March 15, 2015, Lent 4 – Living with Fiery Snakes
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If you were one of those man-on-the-street reporters, and you went around and asked random people, “How would you describe Christians, what makes a Christian different from other people?” you’d get a wide variety of answers.
You would almost certainly find people who didn’t have a positive impression of the Church and Christians at all, who would say something like: “Christians are hypocrites who sin like everybody else – or maybe even worse than everybody else – but they smile a lot and pretend that they are good people.” Or they might say, “Christians are people who go around condemning and criticizing people for their weakness and failings.” Or “Christians are goody-two-shoes who look down on the rest of the world.” Or maybe, “Christians are weirdo fanatics who are always beating people over the head with their Bibles and trying to shove their beliefs down other people’s throats.”
You would probably get quite a few people who would define a Christian as somebody who doesn’t do a bunch of things that are thought of as wordly: a Christian is somebody who doesn’t use bad language, or who doesn’t drink or gamble or do drugs, or who doesn’t watch R-rated movies, or who doesn’t engage in extramarital sex – that kind of thing. In other words, a Christian is a normal person, but with the naughty bits removed. Or a Christian is a person who doesn’t know how to have fun.
Hopefully you’d get some people who had a little more positive idea of what a Christian is supposed to be. A Christian is somebody who is kind and unselfish and generous, who gives to the poor and goes to Church on Sunday and remains faithful to their spouse. It would be nice if that was the impression some people had of us.
But the truth is, the one thing that really defines Christians, that really sets us apart from all other people, is that we are people who know that we are desperately broken. We are people who have come to that point in our lives, at some time or other, when we realized that all of our wisdom and all of our resources and all of our connections and all of our cleverness and all of our strength were just not enough to keep us going, or to fix what was broken in our lives.
I think for some people that happens sweetly and gently as they grow up in a Christian home, surrounded by the love of God and nourished by his Word, so that when they reach that place of questioning and uncertainty, when they grow old enough to recognize their weakness and emptiness, or when they first face things in the world that are too big for them to handle, they are ready to open the door of their hearts to that loving Presence they have always known.
But far more often we find Jesus Christ in the dark and the cold and the muck and mire of our lives as we desperately try to slog through and stay the course and endure what life has thrown our way. We find him when we have used up our last resource and smiled our last brave smile and extinguished the last little candle of hope we had that we could make it on our own. Because then, as the psalmist writes in Ps. 107, then we cry to the Lord in our trouble, and he delivers us from our distress. Because the very first prayer of faith is one word – Help. Our first act of faith is not understanding what salvation is or making a decision to be a better person or even confessing our terrible sinfulness. Our very first act of faith is to believe that there is Someone out there who is stronger than I am, who will hear my cry and rescue me.
To be a human being is to live our lives quite literally on Death Row, subject to decay and pain and loss from the moment of our birth, and in the end doomed, every single one of us, to die. Mankind has found ways over the millennia to make our death sentence tolerable. By the grace of God, we were created in his image, with so many gifts of creativity and intelligence and the ability to reach out and communicate with one another. And so the world is full of the glories of man, art and philosophy and science and civilizations.
But every glorious work of man is subject to the same frustration and futility as his frail body. In the end no human effort can stop the relentless march of corruption and death. In the end all the light of human glories will go dark. In the end we cannot save ourselves. Being a Christian means that we cry out for light from the deepest darkness; it means that we are people with no other hope, no one else to turn to, who can say with Peter, “Where else can we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.”
I love Psalm 107 because it tells our stories; the stories of people like you and me when we come to the end of our ropes and yell, “Help!” And it tells of the mercy and faithfulness of God, who always answers our cry. The psalmist follows four very different human journeys; maybe we can find ourselves in one of them, or all of them:
There are those whose road is hard and weary and long, who find themselves lost and hungry. In desperation they cry to the Lord in their trouble, the psalmist says, and he delivers them from their distress. He sets their feet on a good path and satisfies their hunger.
And there are those who choose deliberately to rebel against God, who set their faces to the darkness and despise his wisdom and light. They find themselves in deep trouble and misery, alone and friendless, until they finally call for help. Then they cry to the Lord in their trouble, the psalmist says, and he delivers them from their distress. He breaks the chains of their own forging and leads them up out of the gloom.
And there are those who are just stupid, who go off on their own and get themselves in a lot of trouble for their foolishness, until they are in utter despair. Then they cry to the Lord in their trouble, the psalmist says, and he delivers them from their distress. He heals their hurts and snatches their lives from the grave.
And there are those who go out into life with courage and purpose, but they find themselves overwhelmed at last by dangers and perils far too great for them. Then they cry to the Lord in their trouble, the psalmist says, and he delivers them from their distress. He quiets the raging storms and brings them safely home.
Christian people are people. We get weary and sad and overwhelmed; we are wicked and rebellious; we are foolish and headstrong; we are courageous and hard-working and determined. We are God’s excellent handiwork, corrupted by sin and tormented by death, just the same as all of mankind. As Paul said, “We were basically dead, children of wrath by our very nature, just like everyone else.” If we were asked what’s so special or different about Christians, we would have to say that what sets Christians apart from other people really has nothing to do with what kind of people we are. But it has absolutely everything to do with who our God is.
Jesus used the image of the bronze serpent to tell people who he was and what his purpose was in coming to live among us. We read the story today: the people of Israel panicked in the wilderness and lashed out at God and at Moses, “Are you trying to kill us out here? Didn’t anybody think about little things like drinking water? And, in case you wondered, we’re really, really sick of manna.” So God allowed fiery serpents to come among them, and a lot of people died from the poisonous bite of the serpents.
But when the people of Israel reached that point of desperation where they finally remembered who they could trust, they cried out for help. And God delivered them from their distress, and what he did was this: he had Moses make a serpent out of bronze and set it up on a pole where everyone could see it. If anyone was bit by a serpent all they had to do is to look up at that serpent and they were healed. And just take note here – the fiery serpents were NOT a symbol of Jesus. “I didn’t come to pass judgment on the world.” he said. “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it.”
Instead, it is that life-giving bronze serpent that Jesus says is a symbol of who he is and what he did. Because his whole purpose, in his life when he walked among us, and in his death, when he was raised up on the cross, was to heal and to restore and to bring us life – abundant life, life that is more powerful than death.
Paul wrote this: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ… 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.”
Christian and non-Christian alike, we all walk around on this earth like condemned prisoners, slaves to our own foolishness, hiding in the darkness, overwhelmed by the covering of death that lies over all of mankind. We all find ourselves from time to time in prisons and traps of our own making. We all stagger under the burden of fears and regrets and sicknesses and growing old and our impending death. A Christian is not a person who is better or stronger or less sinful than everyone around them. A Christian is one who cries out for help, who looks up to the Cross and finds life and health and hope. The one and only thing that makes a Christian special is Christ himself.
Hypocrites and rebels, fools and saints – what people said about us to our imaginary reporter is true. That’s us; that’s the Church of Jesus Christ. But the One we follow is able to heal and restore us and make us fully alive, because that’s exactly what he came to do – and not just for us but for every one of the billions of men and women he fashioned with his own hand and created in love for something much greater than death and corruption. We were all under sentence of death. But the Son of God heard our cry and came, not to judge, not to condemn, but to deliver us. And everyone who looks to the Cross of Christ for help will find real life.
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