Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon for Lent 4: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Outside Help

I met Allen when I was the missionary-in-charge at All Saints’ Anglican Mission in Aklavik in the western Arctic. He was a member of the Gwitchin people and a superb carpenter; after the old All Saints’ cathedral burnt down in 1973 he was one of the members of the construction team that built the new church, and he had also supervised renovations to the Anglican mission house. Whenever I needed advice about construction, it was Allen I turned to, and he always had good and useful things to say.

Well, almost always; sometimes I made the mistake of talking to him at the wrong time. You see, Allen had a problem with drinking, and in the end it ruined his life. When he was drunk, he was an entirely different person, and unfortunately he had passed the same problem on to his children. When they drank, they got violent, and their spouses paid the price. It was a tragedy, because they were all gifted and capable people when they were sober. It was as if a poison had gotten into their system, and it was slowly killing them.

I’m sure most of us have known people like that; alcoholism is a widespread problem and there can be few of us who haven’t come across its ravages at one time or another in our lives. Alcoholism also seems to defy the well-meaning efforts of friends and family members to persuade the alcoholic to sober up. The usual response to any suggestion that a person has a drinking problem is denial; the second response is ‘I don’t need help; I can get it under control by myself’. Usually the result is the same - no change. The vast majority of alcoholics don’t seem to be able to get a handle on their addiction without outside help, and by far the most effective program is a grassroots community based on old-fashioned spirituality called Alcoholics Anonymous. Right at the heart of AA philosophy is the idea that the alcoholic is powerless over alcohol, that their life has become unmanageable, and that only the intervention of God can make any kind of a difference.

It’s easy for us to see that, in the case of an alcoholic, some sort of outside intervention is necessary to save the person from themselves. But if we think about it for a moment, we’ll see that this is true in a wide variety of other cases as well. After all, alcoholism isn’t the only sort of addiction. We can think of drug abuse, gambling, internet addiction and many other similar behaviours. And the application of the principle is wider still. From a Christian point of view, sin itself is a kind of addiction. All of us have been in the habit of sin for as long as we can remember. Like any other lifelong habit, it has ploughed deep ruts in our brains, and any sort of change is very difficult if not impossible on the basis of will-power alone – as anyone who’s tried to keep New Years’ resolutions can attest. How are yours going, by the way?

And sin is a fatal addiction as well; it deals out destruction, despair and death wherever it goes. Anger and violence literally lead to death, so do hatred and prejudice. Selfishness can destroy marriages and families; greed can take over a person’s life and destroy their relationships and their health. All around us we can see the results of this fatal addiction; we see them on the news and read them in the morning paper, we hear about them in the coffee shop, and we run into them in our own lives all the time. Sin is a poison and it’s slowly killing us, and killing the world around us as well.

The Bible says that the poison got into the human race as a result of a snake bite. Well, not a literal snakebite, and probably not a literal snake either. But in Genesis chapter three we have the well-known story of Adam and Eve, and the snake who persuaded them to help themselves to fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story is teaching us that in an act of rebellion evil entered into the human family, and ever since then the poison has been slowly killing us. The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s plan to deal with that poison and restore the human race to health.

Our scriptures for today are all about this human need for help outside of ourselves – to use the biblical word, our need for salvation. Our track record of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is not very good. The poison is too far advanced; the resources of human ingenuity are all used up. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not say ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Rather, the Bible says that we’re past the point where we can help ourselves, and if God didn’t help us, we’d have no chance.

Our Old Testament reading is a real snake bite story from the time when Israel was wandering around in the desert. They had been led through the Red Sea; they had received the Ten Commandments on the mountain, but then they had pulled back from entering the Promised Land out of lack of trust in God, and as a result they were condemned to wandering in the desert for forty years. Not surprisingly, they often grumbled about this, despite the fact that it was their fault. In today’s reading, from Numbers 21:4-9, the people grumble against God and Moses, complaining about the conditions they have to put up with in the desert. In response, God sends a plague of snakes, and many people are bitten and die. The people then come to Moses, confess their sin and ask him to pray for them. Moses does so, but instead of just forgiving them and removing the plague, God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and set it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten should look at that snake, God says, and they will live. Moses does as he is told, and everything works out the way that God said it would. So the image of the thing the people loath turns out to be the thing that saves them from death.

Several things about this story make it very unusual. The Ten Commandments forbid the making of graven images, but this snake on a pole seems very much like a graven image. Snakes themselves are almost universally hated and feared all over the world; English is not the only language in which calling a person a ‘snake’ is one of the harshest forms of insult. And furthermore, in the biblical stories the snake was often seen as a symbol for the Evil One, starting in Genesis and going right through to Revelation where he is called ‘the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan’ (Revelation 20:2). So Moses is commanded by God to make an image of something that was hateful and fearful to the Israelites, to lift it up on a pole in plain sight, so that they could look to it and be healed.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus makes use of this very text. In John 3:14-15 he says “And 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”. He’s talking about being lifted up on the cross, of course. And just as the snake was hated and feared by the Israelites in the desert, so the cross was hated and feared by the Jewish people in Jesus’ day living under the rule of the Romans. The Romans hated it too, of course; it was a form of execution that they reserved for outsiders, people who were not Roman citizens – in fact, people who were rebels against the empire. But the Jewish people took it further; to them, a person who was crucified was being hanged on a tree, and their scriptures said ‘Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse’ (Deuteronomy 21:23). But the testimony of the New Testament is that by hanging on the Cross Jesus took the curse on our behalf, so that we could be healed and forgiven. And just as anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole was healed, so Jesus says that all who look to him in faith receive forgiveness and eternal life; in other words, their relationship with God is restored.

Jesus is claiming that we are all like the Israelites in the desert; we’ve been bitten by the snake, and the poison is in our system. The effects are already far gone, and the end is death. If we put our faith in Jesus, he will be the antidote that will eventually drive the effects of the toxin out of our system. But if we refuse to put our faith in Jesus, we condemn ourselves, because there is no other cure.

This is the key to understanding John 3:17-21, which at first glance sounds like a very harsh text. Verse 18 says that those who believe in Jesus are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. The passage goes on to say that God’s light has come into the world, but these folk have preferred the darkness to the light, and so they have refused to come to the light. John is talking about Jesus, who is the light of the world.

Some of us find this language to be very harsh indeed, but when we think about it for a minute, it goes along with the whole illustration of the snake on the pole in the desert. God in his grace and mercy gave a way for the people of Israel to be saved from the poison of the snakebites. All they had to do was look to the snake on the pole, and they would be healed. But of course, if they refused to look to the snake on the pole, they would die from the poison. We would never think of blaming God for their deaths; God had given a way for them to be healed, and they had refused that way.

In the same way, John tells us that God has given a way for us to be saved from the poison that infects the whole human family. The most famous verse in our gospel today says, ‘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. 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’ (John 3:16-17). The verse says that God gave his son in order that we ‘may not perish but may have eternal life’. ‘Perishing’ is the natural result of the snakebite of sin; it destroys our relationships and ends up destroying our whole lives. God doesn’t want this to happen, and in fact God has given us a way to be rescued from this fate. But we need to appropriate that way for ourselves. The Israelites appropriated it by looking to the snake on the pole; we appropriate it by looking to the man on the cross, and putting our faith in him; ‘everyone who believes in him’, John says, ‘may not perish but may have eternal life’.

What does it mean to ‘believe in Jesus’? It means a lot more than just believing that he existed two thousand years ago, or even just accepting the idea that he is the Son of God. It means putting our trust in him, asking him to heal us from the snakebite of sin, turning our wills over to him and following him in our daily lives. It means admitting that by ourselves we don’t have the resources to be the kind of people that we should be, or even the kind of people we wish we were. It means asking for his help day by day to live a new kind of life, a life in fellowship with the living God.

For some people, believing in Jesus is something that is connected to a particular point in time – a moment of conversion, if you like. John Newton refers to this sort of experience in his famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, where he says, ‘I once was lost, but now was found, was blind, but now I see’, and in another verse, ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed’. St. Paul had that kind of experience as well, on the Damascus Road, where he was blinded by a light from heaven and heard the voice of Jesus asking him ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ That was a moment of transformation for him; the one who had persecuted the Christian church turned to Christ himself, and later became an ambassador for the same faith he had tried to stamp out.

Many people today have a similar sort of experience, although they might not always use the same language to describe it. We Anglicans use conversion language in our baptism and confirmation services, where we’re asked, ‘Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?’ and ‘Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?’ For some people, their baptism or their confirmation become for them a very special moment of consciously putting their faith in Jesus and receiving that gift of eternal life from him. Other people go through those ceremonies in a formal and ritual way, but then later on in life have a conversion moment where the reality of what those ceremonies meant suddenly becomes real and fresh for them.

But not everyone has a crisis experience. Other people – perhaps especially those who were brought up in Christian families – find their faith in Jesus growing gradually as the years go by. They’d be hard pressed to identify a moment in time when faith first became personal for them, but they have no doubt that it is. Jesus is real to them, and faith in him is the central part of their daily life.

So I’m not going to ask you if you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour or if you have had a conversion experience of some kind. But I am going to ask you, “Do you live your life by faith in Jesus?” In other words, have you accepted the fact that you can’t get the snakebite out of your system by your own efforts? Are you turning to Jesus daily, putting your trust in him, and asking him to save you from sin and give you the gift of eternal life?

Let me close by inviting you to do this in a special way as you come to the Eucharist today. In the Eucharist, as we break the bread and pour out the wine, we can see in a special way how Jesus’ body was broken and his blood poured out for us. As we come forward and receive the bread and wine with faith in our hearts, in a special way we are fed by Jesus’ body and blood. So to receive our communion with faith is a particularly helpful way of ‘looking to Jesus’ for forgiveness and new life.

A few years ago there was a man who attended this church regularly who reminded me of that in a very vivid way. Each Sunday he would come up to the front to receive communion, but before he took the bread or the wine, I would always see him glancing up at the cross. It wasn’t an accident; he did it every week, and I knew that he was reminding himself of how Jesus had been ‘lifted up’ on the cross for him, for his forgiveness and healing. That man left Edmonton a few years ago, but I’ll always remember the lesson he taught me about the meaning of the Eucharist.

So let me invite you to come to communion this morning ready to be healed of the snakebite of sin that continues to affect us. We’re not just healed from it once; we have to constantly put our trust in Jesus to be healed from it day by day. So come to the Lord’s table and receive the bread and wine, in confident faith that God is ready and willing to pour out his healing and forgiveness on you because of Jesus and his cross, and that as you are nourished by Jesus’ body and blood God will strengthen you to be faithful to him in the week ahead.

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