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Fourth Sunday in Lent

ReadingsNumbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21

Today’s reading from Numbers 21 is a challenge. The Egypt-fleeing tribes of Hebrews were thoroughly discouraged.  Aaron, their high priest, had died.  The kings of Edom and Arad had rejected Moses’ request for travel through their kingdoms.  And they were tired of the manna that fell from the skies for their sustenance day after day after day the same.  So, they complained, again, to Moses, their leader, and they complained to God for a third time.  The text clearly states that it was God who sent the fiery serpents, the snakes into their camps, and many died.  God then did provide an antidote, a bronze serpent placed on a staff.  If they focused on the bronze serpent they would live. 

Scholars dance around this passage for good reason.  It implies that God punished people for being discouraged and who complained.  The remedy for them was a bronze snake on a staff.  In fact, there seems to have developed a cult around the serpent on the staff.  We learn in II Kings 18: 4 that King Hezekiah, during a much-needed religious reform in the 5th century B.C.E., had the serpent destroyed. 

Yet, the question is still there, did God send the snakes to punish the people who openly complained, who shared their discouragement?  It almost seems to me that the liturgists who developed our current day lectionary picked the Psalm, the Epistle, and the Gospel readings to be an antidote to the reading from Numbers.     

Psalm 107 repeatedly declares

     v.1               Give thanks to the Lord for [God] is good,
                       and [God’s] mercy endures for ever.
     v. 6, 13, 19       …they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
                        and [God] delivered them from their distress.
     v. 8, 15, 21, 31  Let them give thanks to the Lord for [God’s] mercy,
                       and the wonders [God] does for his children.

From Ephesians we read

     …God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which
     [God] loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses
     …by grace you have been saved…

The Gospel according to St. John contains these well-known words

     For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
     so that everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish
     but have eternal life…
     God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world
     but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The God we know in Jesus gives love to all. The God we know in Jesus gives life to all.  When we are discouraged, God loves us. God gives us life. When we complain, God loves us. God gives us life.

In the Gospel according to St. Luke we find these words (11:11)

      What father among you, if his son asks for a loaf of bread
      will give him a stone, or asks for a fish will give him a serpent…
      If you, then, who are evil, know how to give gifts to your
      children, how much more will the heavenly father give
      the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

There are times when we all drift in disappointment and discouragement.  Now to drift at sea is to be tossed and turned by the currents and by the winds of the day, and is an invitation to disaster.  At such times we indeed do need to fix our attention, our hearts and minds, on the love God has showered upon us. 

As the prayer states:

    Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross
    that all, [that ALL], might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

There are enough poisonous serpents, there are enough dangers crawling around in our everyday lives, that God does not, nor will not, add to the already hostile environment.  Rather, God’s love for us stabilizes us in the rough seas, and give us purpose, gives us life, indeed, gives us eternal life.

God loves us whether we love God back or not. God is good to all of us.

The riches of God’s grace, God’s mercy, endure for ever, and for all.

God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus for our salvation.

Amen

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