Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
I’m not sure if they are still producing and distributing this particular miniature comic book that told the story of a young man or young woman being saved from eternal damnation by accepting Jesus as his Lord and savior, but when I was young, I would sometimes receive one. People would just walk up to a group of us and hand them to us. I don’t remember all the scenes, but I do remember it included frightening images of Satan and of fire – well, as frightening as comic book images can be.
Our reading from numbers would make a good comic book story designed to scare us into believing. God rescues the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and all they do is complaint about what they have to eat, “We detest this miserable food,” they say. The Lord isn’t going to put up with their ingratitude so he sends poisonous snake and many of them die. Out of fear, not faith, the people run to Moses and say, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Moses prays to God on behalf of the people and God tells him to “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” He does and the people live to sin again. The entire story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the people’s journey to the Promised Land is full of such stories. The people stray from their faith in God, they sin, they are punished, they pray for forgiveness, they are forgiven and restored to God’s favor only to do it all over again. Sin and punishment, repentance and forgiveness over and over again.
It is a cycle of behavior that is all too familiar – though the experience of our punishment is often self-inflicted. We don’t always get caught and punished for what we have done – or not done. Yet, living with the guilt we experience can be almost as bad. I know that, and you know that, because it is so easy to sin in ways that others don’t know about. In our confession we pray for forgiveness not only for what we have done and not done, but acknowledge we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. People can’t see our thoughts – and that’s a good thing. It is normal and natural to have selfish thoughts, our actions, though, are what are important.
Our first thought might be selfish, but if we filter our selfish nature with faith and charity, our behaviors will reflect the person we intend to be. In our gospel reading, Jesus puts a new spin on our comic book story saying, “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.”
Theologian William Barclay suggests that saying the Son of Man will be lifted up like the serpent on the pole is a reference to Jesus being lifted up onto a cross. We will not perish if we look at Jesus on the cross. I can still remember the comic book image of Jesus on the cross, dying for our sins and offering us salvation. “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.” This verse is quoted in those religious tracts – but not what follows: “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.”
That’s the new spin on the story I was talking about. Jesus does not come to pass judgment on us; Jesus does not come to condemn us. And, once we get past the comic book images of God’s wrath destroying humanity, we can see that salvation comes in the form of loving us in spite of what we do or don’t do, what think or say.
Not only do the comic book images of sin and death, heaven and hell, Satan and Jesus disturb me because they play upon our fears, they pervert our understanding of who we are. We were not only created by God; we are a part of God’s creation and God is a part of us.
As this gospel continues, it goes on to speak of light and darkness, using these images to refer to good and evil. The light exposes who we are and the choices we make. Do we choose to do good or evil – if we chose to do evil, we avoid the light and prefer to live in the dark. Jesus says, “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.”
Just as the serpent on the pole is symbolic of God’s saving grace for those who turn their “eyes to the Lord,” this talk of light and darkness, good and evil, speaks to me of what is inside us. Do we direct our attention to the good that within us, the love for others and for God, or is our focus on ourselves and what we want or don’t want?
The cycle of sin and repentance can be understood as what happens within each of us based our where we choose to focus our attention. Those who were bitten by the poisonous snakes had to make the conscious decision to look toward the pole in order to live. We all have selfish thoughts, but we can choose to focus on Christ who is within us and we can seek to do God’s will.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you know us better than we know ourselves. You know who we are to be, enlighten our thoughts that we might keep our attention focused on you and seek to do your will. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son. and the Holy Spirit. Amen.