In the light of the Scriptures this week I have to acknowledge that I too belong to the “murmuring” tradition – that I too grumble, complain, resist and that I wonder in endless circles in the wilderness. I too would do well to reflect on the bronze serpent and acknowledge what bites me, what poisons my life, and turn toward the light! (RCL John 3:14-21)
So here we are at the Fourth Sunday in Lent already. It is the half way mark and our readings make it clear that we are travelling in the shadow of the cross. Our readings this week are quite hard – complex and confronting - even as they are familiar to us. So let us take a few paragraphs to unpack a little before we turn to the real work of considering what it all might mean for our life and our world today.
Although we are hearing this reading from the gospel of John as we on our Lenten journey near Jerusalem and the garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha it is from early in the gospel and in a sense is still part of the prologue of John’s gospel and setting the theological stage for what John believes are the great themes of the life and meaning of Jesus. There are at least three important things happening this week. The one image of Jesus lifted up on the cross speaks to two of those. Firstly we look back to the wilderness story of the bronze serpent being lifted up so that those who had been bitten could look upon the lifted up image and be saved. And there is a foreshadowing of Jesus the resurrected one being lifted up in his return to the heavenly realms. And there is the continuing theme of Jesus as the light of the world.
But before we can go much further with having a closer look at what St John is trying to tell us we actually have to look at the rather bizarre story from Numbers. The Book of Numbers is in part just that – a book that is about numbers. It begins with a census of the people who experienced the exodus out of Egypt but who will not enter the promised land – due to old age and disobedience - and the second census is of those of the new generation who will enter the promised land. In between there are travel itineraries, statutes, rituals and priestly prescriptions, wilderness stories – including the murmuring tradition – the murmurs of the people against God.
At the point of our story this morning the people have already complained about lack of food and water and had their needs met with water flowing from the rock and manna and quail. Now again they are complaining – about the quality of the food – murmuring against Yahweh. This is one of the last stories about the people’s complaints against God and Moses. There is an underlying pattern here: the people complain – people get punished – people repent – Moses intercedes – Yahweh responds – the people are saved. It is worth noting that in some ancient cultures serpents were a symbol of evil power and chaos, while in other cultures it was symbol of life, fertility and healing. In this story it is both – the poisonous serpents who sting and result in death, and the bronze serpent which brings healing. So maybe we can now understand why John would make this link for it is a story that points to the sins of the people in being forgetful of God’s liberating presence. And the people being told to look to the bronze serpent being lifted up to be healed is a powerful image for the effect of Christ on the cross and that those who are perishing might look upon him and be healed or saved.
However John does not emphasise judgement but rather reassures us that Jesus the Christ came to save.
Condemnation comes rather from people’s own choice – the choice to stay in darkness rather than to turn to the light. We who live in such a well lit age might struggle to imagine that in a country landscape only illumined by natural sources of light it was easy to draw dramatic conclusions from the contrast of light and dark. And so it must have been for our biblical fellow travellers. In a world limited to day light hours and small puddles of dim light from oil lanterns one can understand this sharp contrast between light and dark and the association of honesty and goodness with the visibility possible in light and dishonesty and danger associated with the long hours of darkness in which no one could be certain of what was happening. Light and dark became moral distinctions rather than merely practical descriptions. At this point it is really important not to see light and dark as two totally separate states of being. Rather take a walk out into the countryside in the late evening and look around in the gathering gloom and notice the lit family home and walk toward it. The light is something we turn toward, it is an orientation, and having chosen it will determine our path.
Now in terms of our own life we can think of turning toward the light as being like turning toward our home. The traditions of Mothering Sunday, which is very English and not practiced in all churches, is that of returning to one’s home or mother church on this day, this midpoint in Lent. Invariably this meant a family reunion as young folk, particularly girls who had left home to become domestics, returned to their home parish and visited their parents and friends and family. Turning to the bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness, turning toward the light of the world, returning to our home church, our mothers, are all ways of thinking about following our call home to God – our true mother and our true home: source of light and life.
But turning toward the light, being orientated toward the light of the world, is not an easy solution. It is a little like much new age spirituality which is full of the desire to turn toward sunlight and invite good things into one’s own life. But having positive thoughts and starting each day with self loving mantra’s only works so well. Like the serpents that bit the complaining chosen people in the wilderness the forces of death and despair, evil and defeat are strong in our world and cannot be easily overcome simply by chanting positive little sayings. When the disobedient and ungrateful chosen people were bitten by the poisonous serpents they were not told to think nice thoughts about sunrises or the green pastures of their promised land they were given a bronze serpent to look upon. They were called upon to look at what ailed them and to find the saving grace of God in the midst of their pain and suffering.
Jesus dying on the cross is the focal point of our salvation. This ‘saves’ us not simply because some transaction was done between God and representative human and we are now let off the cosmic hook but because like the bronze serpent lifted up when we are in sin and suffering we can look to Jesus the Christ lifted up on the cross and see life being won in the abyss of death, love triumphing against all the powers of hate, hope prevailing in the presence of despair.
Being orientated to the light of Christ is not simply some vague hope of better times and a little more sunshine in our life it is a moment by moment choosing of life, love and hope even in the most appalling and difficult of circumstances. In this way we participate in our own salvation not simply receive it from on high.
To look to Christ is not to deny pain and suffering but rather to see the fragile flower that blooms in the war zone, to see the shaft of light that enters the darkened sick room, and to recognise the neighbour who comes bearing food and local news as a visiting angel who brings mercy and grace with them.
To turn to the light is to turn toward our true home: God. At its simplest this is what the Easter journey is – a turning toward our true home, a journeying deeper into the God who created and fully inhabits the real world we live in, only to find that we are travelling to where we began – into the loving embrace of the creator who has always loved us and loves us still.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, come.