Based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:1-21 – 4th Sunday in Lent
I was at a workshop at Naramata Centre some years ago when someone wore a T-shirt to class one day that read, in big bold letters: Yes, I am analysing you. And frankly… I’m worried.
Well I shared that with you basically so I could say that’s sort of my first reaction when hearing this bit of scripture from the seldom-read book of Numbers. I’m analysing this reading and frankly… I’m worried.
It seems to me that no matter how much we develop spiritually, psychologically etc. there is still a part of us that is powerfully rooted in a causal understanding of the universe, which goes back to when you are two or three years old, and if something happens you think – I made that happen! I am the cause! This can be pretty empowering when something positive happens – e.g. I told Santa I wanted a bike for Christmas, and lo and behold I got a bike for Christmas. It can be pretty scary when you’re mad at your mom and secretly wish she’d fall down the stairs, and then – she falls down the stairs!
So in this story, it sounds like this: You are not grateful enough and you complain. That makes God mad. God sends poisonous snakes to kill you. You are scared into repentance and Moses puts a bronze snake on a pole and you look on it, and you don’t die… Whew, dodged that one!
Yes, there are times when we do cause something to happen. But if this were truly the `action and response’ way that God worked, we would have been wiped out as a species long before now, for we’ve certainly done more atrocious things than complain about what was for supper!
So… why is this story woven into the gospel of John? Remember, no one was sitting there with a recording device when Jesus and Nicodemus talked late in the evening. One can assume that Jesus and Nicodemus did have had a significant conversation at some time, because there are two more important references to Nicodemus later in this gospel that don’t often get talked about… One, where he tried to get the Sanhedrin to back away from arresting Jesus, Nic. says in John 7: 50-51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” At this point his fellow Pharisees mock him and say he must be from Galilee too. Then in John 19:39 he appears again when the gospel says he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial.
John uses this conversation to lay out his theology of Jesus… He sees Jesus lifted up as the snake in the desert – a sign of healing. It is NOT a theology of Jesus dying for our sins to placate an angry and demanding God. That theology really took hold about 1000 years ago with St. Anselm’s theory of atonement, and it has filtered its way into Christian theology to this day.
So, if that doesn’t fit with our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry, what’s the purpose of reading these stories? What meaning can we find there?
From the Seasons of the Spirit curriculum comes this suggestion:
We are invited to face our fears and anxieties, and lift them up to God. When we do God will lead us through the desolate and deserted places of our lives to a place of new life, hope, and blessing.
Jesus draws on the image of the bronze serpent that brought healing to those who had been bitten in the wilderness. For the writer of John, this is a visible sign of Jesus’ willingness to stop at nothing to proclaim God’s healing love. This represents a profound theological revolution. Instead of a God who watches our behavior to zap us for wrongdoing and reward good deeds, we are called to see God as sharing our suffering. God is with us in the pain, because pain is not God’ will. God always responds with steadfast love, no matter what. This is good news indeed. God wants us to be whole: healthy, holy, sound, and in harmony with all.
So, if we are invited to face our fears and anxieties, and lift them up to God, what’s with Jesus being lifted up? What’s so fearful about Jesus?
Let’s look at Jesus. Last week, we read about Jesus trashing the temple – throwing around the tables of the money changers and sending people scurrying away. That evening, he gets a visitor. That is the night that Nicodemus comes to call. He has been deeply moved, maybe deeply disturbed by Jesus, and he needs to have a heart to heart conversation about the meaning of life and faith. Jesus says: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,…”
If you think of the image of Jesus on a cross, is it frightening? It’s pitiful, it’s sad, but frightening? Has it anything to do with facing our fears, when we face a person of love? Perhaps when we contemplate the image of Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that love can be dangerous and costly. And yet, by the grace of God, love wins out over fear.
How can we face our fears, and live authentically and courageously? This question can apply to many things, but in our current Canadian context, we have the issue of the impending Bill C-51 supposedly to help prevent terrorist attacks in Canada. We may not all agree on whether this is a good law or not. I think we can agree that the threat of terrorism in the world is real and needs to be taken seriously. But is that what’s really at the heart of this new law? Is this the best we can do? Or does fear win out here? Various groups have spoken out about the bill, but I’ll share these words from the “Canadian Voice of Women for Peace” whose statement says they “…do not approve of nor consent to the provisions in Bill C-51. The current government is trying to sell Bill C-51 as an anti-terrorism bill, stirring up fear to garner support. Since our laws already provide sufficient powers to protect us against terrorism, it appears obvious that the actual target of this bill is not terrorists, but instead those who would peacefully express their opposition to government policies.
The government is playing a game of “bait and switch”. It is baiting us by stirring up fears of terrorism, and then once we’re hooked, it is switching to getting us to consent to taking away our rights to political dissent.
Bill C-51 gives new powers to CSIS to take “measures” against anyone whose actions are perceived to threaten Canada’s “economic stability” or “critical infrastructure”. This is a far cry from a common-sense definition of terrorism as actions which invoke terror by threatening people with physical harm. These new powers for CSIS create, in effect, a secret police force, which has no Parliamentary oversight.
Dictatorships have secret police. Is this what we want for the Canada we know and love?” Something to ponder in this uncertain age.
Where else may we be knotted up with fear? How can we trust that Divine Love is at the core of all of life and that we can draw on that? I haven’t personally counted them, but I’ve been told that the phrase “don’t be afraid’ is uttered 365 times in the Bible. I think that’s worth paying attention to. It may not immediately take the fear away, but it points to an alternative, to a reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not our own behaviour, not our lack of faith, not our limitations, not our suffering – we don’t have to base our choices on fear.
I now keep a quote on my desk; a powerful word from Nelson Mandela which says, “May my choices be based on my hopes, not my fears.” When I find myself hesitating on a particular action, I read this over and ask myself, what do I hope might happen if I do this? Last week I asked myself this question and it gave me the courage to walk over to the high school to talk to Scott Anderson about working together (us and them) to put on the Kairos Blanket exercise – a simulation exercise that embodies some of the seldom spoken history between First Nations and our national policies. Now I’m playing telephone tag with the First Nations liaison worker from the school. That’s pretty exciting!
“May my choices be based on my hopes, not my fears.”
I invite you to take a little time in silence to ponder –What would you do, if you were not afraid?