Nu. 21: 4-9; John 3: 14-21
We come to the vernal equinox this Friday as well, and so all around us in the church and in the wide world a hint of spring. Warmer weather, gentle rain, and some nice sunshine. And today we turn the corner in Lent, having completed more than half the distance on our way to Holy Week and Good Friday and then to the joyful celebration of Easter morning. Some parishes give up coffee hour for Lent and flowers on the altar, except on this Sunday, and an unofficial traditional name for the fourth Sunday in Lent is “Refreshment Sunday.” In olden days a day called in some places “Mothering Sunday,” the ancestor of our Mother’s Day observance, a time to give gifts to mothers and also traditionally a day in the Downton Abbey world to release the service staff for a day to go home to visit their families. Lord Crawley and family I guess fending for themselves or perhaps running over to the village Eat ‘n Park for dinner. In many places as well in church the purple Lenten paraments are replaced by rose-colored vestments to reflect this shift of tone. Laetare: a hint of Easter, foreshadowing. We’re not there yet, but this annual Lenten exercise in the reformation and renewal of our thoughts and our feelings and our corporeal lives still has some time to do its work. But there is light on the horizon.
Some of you may remember perhaps with a smile the time a few years ago over at Redeemer in Squirrel Hill when I preached on this lesson from the 4th Chapter of the Book of Numbers during the East End Preaching Series. Happened to coincide more or less with the opening of the Samuel L. Jackson film, “Snakes on a Plane,” and I attempted to find a little bit of humor in that reference. Even brought a few plastic snakes with me to add a bit of visual texture to the moment!
In any event, it’s a pretty dramatic scene: Moses and the wandering Hebrews out in the wilderness, the slithering mass of poisonous snakes reminding us perhaps of one of the plagues that struck the Egyptians earlier in the Exodus story. The Ancient Enemy whom first we met in the Garden of Eden now once again bearing down on us in a crisis that can lead only to darkness and death and eternal ruin. The consequence for God’s people when they forget the One who has created them and who sustains them—when in their impatience and rebellion they lose their faith and turn from him in their hearts and minds and seek to complete this great journey to the Land of Promise on their own terms. But as they catch a glimpse of this, and as the deadly venom begins to run through their veins, they realize what they have lost and cry out for the only Helper who can come to their aid.
And he does not fail them. Help of the helpless. From deepest woe I cry to thee. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me. And God directs Moses, who pins the bronze serpent to the pole—cadeuseus—a sign of the defeat of the Lord of Darkness, and the victory of God. All who look upon this sign are immediately restored to life and health. Hints of Easter.
A dramatic and powerful story, and one then that comes to mind immediately for Jesus as he speaks to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s gospel. Nicodemus has come to Jesus in hope, but also with a sense of personal doubt. He sees God at work in Jesus, yet he feels that he is himself too old, too set in his ways, too heavily invested in the old order. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, he tells Jesus. How can a man as old as I am be born again? You have good news for others, but not for me.
And then when Jesus speaks we see how the sign of the defeated serpent in the wilderness long ago was a foreshadowing and anticipation of what was to come in the ultimate victory of the cross. “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.”
And of course for us that very familiar verse. One of the “Comfortable Words” in the Absolution in the Prayer Book Communion Service and the reference on so many signs in basketball arenas. The gospel in a sentence: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
There’s some good news for the week ahead. Winter to spring. As we head down the road to Holy Week. As we lift our own eyes here every Sunday to the Great Tree of the Rood that towers over us in this place, and to read the words of Jesus from John 12: “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” The crushing of the serpent’s head, the Enemy, the one seeking our death, seeking above all as he did with Eve in the garden to undermine our trust in God and to separate us from him forever, all coming now as we approach Jerusalem and the Cross. Which we begin even now to see in all its glory. The tree of life. As in the 22nd chapter of the Revelation to John: “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
These images that can settle into our minds and hearts and imaginations in this lent. That we might experience this healing in our own lives, to be released from the power of sin and death. The sentences of Ash Wednesday echoing. Words spoken first to Adam and Eve in the Garden. “ Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So turn away from sin and believe the gospel. Look to him and be refreshed. As the days grow longer and as the holy history of the victory of God’s costly and limitless love for us is remembered again and made present and fresh and new in our lives. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent . . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”