Sermon – March 15, 2015 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

Hope and Healing


My family is one of a handful of folks test driving a new Appalachian Trail board game that came out a couple of months ago, where you try your hand at hiking this epic trail, and face down a number of obstacles along the way.  I got the game because some years ago now, my brother and I tried to hike the 2400-mile Appalachian Trail that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Kathadan, Maine.  After a couple of setbacks, we pulled off the trail having hiked about 500 miles.  We were in the woods for about 3 months.  What that meant for us was that we had to carry everything on our backs, our food, water, clothing, sleeping bags.  And each night, after we hiked, we would bed down, along a stream or on the side of a mountain, a WPA lean to, a roadside ditch.  And, since we started up north, the nights were pretty cold so we really had to snuggle down in those sleeping bags.  And every night that I did so, I remembered a caution I’d heard from some meddler that said, be careful when you are in the woods sleeping on cold nights because the snakes, seeking warmth, may slither down into the bottom your sleeping bags.  So, every morning that I woke up I would lie there immobilized, feeling my feet and legs to see if I had a cold, rope-like creature nestled in the bottom of my bag.  That never happened, don’t know if it every has.  But, I was ever alert to the possibility.  I only saw one snake, actually.  Somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia, I was taking a step and saw the white gaping mouth of a cotton mouth and somehow my leg turned into a powerful spring and I leapt over that snake and landed on the other side of him, shouting over my shoulder, “Snake!”   I operated under the cautious conviction that there is no place where snakes are not.


And here, in our scripture stories this morning, the intervention of God into the troubled lives of God’s people is rendered as a snake.  The cure for the venomous bite of the snake, in our story from Numbers, is to look upon the image of snake on a pole.   John says, like that snake that was lifted up in the wilderness, so, too, is Christ lifted up on our behalf, and beholding it is healing.


What a confusing metaphor for the action of God in the world.  What are we to make of that?  I guess one way to understand that is that God loves the world snakes and all.  That the coming of Christ into the world was not in denial of the snakes, of the darkness of the world, but in challenge to these things, to stand as counter, to stand above all these things, and even to use the snakes and fears of the world to reveal his love and power.


For God so loved the world, snakes and all, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.


Those snakes can raise the dickens with our ability to love this world.  We need to be clear that God loves the world in spite of all the reasons we think we ought not.  I almost despair in opening the newspaper everyday to the litany of the snakes, of the fears and dangers, of the duplicity, of the predatory forces in the world, of war and abuse and hunger and poverty and betrayal. . .  the snakes of our time.   And it would be tempting to turn away from them, leave them to their own devices, and recede into the safety of denial or flight, into our flawed ideas that because the world is not as I wish it were, that it is unlovable and unredeemable.


God loves this world as it is, and because God does, these forces—the pain and fear and violence and darkness these snakes—will never be without their challenge.  Will never be without hope standing against them.


Hope has to begin somewhere; it has to have a source and a center.  That is what God has revealed in Jesus Christ, the center to which we hold by faith in our time.   Because God loves this world, and me and my world and my darkness and my pain, the center is already established in us and we have the power to hope.


What is to become of suffering and fear and setback?  Well, in the midst of these things, maybe especially here hope is proclaimed and revealed.  We have a shallow and unreflective faith if we believe that because we have salvation in Christ, the world will now go along for us without the snakes, without the darkness.   Christ-borne hope stands against them.  The darkness would have us believe it has the upper hand.  The hope of Christ is that in these places the light will shine.  Not some diffuse light that just tempers the shadow, but an invasive and penetrating light that is located outside the darkness.  That is completely other than the darkness.  It is the challenge to the shadows of despair and fear against which the shadow must recede.  The darkness has no defense or counter to the love of God in Christ.


Indeed, God uses these things, these places to reveal most profoundly God’s love and grace.    Just as the serpent was lifted up in the time of Moses, the Son of Man is to be lifted up and take upon himself these things of fear and death and sinfulness and transform them.


I suppose that it is true, that there is no place where the snakes are not.  In God’s crazy covenant with his people, he gives us the law that stings us and bites us.  Yet, the venomous attacks of the snakes of sin and death and fear are unmasked and met by his loving grace, revealing the one who takes them upon himself and transforms them into opportunities to assert the love and power of God over us and all creation.


I can’t say that I completely understand this, but I get one last bit of insight from the medical caduceus.  As an Army medic, I wore on my lapel our branch insignia. . . two snakes intertwined around a staff, reminding me that in medicine sometimes one has to hurt to be healed.


For God so loved the world, that he gave of himself in the cross, the instrument of hatred and pain and despair, and then transformed it like the image of the serpent, into the instrument and the center of our healing and our hope.


I can’t say that I understand it, but that is not required.  Only that I receive it.  Only that I look upon him, high and lifted up, risk him and be saved.


Thanks be to God