Wednesday, July 15, 2009

March 22

Check out some art: The Brazen Serpent

Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And 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.

The people lost focus on the big picture and failed to see God's purpose. Some physical discomfort or perhaps even agony blinded them and they became angry. They directed their anger at their leader and at their God. Instead of stopping and praying for God to support them -- at which point they would have likely realized that he WAS -- they cursed Moses and renounced God's authority. God punished them by sending serpents to them. He responded to their cries for help -- which were being issued because they were at death's door, failing to eat because the food provided was not up to snuff -- by going ahead and easing some of them of their pain with snakebites! I find it strange and ironic and telling that God commanded little mini-satans to go bite the people of Egypt. It's like a kid forcing his Action Figure Darth Vader to go give flowers to his action figure Princess Leia and offer her a dance. Ha ha, Darth! You're not so tough after all! Then, action figure Luke Skywalker comes and slices off Darth's head with a light saber.

Ahem... sorry. Anyway, got a little off track. So the Egyptians realize God's in control again because some of them died and they knew God had sent the snakes. Crazy how the doldrums remind us who's running the show. They begged Moses, who they'd just finished lambasting, to pray on their behalf and get the snakes out of here. He did, but I think God knew the people would immediately forget the lesson they should have learned, so he didn't remove the serpents, but God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent on the top of a staff. Moses did as instructed, of course. Then whenever one of the serpents God sent bit someone... if they wished to live, they had to go and look at the bronze serpent, a reminder that only God can preserve their lives against the snake which is Satan. And according to a lot of art based on this passage, a lot of the people pretty much spent their time begging this staff and Moses and God for mercy because there were A LOT OF SNAKES!
(May the Force be with you {and also with you}. I am pretty sure they later used that staff in some of the Indiana Jones films, BTW.)

Psalm 107
Thanksgiving for Deliverance from Many Troubles
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

It's striking how much of the time we live these verses. Over and over and over again, #17-20 are "just life." We're unhappy, we're sick, we don't appreciate what we have, we forget that God is the source of life and light... And we fall. And we fail. And we get snakebit. And we cry out to God.

This is the anthem choir sang today in church. It's Pergolesi's "O, My God, Bestow Thy Tender Mercy:"
"Oh, my God, bestow Thy tender mercy. Blot out my transgressions; cleanse my sin. Bestow Thy love. Hear me, restore me from all my sins... hide Thy face from my sin. Oh, my God, bestow Thy tender mercy; cleanse my sin. Restore me, forgive me, uphold me, O God, hear me! I cry to Thee! Hear Thou my prayer! Hear me, Lord. Take not Thy Holy Spirit. Open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise."

The biggest challenge is that I think far too often we get through verse 20 and we forget to do verses 21-22. It's almost an afterthought in the Pergolesi piece I quoted above. Is it an afterthought for me in my life? Is it a even an afterthought? Sometimes, sadly, it is not.

Ephesians 2:1-10
From Death to Life
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. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Rev. Nancy this morning reminded us that the perception the people in the desert had of "just life" is often the perception we as people have of our lives... It's easy to look at humanity and see war and hatred and impatience and destruction and failing, failing, failing to see God; to be God. But we ARE God. And God created us to be like Him. And when God looks upon His creation, he sees what he created and what he intended; He wants us to be what He intended. Perhaps if we focused more on the individual Jesus in everyone around us we would be more likely to SEE God in the world; to BE God in the world.

John 3:14-21
And 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.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

I have this picture in my mind of the crucifer in church this morning. He's a kid, maybe 12 years old. His family has attended church since way before we started there. He's grown from preschool to 6th grade since the first time we attended church at St. George's. And he led our procession today. And he led the Gospel procession. And I picture him, holding the pole in his hands as he walks up the aisle and settles, for the moment, among the people so that we can be instructed by John's Gospel that Jesus' resurrection is akin to that same snake on a stick. And we are faced with the question, "What do you see when you look at the cross?" And in my mind's eye, I follow the pole up from his hands and at the top, I see a bronze snake. Whoa. It's hard to make Jesus' broken, bleeding body akin to a serpent. But scripture today suggests that those two images, opposite as they may seem, can and do serve the same purpose.

The cross is for many people a spiritual center -- a home base, a foundation. It brings focus in life to where we really should seek guidance. Where we should turn for succor. Where our salvation lies. It allows us to center our thoughts and minds and hearts and spirits where they belong -- in God and in God's Son.

Put yourself in the place of the Egyptians. Friends and family and foe and foe-turned-ally have died. They've DIED, right in front of you, because God dropped snakes from the sky that bit them and poisoned them. And the wages of their sin is death. And the snakes are looking for their next victim. And snakes are all around you, and one slithers over your toes, which are deadened by the poison from the snakebite you've already endured. And it occurs to you that there are so many others, like you, who didn't put a lot of stock in the power of the brazen serpent (Moses has always seemed a little off). But now, you're clinging to the last drop of hope and you claw your way toward the foot of the staff upon which sits the snake-of-bronze that God promises will save you if you just can connect with it.

In my mind's eye, the live snakes seeking your death won't go near that staff or the serpent atop it because they know God's power is there. And you are clawing your way toward that symbol of a snake. And Moses is holding it up for any who would seek its shelter. And as people get near and make contact, they find shelter there. And the foot of the staff gets bigger, and more people can get to it.. and you get closer and closer, and a snake slithers up your ankle. And you cry out to God and your hand reaches out for the smooth wood of the staff with the bronze snake. And you look back at the poisoned legs you're dragging on the ground, and your hand finally gets there... but your hand is bitten! No, not bitten, it has a huge splinter. The smooth round wooden staff isn't smooth. And it isn't round. And your eyes turn from the snake because the snake has SCREAMED in agony and slithered away to find someone more safe to kill. And your eyes lift, and the staff is a rough, splintered wooden post. And your eyes lift, and there is a man's feet. And your eyes lift, and Jesus is on the cross. And your eyes lift, and Jesus's arms are outstretched toward you. And your eyes lift, and Jesus is smiling at you. And your eyes lift, and Jesus is weeping for you. And you are safe, and you are enveloped, and you are home.

And wouldn't it be best just to stay there? Wouldn't it feel great just to stay there? How long can you be convinced just to stay there, and enjoy the feel of the rough wooden post on your hands, and enjoy the embrace of your Lord, and enjoy the connection with the cross -- with your salvation -- with your God? And ENJOY JOY. But eventually, you'll forget again, and you'll get back up on your healed legs and you'll walk away from that cross. And Jesus will weep more than before as he watches the snakes creeping up on you again. And He'll reach out for you, begging you to stay home. And His heart will agonize in pain when you get bitten. And his love will pour out as he begs for your return. And you may even wonder -- wonder of wonders! -- if you can actually survive this one little bite without going back home. And your toes will numb. And your legs will deaden. And your eyes will cry. And Jesus' eyes will cry. And he'll reach for you even more. And you'll decide to claw your way back, hopefully. And Jesus will be weeping, again, in joy.. and smiling.. and holding you, because you made it back home.

And how many times will you claw your way back before you figure out that Jesus is the only safe place? How much venom will your body endure before you figure out that you too can OWN that cross, if you'll only claim it? How many trips home will you make before you fail to make it back once? Or you realize it isn't worth it to ever leave again? From the third-person point of view, it's a pretty darned easy choice. It's stupid simple, in fact. And we're so blind to it.

Dear saving God, help my hands be comfortable on the rough splintered wood of your cross. Help me develop the will to just stay home in your embrace. Help me remember the pain of those stupid, aimless steps away from your love. I don't want to forget your love, God.

But when I do, God, please call out to me loudly as you always do, and bless my ears with focus and clarity. And reach out for me, and bless my mind with the intense desire to look back at you, if only once. And weep for my return, and bless my heart with tears of its own longing for home. And smile at me, and bless my arms with the need to hold you. And hold me, God. Hold me and keep me safe, and work some more on my will to stay home. I'll get there eventually.

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