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  • Mar14Sun

    God's Unfolding Story

    March 14, 2021
    Filed Under:
    Pr. Carey

    Fourth Sunday in Lent
    Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21


    I’ve said this before,

    God’s word invites us to enter into the story and to become a part.  Yes, there’s a God moment happening again today… unfolding in our midst. Do you want to be a part?  Of course you do. However, your enthusiasm might depend on which of the texts you hear.  When we hear a text, we notice what resonates. Peace settles with words of comfort. Shivers go down our spine when words challenge or confuse.  Yet, it is certain, that treasures can be found in both. 


    The Gospel and Epistle offer us a rich and generous portion of grace in the foreground. 

    In the Gospel are some of the most well known and often quoted words of scripture. I love these words, I do.  God loves the world so much that we are given the gift of Jesus, so people may live! God’s concern is not with condemning the world but with showing us the way of life abundant.

    In the Epistle, we are reminded about God’s mercy and that our existence in the world, even our relationship with God, our welcome into all things mysterious and divine, hinges upon grace and that’s God’s doing.  It is by grace we have been saved by faith.  Not of our own doing. It's good to make this distinction, because if we could, and we do, we’d likely boast about ourselves instead of God. 


    These readings are foundational in that we are reminded of God’s love for the world in the gift of Jesus. The gift of faith has been given and by grace we live.  In the Epistles and Gospel, we can quickly identify how God loves the world. How does the first reading fit into the lectionary for today? Is it solely the serpent link or do we also learn about God’s love through this tough narrative of the Israelites being bitten and harassed by snakes. 


    The wild and untamed character of God in the Old Testament is sometimes harder for us to make sense of.  It takes us on that wilderness wandering journey of Lent.  Where is the grace we might wonder? 


    When we dig a little deeper into the narrative there is treasure in the background.  That’s why, I found the first reading to be very intriguing.


    The Israelites are stuck in the wilderness.  Wandering, here and there, for 40 years is a long time to never set foot into the promised land.  They have been complaining about Moses on repeat and now they are complaining about God.  Give us food, give us sustenance, take us back to the way it was before, take away the dangerous snakes. All reasonable requests, I suppose. 


    The people are tired of wandering. They’ve been making meaning in the wilderness with the absence of a permanent place to call home without roots. They’ve grown weary. But after complaining to Moses, we hear in this narrative, they come to Moses with softened hearts.  They acknowledge that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against Moses.  


    Now stop there for a moment.  That is worthy of a wow. These people have some  spiritual maturity to admit they have been wrong.  It takes a big person to admit mistakes.  It’s not easy for any of us, and easier to get caught up in the cycle of arguing your point or denying a mistake.  Look to political discourse. But these people harness their maturity and admit they’ve made a mistake.

    Think of children. We can teach and model that it’s okay to make mistakes by recognizing that much learning takes place. If we aren’t making some mistakes, we might not be learning much. And that is a rather stagnant way of living.


    Oh the Israelites, what freedom is theirs to be able to recognize and move forward for the sake of the kingdom. There’s a very practical side to admitting when we are wrong.  Where does all of that energy go now?


    I’d like to note however: For some, standing your ground is perhaps what you need to do.  Being bullied into saying sorry for something you didn’t do or don’t agree with, well that’s not right either.


    I love hearing people tell about times when they have change their minds. When they were convinced of something and later came to another conclusion. At my former parish in Toronto, the congregation had been working on adopting a welcoming statement for the LGBTQ brothers and sisters for a decade before I arrived. Many pastors and laity had planted the seeds. I was pleased that the motion passed unanimously when I was pastor.  One comment I’ll always remember is this: at the beginning I didn’t support this but I changed my mind and now I do. Fully. Wow. That’s growth. That type of growth has ripple effects.


    In admitting mistakes, we worry that others might see us as weak and not strong or worse yet that we might be unfairly punished.  But God forgives and welcomes the open heart.  And that is a consistent and continuous narrative of how God loves the world.


    Notice what happens next in the text?

    After the Israelites admit they have sinned, they ask Moses to pray to the Lord. They pray for what they think they need but God answers in a different way.  Please pray for the Lord to take away the danger among us. The serpents must go. Life will surely be less challenging with the dangerous serpents gone.


    Don’t we all pray for what we think we need?  

    We might pray for God to take COVID away. This is reasonable but perhaps there is a bigger picture prayer here. Normal wasn’t working for many people before the pandemic. 


    So Moses prays for the people as asked.

    How does the Lord respond?

    Moses the Lord responds, 

    “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”


    God provides but certainly not in the way they had asked or anticipated. 

    God does not take the serpents away but instructs Moses to make 



    Well, isn’t that the opposite of what the people requested?  They asked for the serpents to be gone and now there is yet another serpent .. placed on a pole that they are to look to when they are  bitten.  Some might get confused and think that prayer just made the situation worse for the Israelites but I don’t think this is the case.   God didn’t stop those serpents from biting, nor does God remove all danger from the world in which we live. 


    In a way, the response God gives challenges the Israelites to face their fears. 

    It reminds me of people are desensitized to their fears by slowing increasing exposure to that which is feared.  


    For people with life threatening allergies, there is some medical research that suggests small incremental doses of the allergen administered by the doctor can desensitize enough away from an anaphylactic reaction.  That which can lead to death is introduced in tiny, safe quantities so that future exposure won’t be catastophic.  


    Moses the Lord responds, 

    “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”


    Now that which bites is transformed into something that gives life. 


    I can imagine the Israelites asking the big why question.  Why me? Why this?

    But the why question often only gets us stuck. There is often no answer to the big why questions of life. Instead of asking the big ‘why’ questions, it is often more helpful to ask,  “Lord, what would you have me learn from this situation?”  Not my will but your will, Lord.  


    Approaching a challenging situation from the angle of learning rather than the angle of ‘why me’ victimization is life giving. ‘Lord, what would you have us learn from this situation’ is a very helpful stance to have. It’s active, it gives agency and it sets us on a forward moving journey.


    So much of this faith journey is about learning. We are disciples, which means, we are learners along the way. We don’t have it all figured out nor are we suppose to have it all figured out.  We’re called to walk the journey of faith together.  Let me tell you, it’s much easier to walk together as a community of faithful people who are open to having our minds changed and able to admit mistakes.


    Wandering in the wilderness for 40 years is a long time to never step foot into the promised land.   Yet, I wonder….

    If God is not experienced in the wilderness, where then?

    If God is not experienced in the waiting, where then?

    If God is not experienced in the yearning for the fulfilment of promise, where then?


    There is a great song that recalls the Israelites wilderness journey. It is called Dayenu and is often sung by Jewish people during Passover.  "Dayenu" means it would have been enough or for that alone I would have been grateful.  

    If God had brought us out of Egypt.

    If God had split the red sea for us.

    If God had turned away our oppressors.

    If God had provided for our needs in the wilderness for 40 years.

    If God had fed us manna

    If God had brought us into the Land of Israel.


    It speaks to a ground-ed-ness that resonates very much with me.  A trust that God provides even in the most difficult situations and God will continue to provide in the present and in the future. 



    Dear St. Matthews family, 


    God’s love for the world is wide, inclusive, consistent and unending.

    God’s love for the world is a teaching type of love. It asks us to be learners along the way together. Are we good students of God?  By grace, yes we are. 


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