By Rev. Paul Tinker
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Our strength and our redeemer… Amen
Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
This is the end of March break and undoubtedly this question was heard a lot. For many - traveling with kids – means hearing this question. In case you think the question is limited to only to kids, think back to the last time that you were in a commercial airplane – when the movie not on, the screen displays the location, airspeed and the remaining time to destination. Or consider the popularity of a modern piece of technology – the GPS – global positioning system, a small device which can tell you a host of information from a satellite and back, tuned to within 10 feet, but it all amounts to answering the same fundamental question - Are we there yet?
This affliction of ‘impatience amidst the journey’ is not a new thing, in fact it is precisely what got our spiritual ancestors into hot water, or rather tip-toeing through poisonous snakes. “But with their patience worn out by the journey, 5the people complained against God and Moses”. And so we can understand their complaint. They are trapped in between times. They are caught between ‘promise and fulfillment’. Traveling is the wilderness in the midst of 40 years between slavery in Egypt and the promise land of milk and honey. And they are complaining – and saying “Are we there yet?”
We too are journeying in a time between times – we are in the season of Lent, pretty much right in the middle of it. To be a Christian is to enter into a strange understanding of time. Through out the Christian year we hearken back to points in history and live in the moment, if only for a brief time. We do this each and every Sunday as we listen to the readings and share in communion – we perpetually continue a holy remembrance. We also have extended periods of time in which we journey along side our spiritual ancestors – as we observe Lent. A 40 day period of time of remembering the wanderings of 40 years in the wilderness or the 40 days of trial and temptation of Christ in the wilderness. We have readings that draw us into the process of journeying. Call us to reflect and understand the stages of a holy journey. And maybe, just maybe complaining is part of it. Maybe we need to look forward longingly - wanting it to come sooner.
I believe God wants us to look to the future in hope and expectation that the promises of God will come true. I believe God wants us to have faith in His provision. But that is not what the ancient Israelites did – they didn’t look to the future trusting in the promises of God. They complained about the present. They looked longingly to the past when life was predictable – in slavery. They didn’t trust in God.
There are 8 significant situations during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, where their lack of faith got them in trouble. This time God sends them poisonous snakes. I can imagine God saying “you ungrateful creatures, I rescue you from 400 years of slavery, I feed you with bread from heaven, manna, and I even give you quails for meat. I offer the promise land and you reject it, while traveling I give you military victory over those that attack you. And still you complain about the journey – well let’s see how you deal with snakes…”
But there is a change in the story – there is shift in the mood. And now - here is where it gets interesting. Here is the point in the story where we are all given a window into ‘God’s good graces’. Consider the process - What do they do? And what does God do? Simply – they repent. They consider their role, their part in what is happening to them and they start to understand. They say “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you…”They have sinned – how? They have sinned because they didn’t trust in God’s provision. Sin – being the act of being out of step with God’s plans for us. They see their sin – and they repent. And ask God’s agent – Moses to pray for forgiveness – for protection and provision.
Now consider God’s response. God doesn’t press the hyperspace button – God doesn’t whisk them away from their troubles, manifested in the form of snakes. God instructs Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and nail it to a post and raise it high for all to see. Those that look upon the bronze snake and believe, they that have faith in God… are healed – saved. Those that don’t - make their own decision and perish. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole. God sends a strange remedy, in the midst of them God provides an object for their faith. Here of course we, modern day Christians, we - who each year retell the story of trials that lead up to victory of the cross and of Easter. We see God’s consistent approach to saving us. The typology is clear as can be. And of course this is what Jesus reveals to Nicodemus and to us.
“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. 16“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. 17“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. 18Those 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. (John 3:14-18)
The process is the same – the Son of Man will be lifted up on the cross. A strange remedy – an unexpected transformation of events – the very symbol of the most brutal form of death being the tool in which death is defeated. Those that look to Jesus in faith will be saved. Those that turn away from their worldly ways and look to Jesus raised up on the cross – to save us from our sins - have the promise of eternal life. This is the purpose of cross – to save. Jesus in his response to Nicodemus is telling us with no uncertain terms – that he came to save. He did come to condemn or judge the world. The world is given the “free will choice” to judge Jesus. …It is for you to choose Jesus…He has already chosen you…
As John the Baptist puts it just a little bit later in the same chapter, when his followers are questioning him about Jesus: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him (John 3:36)God’s saving grace is there for the choosing – there for the believing. The alternative is the wrath remaining upon us. The poisonous snake venom staying with us.
I know for some that it is a an uncomfortable, all too simple notion, for our worldly cynical minds to accept that - life is a choice – that faith is merely something to say yes to. We think of our world as a hard place and nothing comes for free. We are uncomfortable with the Pollyanna ideas and ways of living. And in that context – we are right – in the world and the ways of the world. Cynical is the reasonable response. But that is not what is at stake. We are offered salvation beyond the limited scope of the worldly ways. We are given the promise of not perishing but having eternal life.
This Sunday like every other Sunday I as the preacher, was given the choice for the 8:15 and the 11:15 of the Old Testament or New Testament reading – I choose the Old because I said the Ephesians passage is basically a commentary of both the Numbers and Gospel passage. Here is what St. Paul has to say
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world… 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-2b & 4-5)
In all three readings today the message is simple and clear. We are loss… dead… with-out hope… if left to our own devices – if left to our worldly ways. BUT by God’s good graces. By God’s provision alone, not anything that we do at all. We are offered salvation. We just have to accept it.
Today as we consider the strange time warp that we Christians live in. Looking backwards to history – in the middle of observing a time of Lent. When in Lenten time… “we are not there yet” – yet in the midst of that time. Consider how we are called to look forward and consider the cross. Also reminded of God’s provision when we were wandering and complaining in the wilderness. Shown the pattern towards righteous, holy living (twice) - Repentance – asking for forgiveness – faith in God’s providing – and salvation. God redeeming the situation by transforming it.
Remember as uncomfortable as it is to our modern sensibilities. The Gospel is at root a rescue story. It is a bailout package of enormous proportions. Jesus saves! Amen