our frustrations, our foibles, and our fatigue. In choosing instead to rest in the good news of God’s gracious, abiding, and redeeming love, and in living into the fullness of God’s dream for the whole of Creation in faith and in hope, anything might be possible.
For the sake of new ministries yet to be born in our midst and for our own sakes as faithful followers in the Way of Jesus during the season of Lent, my fondest prayer is that it may be so. Amen.
Rev. Elizabeth Bowyer reserves all rights © 2018.
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