Our scripture lessons today offer two contrasts: a story from the Hebrew Scriptures which might be unfamiliar to you or at least may seem wildly strange, and a story from John’s gospel that is so familiar, you can probably quote a portion of the text if I simply tell you the citation, “John 3.16.” What is strange about this combination is the unknown, uncomfortable story is a window into the overly familiar, commonplace story. If we have any hope of understanding either of them, we need to dive into both.
At the point where we join the story from Numbers, God has been infinitely patient with God’s people. Some might argue too patient. God has saved God’s people time and again, wresting them from brutal slavery, miraculously helping them flee through the Sea of Reeds, helping sweeten bitter drinking water when they murmured, granting them manna when they complained of being hungry, giving them water out of a rock when they grumbled about being thirsty, offering them birds to eat when they whined of manna-fatigue. Grace and patience abound with God. Until this day. The Israelites throw yet another fit, and God snaps. This time, God sends poisonous serpents among the people, and many of them die. When the people beg for help to Moses, God instructs Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole; if people gaze upon the serpent, they will live. For a God who asks the people have no idols or gods before God, a serpent on a pole is, quite frankly, just weird.
Meanwhile, we have a super familiar text from John. “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.” We love this verse because the verse reminds of our abundant, loving, graceful God. Of course, we sometimes gloss over the rest of the troublesome parts of this text. The rest talks about how Jesus saves the world – as long as the world believes. Here is where the questions start to pile up for us. Do we really believe that some people are condemned? Is God’s love conditional? What happens if we doubt? Does that count as not believing? Can eternal life be given and taken away based on the seesaw of my behavior? The trouble is if we focus on God’s grace, we can make salvation seem arbitrary, with no essential place for human response. But if we focus on human faith, we may be in danger of making salvation a human accomplishment, restricting God’s initiative universally.[i] The only thing that seems to be clear is that God gives us a choice. When we commit evil deeds, when we deny God through our behavior, when we linger in the darkness, we are making a choice. And the text tells us today that the consequence of that choice is condemnation.
The answer to so much in these texts seems to lie in verse fourteen of John. Jesus says, “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.” As scholar Debie Thomas writes, “In the Old Testament story, God requires the Israelites to look up. To gaze without flinching at the monstrous thing their sin has conjured. It’s the thing they have wrought, the thing they fear most, the thing that will surely kill them if God in God’s mercy doesn’t intervene and transform the instrument of pain and death into an instrument of healing and life. In order to be saved, the people have to confront the serpent — they have to look hard at what harms, poisons, breaks, and kills them.”[ii] The same seems to happen with Jesus on a cross. Thomas goes on to say, “In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak. When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection.”[iii]
The truth is, I am not sure either of these texts answer some of our basic questions, especially around those of belief. But tying them together today, we do find an invitation – to change our gaze away from the judgment of others, the wondering about who is in and out, the questions about God’s retribution, and gaze on the cross – the body that reminds us of the goodness of God in spite of our sinfulness, that reminds us of God’s grace in spite of our lack of deserving, that reminds us of God’s unconditional love despite our inability to keep failing. Our invitation is to take seriously the words of that old hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.” As we continue on the path of Lent toward the cross, today’s texts remind us of where we are going and why. Our invitation is to look up at the horrible, wonderful truth of what Jesus does in the cross, and stand in the light of his glory and grace. Amen.
[i] Joseph D. Small, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118.
[ii] Debie Thomas, “Looking Up,” March 7, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2944-looking-up, on March 12, 2021.