St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Lent 4, 2021 Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder
Lectionary: Numbers 21. 4-9, Psalm 107, Ephesians 2. 1-10, John 3. 14-21
A warm welcome to you all on this the Fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, in the year of our Lord, 2021!
Isn’t this just what we all have been waiting for?
Well, not really.
This may be the Fourth Sunday in Lent, but it is also the 52nd Sunday in the season of Corona-tide. It is one year ago now that we went into lockdown, and closed the doors of the church.
Hasn’t this been fun?
No. It has not been fun. Corona-tide has forced upon us all manner of self-denial, such that we might say, it’s been a year-long Lent.
Warren Buffet, the famous investment guru once said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who has been swimming without trunks.” Well, in these last 12 months the tide has certainly gone out of our lives. Things hidden have been revealed. The true state of things has been uncovered, and not just the quality of care given to the elderly in long-term care, but the quality and character of our relationships, attitudes, and commitments, and not to mention the state of our souls…
It’s very interesting to me that this rather inauspicious COVID anniversary Sunday, our appointed readings for today have a direct bearing on the concerns that have been uppermost in our minds in this season of Corona-tide, and that can hardly be a coincidence.
Our concerns this last year have centred, on the one hand, on sickness and on death. (“Don’t want to get sick, and don’t want to die.) And, on the other hand, we have been concerned with the need and hope for some kind of healing and the restoration of life. (“When will we have a vaccine? And when can we get back to normal?) These concerns are very much at the heart of all our readings today, such that the preacher this morning need not be overly concern himself with the problem of trying to make the message “relevant,” as they say.
Our first lesson today from the Book of Numbers recalls the story of the Exodus, where, following their liberation from their slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel undertook a 40 journey to the Promised Land.
Now if you look on a map, you will see it wouldn’t have taken 40 years to walk from Egypt to Canaan, especially if you take the caravan route which they called The King’s Highway, which ran along the Mediterranean coast, connecting Egypt with the rest of the Middle East. But for the Israelites, walking The King’s Highway would have meant having to fight the Philistines who stood in the way. And since they weren’t ready for that, Moses took them on the long route, heading south along the Red Sea into the wilderness of Sinai, where on the mountain Moses received the 10 commandments, and then resume the journey northwards towards their intended destination. In here the 21st chapter of the Book of Numbers, Moses and the Israelites are the cusp of entering the promised land, having arrived at Mount Hor on the east side of the Jordan Valley. But the King of Edom whose territory they needed to pass through, refused to let them in. Having come so far, and having come so close, they now had to turn around once again and make another detour, where it says, “the people became “impatient on the way.”
These last 12 months have felt very much like a long walk in the wilderness, where we have been confronted with all kinds of obstacles and detours that have prevented us from doing what have want to do, and going where we have wanted to go.
There is obviously no one in the church today, and no one reading this sermon at home, or listening online, who has become at all impatient with the situation in which we find ourselves.
But you probably know someone who is…
There is obviously also no one in church today, and no one reading this sermon at home, or listening online who has been at all critical of the way in which the leadership both in the government and in the church, has handled the crisis, as it says the Israelites did who spoke against Moses and God saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The leadership hasn’t done enough to protect people’s health and safety, and at the same time people are saying the restrictions have been too much! Those of us who have managed to escape death by COVID, have been dying to get out and do something, and see someone! Not that any of us have been complaining, but you probably know somebody who has…
It times of stress and unhappiness what do people do for comfort? There always food, there is always drink, and there is always Netflix. But for the people of Israel in the wilderness there was none of that. Nothing to look at. There was no bread and no water! And while God rained down the manna, the bread from heaven every night, to give them the nourishment and the energy they need to continue on their journey, they were getting more than a little tired of same old, same old. “We detest this miserable food!”
What a miserable experience COVID has been!
Not that I’m complaining…
But as we read this morning the people’s complaint wasn’t just against Moses, but against God and Moses. Moses? He was just following orders. However much we may complain about the government and the church’s inept and incompetent mishandling of the situation, our complaint ultimately involves God who has allowed this to happen. “
“O God, why have you brought us up to die in the wilderness?”
I met a neighbour the other day who was telling me about a friend’s struggle with teaching her children to say “please” and “thank you.” She had taken the kids to Dairy Queen for a treat, and before going in had instructed them on proper protocols, only to see her children grab the ice creams from the cashier and go running for the door. Horrified over what had just happened, she chased after the children into the parking lot where she decided to teach them a lesson they would not forget. She swiped the ice-creams out of her children’s hands, and threw them in the garbage.
Needless to say, the children are now saying “please” and “thank you.” which is to say, they are learning about prayer…
God, it seems, also decided to teach His people a lesson they would nor forget. You want something to complain about? It says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21. 6)
But here is the thing about teaching someone not to complain, or not to commit some other sin.
It’s too late. They have already done it, and will no doubt do it again.
And so the lesson God taught the people wasn’t just about not complaining.
It was a lesson about the nature of sin.
What is sin?
Sin, in this story, is not so much a crime that needs to be punished. Sin is a snake bite, that infects like poison, and opens a wound that is beyond the capacity of any doctor or heal. What is the wound at the centre of our being? It is the wound of our broken communion with God.
“Now is the healing time decreed
For sins of heart and word and deed
When we in humble fear accord
The wrong that we have done the Lord.”
Lent is the time decreed by the Church for the healing of the wounds of sin, the time decreed for the restoration of our broken communion with God.
What is the source of our healing, and how shall we pursue it?
We pursue our healing but following the therapeutic, the healing, practices of the Church.
When it comes to treating whatever it is that ails us, the Church has three basic prescriptions to offer.
They are: fasting, prayer, and alms giving, which is to say giving away your money.
Here is the thing about the therapeutic practices. The person who fasts, prays, and gives alms won’t have time to complain…
So, how is that working for you? Well, some days are better than others.
But a Christian is not someone who looks at the sin and the whining and complaining of others, and says, “Serves them right. They are only getting what they deserve.”
No! A Christian is someone who has deep sympathy, deep understanding and deep compassion for people who have been bitten by the snake, and are suffering the consequences of their sin.
As St. Paul reminded the Ephesians, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (Ephesians 2. 1-3)
The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Healing from the wound of sin begins with honest confession, where we go to our confessor, and show him or her our wound, and tell the truth. And our confessor then applies the healing balm of God’s absolution and forgiveness and prays for us.
“God is not desire the death of a sinner, but rather turn from his wickedness and live.” (BCP p. 5)
It was for this reason that “the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21.9)
It’s counterintuitive here isn’t it how the Lord did not tell Moses to make a weapon, like a club, with which to fend off and kill the poisonous serpent. Neither did He tell Moses to build a trap with which to catch the serpent, and prevent them from being bitten… Nor did he instruct Moses to develop a vaccine that would make them immune to the poison. No, the Lord instructed Moses to make an image of the serpent, to make an image of the very thing that was killing them, namely, their sin, and to put on a pole and lift it up for everyone to see, and whoever looked at it would be healed.
What a thing.
The cure came in the form of the disease.
This explains why you sometimes hear people say, “You know, getting fired from my job, or admitting to my addiction, or the collapse of my marriage or even the diagnosis of terminal cancer, was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
Why was that? My sin, my shame, and my pain became the entry point for the grace of God. That which brought such a terrible reversal was the entry point for God’s mercy and loving kindness in my life.
Here is how St. Paul put it: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5. 20) I no longer was trying to make life work on my terms, but living life on God’s terms, and allowing Him to do His work in me.
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.(Psalm 107. 1-3, 17-22)
This story from the Book of Numbers is one of the most beautiful prefigurments in the whole of Scripture of the death Jesus on the Cross. As Jesus said in his conversation with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, “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.” (John 3.14). It’s why in the icons of the Cross, the body of Jesus is twisted in imitation of the body of a snake.
Where is healing from the wound of sin to be found?
It is to be found in looking upon Jesus Christ, it is to be found in directing and concentrating our gaze upon Him, who was lifted up on the Cross. And in looking upon Him, over the course a lifetime, we come to believe in Him. When we believe in Him, we have communion with Him. Jesus lives in us, and we live in Him. Jesus becomes our way of life, and the life that we live in Him is eternal, it is beyond the reach of death because it has been entered into by means of death.
When we gaze upon Jesus Christ lifted upon the Cross, what do we see? We see two things. We see what sin is and the full horror and destructive and death dealing power of sin. And at the same time, we see how God out of the great love and compassion that He has for us entered into that place of sin, and in fact became sin for us, and in so doing, drained it of it’s power.
Jesus is the perfect medicine. But for us to be cured of the poison we need to gaze on the source of the ailment, otherwise, when we look, the medicine is of no effect.
What is it that ails you? Are you able to put a finger on it?
It’s not COVID.
All COVID has done is expose the wound which was inflicted on you, and which you inflicted on others, and even inflicted on yourself. When in confession you can identify and put your finger on that wound, that’s when you know you are touching the wounded body of Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and rose again for you.
As on this Fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, we draw near to the season of Passiontide, the final 2 weeks leading up to our celebration of Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, may God grant us the grace to fix our eyes upon Jesus, who was lifted up High upon the Cross, and that looking into the source of our ailment, we might also see His forgiveness, mercy, and loving kindness, and so find healing.