John 3:14-21 & Numbers 21:4-9 3/11/18 Epiphany, Norfolk

Well, we have several things going on this morning. First, it’s the dreaded beginning of Daylight Savings Time. We lost an hour of sleep last night, and now our inner clocks are all out of whack, and our 8:00 service is almost in the dark, and we won’t know when to be hungry, and we have to figure out how to reset out digital clocks, especially the ones in our cars. It’s just a rough day.

Secondly, we get these strange readings, dealing with snakes and all kinds of weird things. Where in the world did they come from?

Our readings this morning are part of the recent revision of our lectionary. As I’ve mentioned, we have a 3 year cycle to our lectionary, which is the schedule of readings we use. They repeat every 3 years. But a few years ago, a revision to it was approved, and it became known as the “Revised Common Lectionary.” If you look at your lesson sheet, in the upper left hand corner of the 1st page just under the purple banner, you’ll see the letters, RCL. That means: Revised Common Lectionary, and the readings are sometimes dramatically different from that to which we have been accustomed.

And today is a great example of that. In our old Lectionary, we would be reading about “The Feeding of the 5,000”, now referred to as: “The Feeding of the Multitude.” It used to appear several times in our Lectionary cycle, and I guess they decided to get rid of one repeat and replace it with our readings this morning. All of our other readings are also different.

So, now our 1st Reading is from the Book of Numbers, and it’s part of the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. It’s a strange story. The Hebrews are tramping along on their 40 year trek in the wilderness. And they are again grumbling against God and Moses because they are short on water and don’t like the food.

This is not the first time they have complained about that. A few chapters back they were fussing about not having water, and Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water gushed out. And if you go back 10 Chapters, they were fussing about food, and God sent them manna. And now they are tired of the manna, and fussing again. And God doesn’t like it, and God sends poisonous snakes to bite them and kill them.

You’ve heard me say before that one of our Presiding Bishop’s themes is that if it’s from God it is love. I would love to hear what he’s preaching this morning. The Hebrews knew God to be pretty temperamental. God could get angry, and God could do hurtful things. We touched on that last Thursday at out Fireside Chat. Well – here is an example. God doesn’t destroy everything, but God can sure “put a bite’ on you.” (Just checking to make sure you’re awake.)

So, Moses sees his people falling over dead from snake bites that God released on them, and he prays to God to stop. And God tells Moses to fashion a snake of bronze, put it on a pole, and tell the people to look at the pole when they get bitten, and they will live.

Serpents are just a very big part of the Hebrew Lore. If you were at Virginia Van Horn’s Lenten Program a couple of years ago, you heard that Michelangelo’s depiction of Creation in the Sistine Chapel has the serpent in the Garden of Eden painted clearly as a woman. And – an element of Hebrew lore says that the serpent was Adam’s first wife. And then you get your snake worshipping cults, and all sorts of serpent stuff in almost every culture and religion. We all know Medusa, the evil Greek Goddess with snakes for hair. If you look directly at Medusa, you die. So one has to look at her in a mirror, or some form of reflection.

But then John, in his Gospel, picks up this theme. And typical of John, he makes a big complicated thing out of it. Today’s reading begins with: “JESUS SAID: (he’s putting it in the mouth of Jesus)’Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’.” Moses put the bronze serpent on a pole to heal those who looked upon it when they were bitten by the serpents, bitten by evil.

John has Jesus being put on a cross – a modified pole – and those who look on him will be healed. In fact, they will not just live, but they will have eternal life. And here’s where we get the idea of God giving his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, will not die, but have eternal life. I really think John is talking about “crossing over” into the Greek parallel universe of the Gods, the immortals. It seems really clear to me, but I’ve never found a Biblical scholar who would support me in that. So, you don’t really need to pay any attention to it, I guess. But it still makes sense.

Well, then John goes back and picks up his old theme of the tension between light and darkness. And John spins that theme again, with evil people living in the dark, and good, believing people “COMING TO” the light. The idea is that by nature, we all exist in the dark, but have to consciously “come out” to “the light.”

Well, if you are thoroughly confused and found new concentration in your shopping list, don’t feel badly. This is hard material. I’m sure many a homilist gave up last night and decided to preach on “40 Days of Lent”, or something like that. But, it’s also challenging to work with these more obscure passages and see what’s behind them, what’s going on, what they are talking about.

Julia and I were so excited at the Lenten program 2 weeks ago when YOU got into some really deep theology, and YOU went a half hour over time. Bible and theology can be really exciting, especially if you don’t try to agree on everything, but explore different ideas.

Well, I don’t have a bronze serpent for you. But, so you remember this homily, I offer you this. If it heals you, please don’t tell me.

(If you are reading this by email, I am mounting an articulated wooden snake on a pole in the pulpit).


Posted March 13, 2018 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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