March 23, 2009

Sermon for Lent 4b - Fun with Snakes

On Wednesday at Practice(s) Make Perfect we talked about how for those of us in the western church, the key sense used in spirituality is hearing; we listen for the voice of God.  In the east, however, the key sense is vision; they look for the face of God.  In a world so full of images; television, billboards, business logos, computer screens, it is worth noting what we stop to gaze at, what we pay attention to.
    This seems to be the key question on this the Fourth Sunday in Lent, what are you looking at?  What are you paying attention to?
    For three of the last five years, I have had the joy of joining 400,000 of my closest friends in Indianapolis, IN for the running of the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indy 500.  The track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a two-and-a-half mile oval, which means that at any given point on the track you can see, at most, two-thirds of a mile, about a quarter of the track.  So they key to having "good seats" at Indy is your proximity to a jumbo-tron that will allow you to see the action elsewhere.  Still, one has to learn when to pay attention to the track and when to be looking at the screen.  Last summer, during a series of pit-stops while the race was under caution, I was paying attention to the wreckage recovery on the jumbo-tron while A.J. Foyt IV's car caught on fire in the pit directly in front of me.  Clearly, I was paying attention to the wrong thing.
    The people of Israel had a similar problem.  The second generation since their exodus from Egypt is are nearing the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Even after all these years, they, like their parents before them, have a habit of paying attention to the wrong things.  This time we hear another story of their grumbling against Moses and God.
    "Why did we ever leave Egypt?  We may have been slaves, forced to work seven days a week without rest, but at least we had food and water, good food.  Now we are wandering in the wilderness without food and water, without good food, that is.  Why, oh why, did we ever leave Egypt?"
    You can almost hear God say, "I'll give you something to complain about" as the plague of snakes is unleashed.  These weren't just your garden variety snakes.  Depending on how you translate saraph these snakes were either firey, winged, of poisonous.  To make matters worse, the Snakes were everywhere; in their tents, their bedrolls, their cribs, and their food pots.  People were being bitten right and left, and people were dying.  It was, most certainly, not a pleasant time, and so the people are compelled to repentance.
    "We screwed up," they said to Moses, "we have sinned against God with all of our complaining, and we are sorry.  We paid attention to the wrong things, complaining about Manna, we should have been thankful to have food at all.  We should be glad to be free from slavery in Egypt.  We are sorry, please, talk to God for us, ask him to take away these snakes."
    Moses prayed.
    The snakes remained.
    But God said to Moses, "The people have not been paying attention.  They've had their eyes focused on the ground, on their taste buds, on their aching feet.  When I brought snakes they began to see.  Now build for them a snake made of bronze, attach it to a pole, and lift it up so that all may see.  When they are bitten, and they will get bit, they may look up, see the snake, and be healed."
    Remembering the Ten Commandments we heard last week, we know how troublesome this instruction is.  Under normal circumstances, making a graven image of a well-known symbol of an Egyptian fertility god that would perform magical healings would cause Moses some pause.  But not today, not with snakes slithering all around.  Quickly, and without any hesitation, Moses made the snake of brass, put it on a pole, and lifted it high into the air.
    "Look up!  Look up and live!"  he shouted.  "Look up and live!"
    It was, of course, not the bronze snake that healed the people.  It was YAHWEH who was behind the snake who healed.  It was the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt and freed them from the house of slavery.  It was the God who hears the cries of his people and has compassion on them.  It was the God of all mercy.
    And Jesus said, "I am just like that snake on a pole lifted high into the air, gaze upon me, believe in me and live."
    Ironically, it would take a snake lifted high into the air to save the people of Israel from the snake bites.
    Similarly, it would take the very public, very ugly death of the Word-Made-Flesh lifted high into the air to save humanity from the grip of sin and death.
    God didn't take away the snakes from the people of Israel, but called on them to look his direction for healing and salvation.  God doesn't take away the poisons, terrors, and traps of our world either, but the call remains the same, pay attention to God, look to Him, and you will be saved.  Or to use Jesus' language, step into His light and out of your self-imposed darkness and you will see the glory of the Lord.
    So often, however, we find our attention focused elsewhere, mostly on ourselves and the good things we have done.  We forget that our motivations were not always pure.  We fail to notice those whom God has called us to care for.  We focus instead on the fact that the freedom and the water and the food which God has provided isn't good enough for our taste.
    We fail to remember that it is only by the faithfulness of Christ that we are set free.  By the grace of God, once offered, in Christ Jesus lifted high into the air we have been saved.  As Paul says, "It is the gift of God" that heals God's people from of the sickness that comes from the snakes that prowl around our own lives; greed, pride, envy, contempt.
    Where does your attention lie?
    What are you gazing on?
    Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and be healed.

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