‘Of Trees and snakes, of Life and Death’ Lent 4 Year B 2018


Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent Year B 2018

Numbers 21:4-9

Eph 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

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!

Lent 2 – Year B ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth – Yeah Right!’

Sermon for Lent 2 – Year B
Sunday March 1st 2015

Mark 8:31-38

The meek shall inherit the Earth
Yeah, Right!


A couple of years ago I had a dream. It was so striking that I wrote it down in my journal. In it I was in a canoe paddling up a stream. The stream, as streams do, became narrower and the water shallower, therefore the effort of paddling became greater until I grounded. Of course the obvious thing was to turn the canoe round, but the stream was too narrow

It must be said, when I ponder that dream and its meaning for me, the contemporary church also hoves into view. The stream getting narrower and shallower, perhaps a metaphor for falling numbers? And trying harder and harder . . . perhaps we need to get our bearings. To remind ourselves of one or two fundamentals . . .

1. God is not relevant to our lives

I have pondered often and long about why so many of us are at the very least hesitant about ‘sharing our faith with others’ – and the answer that came to me in the early hours of one morning this week was that we imagine the conversation in our head – a little like this.

I’m a Christian
I’m not
My faith makes a real positive difference to my life
Really? What? We have been friends for a long time. Your life and my life – they are pretty similar – indeed in many respects you might say I have a better life than you, no?
Well, yes, errm – I see what you are saying, err but I have a profound peace in my heart
Yes. Good. I’m happy for you. I find a walk on the beach does that for me. Isn’t it lovely 🙂

So how are the grandchildren doing then . . .

When I say ‘God is not relevant to our lives’ I mean it. But what do I mean by ‘our lives’. I mean the lives we determine for ourselves. The life which is all about our life story – the story which people may tell of us after we die, of career and home and children and hobbies etc. etc. The lives into which we try to fit God rather like a new kitchen accessory – a Unique selling point in a house, or in this case a life

We have grown up in a culture which springs from Christendom – a world where ‘everyone was a Christian’ – God was in his heaven ‘watching over it all’, and all was well with the world. ‘God’ in this scheme was there to sort out the difficulties of our lives. Like a kindly chaplain, or a Spiritual plumber, or indeed a kindly parking attendant who found us that parking space we really needed or otherwise we’d be so stressed at that important meeting with the bank to discuss our mortgage . . . God is ‘there to look after us’. But of course, for our friend with whom we are in conversation, they pretty much manage to get along very well thank you very much without any of that, and also they have spare time on a Sunday to use as they wish . . . and of course should life’s circumstances become difficult then perhaps we don’t really need this church stuff anyway because God is there looking after us, or perhaps he isn’t and actually it doesn’t seem to really make any difference . . . after all there are lots of helpful guides to having a better life – some are religious, some aren’t . . .

2. Our lives are not relevant to God

Sorry if we find this thought troubling, but they’re really not. God does not spend every moment of his waking hours figuring out how to get our lives sorted out so that we can have the life we always dreamed of . . . indeed we may have noticed that 🙂 And vice versa, there is nothing we can do to ‘help God’. On the one hand the dominant expression of faith is that ‘god is up there somewhere looking over us’, and on the other, the Church seems obsessed in what Margaret of Sienna calls ‘solicitudo religioso pro Deo’ To translate roughly, ‘a blasphemous anxiety to be doing God’s work for him’. Whatever, ‘God’ is largely absent from the proceedings
Like in the canoe dream – people paddling harder and harder as the stream narrows and the water shallows. The church is busier than ever, getting the message out, endless committees, initiatives etc.etc.etc. ‘God’ becomes an ever vague shadow, out there, somewhere, perhaps??

Last week I concluded that we would do well from time to time, not to put ourselves in the disciples’ position, as they observe Jesus healing people, but rather to place ourselves in the position of those who are healed, in other words, In Jesus direct line of sight.
Well, let’s do that this week and where is Jesus looking, oh yes he’s looking at his disciples. He is telling them, quite openly that he ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’

And we all know Peter’s response – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Now let’s just pause at this moment. Immediately before our gospel reading, Peter has declared that which God has revealed to him, not what he has figured out for himself, what God has revealed to him, That Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one, The King of Israel . . .

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him?????!!!!!!

3. The problem is ‘Our Lives’ . . .

Jesus words seem like madness to Peter – but it is Peter who has the problem . . . turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus tells Peter ‘You don’t get it! You don’t have a clue! You are the One trying to destroy my work . . . and we, like Peter have So much confidence that we do get it . . . but as I said, we cannot give a coherent account of what IT is to those amongst whom we live

The problem is ‘Our Lives’. When we listen to what Jesus says, it seems utter madness, we are there with Peter. Jesus says ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ – and we rebuke him saying, that’s a nice sentiment Jesus, but actually its the hard work and fine accounting skills, its our genius that will get us what we want . . . and the moth and rust will corrupt and if we store it all in vaults after our deaths, the thieves will break in and steal.

I was in a church meeting a long way from here earlier this week, where the wheels of power were turning. We were planning and proposing. And someone gave a very lengthy account of a significant event in the life of the church and credited one person with all the credit and said how much we owed them by way of thanks, and no one batted an eyelid . . .
No one – myself included – said, ‘Let us pause and offer profound thanks to God without whom Nothing is possible. It was as if God didn’t even exist.’ We’d pulled it all together.

We modern westerners are So in control of Our Lives – and thus the way we run them is in direct opposition to the way of Jesus – Jesus who says ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth’; ‘do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth’, ‘unless you become like a little child’ How could a child even begin to run the church as we do??? Jesus who says For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

4. Jesus response to the problem of ‘Our Lives’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

As I was painfully reminded this last week by a friend, we miss the horror of what Jesus is saying here. The Cross has become a pretty item of jewelry – or we talk about it is terms of the sufferings that are common to all human kind, broken relationships, illness – ‘We all have our cross to bear’ we sigh. Jesus speaks to the whole people of God, who symbolised by Peter have their minds set on human things and faces them with something horrific. No one there, none of the readers of Mark’s gospel in the first 300 years will have not seen, in all likelihood Many Crosses, not hanging round people’s necks, but with people hanging on them. ‘You really don’t want to go there’, but Jesus says this is the Way.

Pontius Pilate wanting to let people know where the real power lay, didn’t always bother with wood, bit of a waste, he would nail people to the walls of Jerusalem. Everyone knew the horror of it and had seen how literally excruciating was the death of the Crucified, over hours in unendurable agony. The utter destruction of a Life – indeed bodies were left there to be devoured by wild animals and birds.  So horrifying that people could not bear to speak of it or write about it. Truly A Satanic tool.

Jesus takes Our Lives to the Cross, and we are called to follow him. Indeed this is the meaning of our Baptism – not some folk rite, so that we are in on this Chaplain God and can expect his services. Christendom neatly sidestepped the Cross and delivered up a faith of the irrelevant God, placing the human and our lives back in the centre of things. But our Lives are only the centre of things if w are In Christ, the Crucified One. We are baptised into his death so that He might be Our Life, Our All in All. As St Paul puts it in Colossians, ‘For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’  Our baptism is the End of Our Life. The end of Our agendas, the end of Our plans. The life we now live we live by faith in the Son of God. For truly Christian life to begin, Our Lives must end. He must become Our Life. The Risen one

And So we come here, we confess our Sins, that once more we have lived for ourselves and not for Him who loves us, We feed on his word which is Life giving Like honey on our lips, we respond in words irrelevant to the World, the Creed, and in his infinite Grace and Mercy, he feeds us with His Very Life.
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever