Below is the message for today at St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka. The scriptures were: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21. The title in the bulletin was “Lifted up.” We finished the service by singing “Amazing Grace.” Go figure!
Several years ago when I was working on a paper about the frontier days in the Dakotas, I came upon a few stories about snakes in the western parts of both South Dakota and North Dakota. It seems that as much as some of the women did not like snakes, and no one allowed poisonous snakes to live in their area if they could prevent it, the harmless garter snake was usually given a pass and actually accepted into the gardens because they were known to be a weapon against mice and other rodents. In general I have sort of the same attitude about the little garter snakes that are seen every now and then in our back yard.
My mother did not have the same feelings about snakes. She was deathly afraid of them whether the poisonous rattlesnake or a little garter snake. Her fear stemmed from being the one who had to walk out to the pasture and bring the milk cows home. One day when she was heading out to get the cows, she came upon two large snakes (and I am fairly sure they grew larger with each telling) in the act of procreating. It made the snakes look bigger and scarier and I sort of remember her saying that she ran home that day without the cows.
I never quite got the fear of garter snakes, though; she did get through to me the need to be wary of rattle snakes. My father was an avid fisherman, and when we were young, he always wanted to take the whole family alone on his expeditions to The River. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized we were along because we each amounted to an extra pole. I remember him baiting the hook and showing us each which pole and line was ours, but at the time, I really didn’t understand my need to know, except that once in a while we were allowed to reel it in. Sometimes we were credited with the catch, but to me it wasn’t an issue. And it wasn’t until much later when I realized the snake thing that I understood why my mother sat in the car reading a book most of the day.
The story in Numbers describes another incident when the Israelite people have forgotten why they left Egypt and complaining about the hardships in their journey to the Promised Land. Following their complaining God sent poisonous snakes to them and it reminded them that they were again out of order and needed to repent and ask forgiveness and so they go to Moses asking him to intercede for them. Moses does so and is given directions by God to tell the people how to survive the snakes and the poisonous bits. Moses makes a snake out of bronze and if the people are bitten, they can look at the bronze snake and be healed. We might read this and wonder why we can’t have such an easy cure for some of the things that happen to us.
Seriously, though, I am surprised by the idea of snakes in the desert. I don’t know why it seems so odd to me, but I think of snakes as needing warmth, but also places to hide. I keep thinking of this desert are as being like one big sand dune, and I have a hard time equating that as being snake infested. On the other hand, when you think of evil and things that are poisonous to the soul as something Satan infested, it is easy to equate that with a serpent, as in the story of original sin.
Perhaps the poison is not just a physical poison of a snake bite, but also the spiritual poison brought on by doubt and skepticism and speculation that things will not work out as planned and perhaps this was a good opportunity for Satan to wedge these thoughts against God into the hearts and minds of the Israelites. It was a long and difficult journey, and so this temptation to look for an easier way or at the least grumble about the way things were going would not be a difficult seed to plant in the minds of those on the trek.
In our gospel lesson today, John says that Jesus compared the bronze snake that Moses set up for the Israelites to look at to himself. Jesus doesn’t focus on the serpent part of the story or the evil of the Israelites’ complaining. Instead, Jesus puts the focus on the “lifted up: part of the story. When Moses set the bronze serpent up for the Israelites to look at, they were looking up to their salvation. When Jesus was “lifted up” in the form of crucifixion, the people of his time, and us; we here and now are able to look on him, look up to him as our salvation.
This story we have today in the gospel of John is likely the most quoted and most memorized verse of the Bible. John 3:16 KJV “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten some, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This verse alone gives us the information of God’s love and grace for all of humanity. But this verse isn’t left to stand alone. This verse comes in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, and after Jesus’ death, he along with Joseph of Arimathea (John chapter 19) placed Jesus’ body in the tomb. In this story we have today, Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the dark of night to ask him questions. He wants to know what Jesus is all about. They talk about the need to be born in a spiritual sense. Actually this sort of talk is all well and good for us, for us who are outside the Jewish faith, outside of the Israelite nationality. We are probably of the gentile sort of people. But, for a Jewish person, a leader no less, to be told that being born into the people of God is not good enough to become part of the kingdom, this spiritual rebirth this born again, is unheard of, unfathomable.
But this teaching, this belief, this is all part of God’s plan, God’s grace. (read John 3:17-21 again). But for the grace of God, there go I. We are saved by God’s grace and only God’s grace. Without God’s Amazing Grace there would have been no Son sent into the world to be crucified and resurrected to be the sacrifice for us.
Again we find that John is the only one who tells us this story. John is the only one who puts this into his gospel. Is it because John is the only one who knew of the late night secretive meeting. Maybe, maybe not, it isn’t clear. What we do know about the gospel of John is that he wrote it years after the other gospels. John, the disciple, John the son of Zebedee, who was one of the inner three outlived the others, and this gospel was the last to be written, and actually written after most of the other books of the New Testament. So what was his point of telling us all these things that others didn’t?
John writes to us about the love that Jesus had for humankind, but John also wants us to know that Jesus wasn’t just a human who came to earth lived, died and rose again for us. John wants us to know that Jesus was God’s Son. Jesus was divine. Jesus was the only begotten Son of God. Jesus was in the beginning and before he came to live on earth, he lived in heaven. It isn’t that Jesus was in heaven before he was on earth, but that he ALWAYS was/he always is.
I really believe for us, at least for me, the hardest thing to fathom is that fact; the idea of eternity. The last verse of Amazing Grace, which we will sing as we depart today, has to be my all time favorite verse of any song ever. To imagine that 10,000 years is like nothing, like a day. It is unbelievable for a human brain to comprehend. God’s grace gives us that.
But we don’t get the option of accepting as the Israelites did when they left Egypt. We don’t get to accept only because it is going to be for our benefit. We don’t take this grace because we are running away from something that is bad, and we just grab and go. We accept this grace because we believe and we are willing to change, to be changed, to have a changed way of life, a life that walks in the ways of God and Christ, and we are willing to be redeemed, renewed, someone who is willing to go out and share the gospel and the love of Christ with others.
Will it all be easy and instantaneous? No! Will we slip and slide backwards and sideways and be tempted? Yes, but when we accept the new life that living in Christ gives us, we are able to stay the course or at least find our way back to it when we need to. This doesn’t mean we can go out and do what we want because there is confession and forgiveness in a mad cycle. No, a few weeks ago we heard that Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” That is what he tells us as he offers us God’s grace. When we accept, that is what needs to be in our intent. But for the grace of God, there go I. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to be lifted up on a cross so that we can look up to him for our salvation. Let’s remember those points as we come closer to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Let’s remember that it is by the Amazing grace of God that we are accepted into eternity when we pass out of this life. Amen.