Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent Year B 2018
Directing the gaze of our heart
(‘Of trees and snakes, of Life and Death’)
Years ago I remember listening to a haunting recording of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude – it was played on a reel to reel tape recorder, and a small spool of tape. This was the Christmas letter from a school friend of my father – named John Bennifield. It was haunting because John had recorded his Christmas letter because he was going blind, and could no longer see to write. Thinking back, he can only have been in his mid-forties as my Father was at that time.
John came to mind this week as I pondered our readings, not least our readings from the book of Numbers, because of his occupation. John lived in what was then Rhodesia, and he was in charge of the Snake education Programme – something certain to draw the interest of a young teenage boy – but indeed anyone. I remember him talking about Black Mambas and how they would hang around in trees and drop on you!
Snakes are universally feared – it is wired deep into us . . . and the association between Snakes and Trees – say the Serpent in the Garden and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or, the Tree of Life is obvious if you look carefully at a tree . . .
Tree roots are deeply suggestive in this respect and if like us all you are as it were wired to be on the look out for snakes, then the association with trees is clear! And here is a picture form an ancient Scandinavian tradition making it explicit – those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now.
Trees in all imaginations Present Life to us – so the Snakes which are associated with Death are at the roots working away at the source of Life. (For more on this and the Fatherhood of God, come to tonight’s talk on The Lord’s Prayer )
So to our reading from the book of Numbers and we find the Israelites doing what they like to do. Having been rescued from Egypt, brought from the place of death to the place of Life, they are complaining about their rations. (At one point in the narrative they dream of Egypt as a place of cucumbers and melons – forgetting that it was a place of Slavery and death. Perhaps in our 40 days of Lent, we too are a little weary of our rations?)
But this is a complaint against God, against Life itself and so their soul being weary of the bread, weary of Life, they encounter death in the form of the Snakes.
And God saves them through the agency of the Bronze snake. The 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. And 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.’ So 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. [Picture]
What is going on here? First we are reminded that Sin leads to death. When we live in contradiction to the deep Goodness of things, perhaps with grumbling rather than gratitude as in the case of the Israelites, things go bad. The 10 Commandments as we heard last week are given ‘that we might Live before God’ As I said then, it’s not arbitrary, its written into the fabric of Creation – murder, commit adultery, dishonour your parents, fail too rest, worship the work of your hands – aim at anything apart from the highest Good, that is the Life of God, and things will not turn out well for you.
As St Paul puts it – the wages of Sin is Death . . . and God is constantly perturbed by Israel – the prophet Ezekiel declares the words of God -‘Oh Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ Sin is perverse, it makes no sense . . . Death itself epitomises this meaninglessness. So come the snakes, death reigns.
But what is it with the bronze snake? Well the snake is dead! Death is revealed for what it is – meaning less and empty! Death itself is symbolised as Dead – and so you live. This is the meaning of the Bronze snake, the destruction of death. And so they live.
Which brings us of course to our Gospel reading – ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up‘, The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – Not Punishment – Consequences which we who were sold in slavery to Sin could not bear
. . . that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. to believe is to identify ourselves with Jesus – to be baptised into that death which he suffers . . .
For what do we see here, but The one who cannot die submits himself to death, so that we who are In Him who otherwise can and will die – Might Live! The only one who cannot die submits himself to death – so we join ourselves to him to make a journey we could not make
‘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.’
God in himself – in his fruit – in His Son – in Love opened the door to Life from Death – all that look upon him . . .
Believing in Jesus is to have the eyes of our heart, to direct the gaze of our heart and allow it to rest upon him – as St Paul said in our epistle last week ‘we proclaim Christ and him crucified’ – as he says elsewhere in the same letter ‘ I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified – the Wisdom of God – and the power of God‘. that we who were dead in Sin, might be raised to newness of Life in him
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,– NOT to punish the world in Jesus for its sinfulness – but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him 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. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. . . . and still we see the perversity – that we may still choose to direct the gaze of our hearts elsewhere. Yet – before there was no choice where we looked – now, Light floods in and we may Live in the Light of his Saving Love. Still God calls people to Repentance – to turn from wickedness and Live . . .
Lent is our time for such repentance – preparing our hearts for the Joy of Easter
As we prepare our hearts for Easter – let us gaze unflinchingly upon Christ Crucified – Mystery of mysteries, Joy of Joys, Wonder of Wonders – The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – The one who cannot die submits himself to death
And so may we be ready to sing the Easter Hymn with Joy –
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!