Numbers 21:4-9 † Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 † Ephesians 2:1-10 † John 23:14-21
I wonder if today’s unique selection of lectionary texts don’t illustrate at least a part of the challenge of finding our way on this ancient path of faith. Think of it this way: Where we start has a lot to do with where we end, and it can have everything to do with how long we might choose to stick it out, and what and who we might meet along the way.
Surely, we are all familiar with this verse from John that, for a time, made it on more posters in more stadiums than we care to count. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”
Many who have never set foot in a church could recite the rest of it in their sleep. And for good reason, it speaks in concise language what we hold onto as the heart of the gospel—the love of God that pre-empts all else. The light of God that fills our way with light. And the next verse may be even better. “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.”
Now we’re really peddling along on this path. But then there’s this thorn on the path just ahead that just might puncture a tire: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already,”—what? “because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And suddenly you’re working to steady your handle bars because your punctured front tire is going a different direction than the wheel. And now you’re no longer worried about the thorn. You’ve just hit this huge rock that just might crumple your rim and throw you into the ditch: “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.”
And now you’re lying in a ditch in a cloud of dust. Your helmet is dented and thorns are all down your back and you’re taking an assessment of your bones to see if anything is broken. And you look up just in time to see this wide-eyed crazy dude with a rainbow wig and a twitch riding by you on a ten-speed. He’s riding with no hands because they’re holding a sign that’s written in bright, bold red letters and says, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” This is not where we thought we were going when we started with John 3:16.
And if that’s not crazy enough, we might remember that we actually started this reading that threw us into a ditch with a snake on stick.
Well, maybe that’s just me and my imagination, but my point is there is danger in pulling things like John 3:16 out of context if our goal is understanding and growth and healing and not just the reinforcement of our settled assumptions. We are wise to look a little deeper, to resist easy and simplistic solutions. This is true in our faith as much as it is in our social bubbles. Truth is usually found as we refuse to eliminate information simply because it happens to be troubling and distasteful. Truth—real truth, deep, eyes-wide-open truth sets you free if you’re willing to follow where it leads. And that’s where this ancient path leads.
And the snake is a sign for this.
Now, our modern ears have a little bit of a problem with a God who would sic snakes of God’s people. This is, for me, a reminder that any attempt to make God in our own image, and by association to gloss over the problems with our story while being more than happy to highlight the problems in the traditions of others is, well, a problem.
We prefer, I suspect, a more genteel approach when it comes to consequences. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened. We do not like the idea that sin should receive punishment—at least in such a bald way. We’d rather settle on the more passive, logical idea that actions have their consequences rather than give ourselves to outdated notion of a vengeful God who would sic snakes on us. Regardless, to simply sideline these stories because they are inconvenient has its own set of consequences.
That said, if we are going to acknowledge that our tradition gives witness to a God who punishes, we must also recognize in the same breath that this same troubling God deeply desires and embraces repentance—the turning around of behavior, and the turning back to trust. God’s purpose, even in this ancient story that leaves something of a bad taste in our mouths, is healing. Repentance is very much a possibility and even a desire for this God who provides a solution, a way of healing, a snake on a stick.[i]
So we are left with this: our mistakes and the suffering they cause are sometimes the only path to something new. Sometimes it takes a little pain to get our attention and invite us to take a look at something we’d rather not examine too closely. Sometimes, to say it differently, the road to healing runs straight through our pain, through our mistakes, through our loss; sometimes we find we are more alert once we have hit the ditch. This may not be a comforting message, but it is a truthful one, and perhaps one we need in this moment.
The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich understood God’s activity not as interference, but divine creativity—the imagining of new ways to seduce us to goodness, to life in its fullness.
So there is something of a deep wisdom to this snake on a pole. It is a sign of healing, as the world of medicine, which has adopted this symbol, has long understood. If we are going to get to what heals us, we’re going to have to look long and hard at what is making us sick. To attend closely to the wound and its cause is the beginning of healing. We are going to need to resist simplistic answers—especially ones that implicate others and too quickly exonerate us.
But we know this. We’re working on it. This is Lent.
And that’s where John comes in, reminding us that we are not alone. This divine, creative, healing God isn’t done. So we not only have a snake on a pole. We have a savior on a cross. We have one who walks this road with us to its very end—helping us to see the end result of our choices, and the new possibilities that lie beyond.
In her luminous book For the Time Being, Annie Dillard reflects on this idea: “Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world's necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile." Healing does not always take the form we either expect or prefer, she suggests, but in any and every case, God is with us, "suffering the world's necessities." God has chosen relationship over ease, and our doing the same just might keep us on the path we long to take.
So Lent is simply a chance to remember that what hurts us heals us. Trouble at home. Homelessness throughout our streets. Streets filled with guns. Guns in a school. Take a close look. If you don’t understand, if you don’t see where you are connected to it all, dig deeper. Ask the hard questions. Don’t settle for simple answers.
We do not wish for these things, but they are here, and we are a part of them. And the solution lies within us—if we listen. If we pay attention. If we look long and hard at the consequences of our choices and our acquiescence.
For the promise is here, among us. God with us, dying and rising and living. Beside you in the struggle and the despair. God at home. God on the streets and in our schools. For God so loved the world.
[i] Cf. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 3659-3664). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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