September 14, 2008
Numbers 21 4b—9: …the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
I Corinthians 1: 18—25 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
John 3: 13—17 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘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.
Over the next weeks I want to continue reflecting with you on the Covenant in Ministry you and I agreed to when I was inducted as your Rector. The very first part of that covenant was the presentation of the Bible. Nigel and some of the young people said, “Grant, hold before us the story of God’s love and mercy . . .” Yes indeed, I do believe that the Bible is the story of God’s love. There’s the lovely story of Moses in the bulrushes, and Jesus healing the blind man, and oh yes! there’s the one about God sending poisonous snakes and killing a lot of people!!! (today’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures).
As Christians, the Bible is our book, and we are wise to take it seriously. I do believe the Bible is capable of communicating God’s Word to us, but it’s also a very human vehicle, capable of yielding very BAD news, because we too are very human vessels. At times it’s hard not to cringe when I hear some of the readings, and it would certainly be a lot easier to hold up the story of God’s love and mercy if a lot of the stories in the Bible were just eliminated. But the Bible, like life, doesn’t always work that way.
This Sunday, I am grateful for the opportunity to stay with the wilderness theme. Especially at the moment, I can really identify with the people of Israel in their continuing saga of departure and wandering – their journey in faith toward a new freedom as God’s people. It’s never a simple or easy journey.
So we hear in the lesson from Numbers “…the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses . . . and the Lord sent serpents among them.” I can understand the anger being expressed toward Moses – toward their leader. That’s something that happens all the time, whether it’s politicians or bishops or our parents getting the blame. Things seemed to be going badly, so Moses was on the receiving end of anger and frustration. That’s a natural reaction.
The anger at Moses is understandable, but it’s the anger at God that is most significant in this story. That’s what supposedly triggered the snake infestation in the first place. They were angry and complained and the story tells us that God’s response was poisonous snakes.
The story is no doubt trying to say that God is present in good and in bad times – that God is in control of all things that happen – and it’s true that life is at times harsh and it’s good to look for God even in the midst of hardship and pain. It’s true that sometimes you have to get really angry with God in order to make a breakthrough. Wilderness is that difficult place between letting go and arriving – spiritually, it’s the cloud of unknowing, the dark night, where what used to work no longer does, and nothing makes sense in the way it used to, a transitional place where we have to learn new lessons and life principles in order to move on. It’s OK to be there for a time, to grieve, to vent our feelings, to reflect; it’s also important to know when to move on to claim the next stage of the journey.
On a human level, this story makes a lot of sense, but the theology (the interpretation of what God is about) is difficult. Yes, you could look at the story and say that God doesn’t like whiners or ingrates; yes, you could say that the people were intimidated into repenting; yes, you could say they learned a lesson the hard way. I can see how people might look at such an event and later come to believe that it was God at work in the midst of a terrible ordeal, and that somehow they found a way to safety from God’s wrath, by God’s grace. But for the life of me, I can’t accept the idea of God killing people’s children and mothers and fathers and spouses in such a grotesque way – I just don’t believe God acts that way. I think that what they expected of God, and how they thought God operated, was misguided in the first place.
In ancient times, people looked at natural disasters and ascribed them to God. Now, people who say things like “That shark had my name on it! God must have really wanted me to just have one leg!” Or “I deserved that disease!” or “God must have needed my daughter more than I do” – are often in need of counselling to help them really face their loss and move beyond such views.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from such a harsh interpretation, none of them very flattering to God. I am always a bit dubious when I hear people say “It’s God’s will.” God’s will is complicated enough to figure out, but attaching it to tragedy is always really dangerous and potentially damaging. You’d better be certain you’re right (and how can you?), when you’re telling someone their cancer or the tornado that destroyed their house is God’s will. Seeing God’s hand in things isn’t that easy when your 3-year-old is one of the ones killed by a poisonous snake.
Sometimes our theology is really incapable of interpreting an event – we can’t make it fit within our existing scope of meaning or understanding – we can’t see the good or the sense in it. When something happens to a child, I’m not immediately going to cozy up to God and say, “Thank-you very much!” That’s not my natural reaction at all – ever. Especially in the face of innocent or incomprehensible suffering, anger and despair are more genuine and honest reactions. The interpretation that this must somehow be God at work comes later, long after the immediate shock and pain of loss of the original event. Well after the event, maybe centuries after the fact, the original stories were interpreted in a new light, and people could be convinced that God’s hand was there. Like the centurian who looked at the young man dying on a cross and supposedly said, “Truly, this was the son of God,” or like the person who years later sees a time of suffering as a time of growth in character and wisdom, it is true that we often don’t begin to comprehend times of suffering until well after the fact.
Through the Cross, Christians were trying to tell a different story about God – or to tell the old story in a new way — not of a demanding and unforgiving God who rewards failure with judgment and destruction, but a God who meets the world’s violence and unfairness with love and mercy. As they continued to interpret the events, and to reflect theologically, they came to believe that the Cross represented the end of God demanding life from us (and threatening to take it if we disobeyed), and the beginning of a new way of blessing. The Cross becomes the sign of God’s offering life to us. So John says, “God so loved the world he gave his son … God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” What people like Paul and John were trying to say is that the Cross represents the fact that God is indeed loving and merciful. To the first Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus proclaimed and symbolized dying and rising to a new age – a new way of being. It represented the end of believing in a god they associated mostly with death, a god constantly demanding sacrifice of one kind or another. God is about giving his life to us – not about taking ours away. It was John who would ultimately proclaim, “God is love.”
The Bible teaches us that God’s ways are mysterious, not often open to easy or quick interpretation. And the Bible doesn’t gloss over the fact that God’s people struggle at times, that there are situations and happenings that are difficult to understand; it acknowledges that bad things happen to good people. Through the witness of scripture, we learn that in the person of Jesus, God is “down to earth,” fully human. In Christ we are invited to believe that God is no longer external and beyond us, but with us, in us, and suffers with us – that God understands from within the human experience the nature of our struggle, and that the possibility of transformation and redemption is always present. That is part of what we symbolize and celebrate in the Eucharist.
Today’s story reminds me of the necessity of looking through the darkness – of walking into and with the darkness and confusion in order to see and find the light. I am happy to hold up the Bible as the story of God’s love and mercy, but with the awareness of the need to struggle and wrestle with some of the painful and difficult stories and events that confront and confuse us at times, where it is hard to see the good, when it’s hard to believe there could be any purpose there. I am happy to hold the Bible up as an expression of faith that God is at work in love and mercy even when the evidence seems to suggest the opposite, and I invite you to join with me in truly engaging the Bible in a mature and open and holistic manner.