March 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Theme: I'm going for 'Looking to the Lord', for reasons that I hope are fairly obvious, given the first lesson and the gospel. Even the epistle ties in quite well this week.
Introduction. The three readings have a common pattern. The people have turned away from God, are rebelling, are dead in their sins, or are at least in great peril of being lost. Something must be done, and that something (from the human perspective) is to look to God for help (otherwise known, especially in Lent, as repentance). Thus, the Israelites in the wilderness are having one of their blue periods. The Edomites won't give them permission to pass through their land, and Moses has accepted that refusal. The result of that policy is to prolong the journey in the wilderness still further, and the people have run out of patience. They turn on God and Moses, only to be attacked by poisonous snakes. That concentrates their minds very rapidly, and they seek God's intervention. The Ephesians are reminded of their past sinful condition, from which God has already rescued them through Jesus the Christ. Jesus teaches the people of his time that he is to be the one to whom they look for God's salvation.
Background. I have tried, largely without success, to find some helpful material on this very strange story from the Book of Numbers, but the commentators seem largely uninterested. Were snakes common in this area: in other words, is it likely that they were attacked by snakes, and a theological story has been built on a factual basis? Or is the whole thing, as some commentators have suggested, a parable, to be interpreted symbolically? There are some echoes of the story of the plagues in Egypt, although none of those plagues involved snakes. The prelude to the plagues included a demonstration of power by which Aaron's rod was turned into a serpent; and when the local magicians imitated the 'trick', Aaron's serpent ate theirs. Hence, the association of a snake and a rod or stick.
And to my ear, at least, there are similarities between this story and the story of Naaman, the Syrian army commander: in both cases a remedy is provided that defies logic or scientific explanation. It operates through obedience or faith. The author of the Fourth Gospel sees this as a prototype of Christ being raised up to provide life for those who look to him, as the bitten Israelites looked to the bronze snake. Whether or not Jesus himself drew this analogy, as the gospel records, is open to debate.
In favour of understanding the story as a parable is the role that snakes/serpents play in the Bible. The classic example is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, symbolic of Satan, the embodiment of evil. Scholars have pointed out that in many of the surrounding civilizations of the time, snakes were objects of worship; so that the Hebrew view of them as manifestations of evil may be linked with the Israelites' growing belief in monotheism – or, at the very least, of the idea that their God, Yahweh, was more powerful than any other gods, whether or not they took the form of snakes. Aaron's rod-turned-serpent eating the local versions would seem to lend support to this interpretation.
The analogy with Christ drawn in the gospel passage is certainly a good example of the Christian practice of searching the (Old Testament) Scriptures for clues as to what Jesus was all about and on about. How far we are intended to push it isn't clear. The bronze snake is, of course, without venom, yet is an antidote to the venom of the real snakes. In the same way, Jesus is without sin yet is the antidote to the sin of the world. [Here, perhaps, we should pause and remember that St Paul said of Jesus that he who was without sin became sin for our sake. We might say, on the cross he became the snake for our sake.] Those who look at the bronze snake will live: those who look to Jesus will have life. However, we want to put it, the basic equation is equally astonishing:
Snake [devil] on a stick = Christ [God] on a cross!
Numbers. The story so far is important. Aaron has recently died, and his office has been passed to his son, Eleazar. Thirty days of mourning were observed by the Israelites. Then one of the local clans attacked the Israelites, some of whom were captured. The Israelites appealed to Yahweh and he gave them total victory over their attackers. Yet here they are having another grump session, which get worse each time. They complain against God and against Moses. They complain about the decision to bring them out of Egypt, convinced that they will die in the desert. They complain that there is no bread or water, and, far worse, they reject the manna, the divine providence offered to them (symbol of God's grace). Then come the snakes, sent by God; they are venomous and many who are bitten die. This brings the people to repentance, and they ask Moses to ask God to take away the snakes. Two things here. First, they did not cry out to God themselves; rather they put their request through Moses, whom they had previously criticised, thereby recognising Moses' special relationship with God as intercessor. Secondly, God did not take the snakes away; he provided a rather weird antidote for the venomous bites. There is something important here: God does not remove temptations from our lives, but empowers us to overcome them through faith. We can well imagine the hard-nosed, no-nonsense people of the time dismissing the superstitious nonsense of a bronze snake on a stick and refusing to look at it. Those who believed God's assurance looked at the snake and lived.
Taking It Personally.
· As we continue our journey through Lent, continue with your own spiritual stock-take. Have you grumbled against God recently? Do you sometimes hark back to the 'good old days', or is every day a new gift from God for you?
· Are you superstitious? Have you ever had a lucky charm of some sort? Do you 'cross fingers' or 'touch wood'? In what way would those actions differ from looking at the bronze snake on a stick?
· In what way would they differ from looking to a cross or crucifix for comfort or assistance?
· Can you think of an occasion when God answered your prayer in a way that was different from what you had asked for?
· Are any 'snakes' (temptations, situations, difficult people) trying to bite you at the moment? Ask God for help.
Ephesians. This passage follows a similar structure, although it is set in the past tense. The people had been turned away from God, caught up in the usual human secular mindset. St Paul talks of following "the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air". A modern translation may be "the spirit of the age". They were living their lives at the instinctual level, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts". God in his grace has rescued them, bringing them from a state of death in their sins to one of new life in Christ. Notice particularly his use of the past tense in verse 6; the claim is not that they will one day (the other side of the grave) be raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms, but that they are already in those realms! They (and we) have been re-made by God to undertake the works he had already planned.
Taking It Personally.
· This is one of those incredibly rich passages that need to be pondered word by word. Take your time over it, savouring each word and phrase.
· Do you realise that you ARE NOW seated with Christ in the heavenly realms? What difference does that make to your life here and now?
· What good works has God prepared in advance for you to do?
· End this session with prayers of thanksgiving.
John. The author seems to lose the plot a bit here! Clearly Jesus is talking to Nicodemus up to the end of verse 12, and quite probably up to the end of verse 15. But by then Nicodemus seems to have faded from the picture, and it would seem that the dialogue ends at that point. Verses 16-21 seem to be an interpolation by the author of his own teaching. Be that as it may, the thrust of the teaching is clear and important. The general attitude of the New Testament is that human beings are more sinned against than sinners: that human nature is held in thrall by the powers and influences that rebel against God, the snakes of our own deserts. So we need rescuing rather than punishing. This passage is key in spelling this out. God has intervened, not because he has had enough (as in the time of the Flood) but because of his great love of the world. His purpose is to save the world not to pass judgment on it. All we have to do is accept the love of our rescuer and follow him out of our captive state. Of course, we are free to refuse his gracious offer, in which case we will suffer the consequences of our own choice, and not as punishment by God for disobedience. Why might we want to refuse? John introduces one of his favourite images. Jesus is the light that makes all things visible – he shows us as we really are. Those who cannot bear the thought of being shown up turn away from the light in favour of darkness.
Taking It Personally.
· How realistic is this view of sin? Are we really victims in need of rescue, or are we perpetrators deserving of punishment. Read the court news in the ODT, then address this issue again.
· Continue a process of self-examination, this time using verses 19-21 as a guide. Is there something you have done, said, or thought that you would not want to have brought out into the open?
· Spend some time with a crucifix or a picture of Christ on the cross. Slowly recite verse 14 several times. Do you believe in him?