Sermon: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 11, 2018)

Sermon: Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4-9
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every morning as I eat my breakfast, I am treated to the sounds of Acorn the guinea pig—one of our many pets. Most of the time Acorn just squeaks and squeals for some breakfast—which WILL wait until the teenager on morning duty comes downstairs and begins filling up food dishes. But sometimes, because the guinea pig’s water bottle hangs in the back of the cage and the morning light isn’t always that good, it can be difficult to tell by sight whether Acorn has water or not. We’ve learned, however, that we don’t really have to worry—Acorn tells us when he doesn’t have water. He simply takes the end of the tube that is supposed to be delivering water to him into his mouth with a good, firm grip and sits and yanks and jerks that water bottle against the sides of the cage until someone notices and fills it back up. And it would do no good to argue with him, saying, “But Acorn, we just filled up your water bottle three days ago.” Acorn would have none of that. And why should he? Having water three days ago doesn’t help him if he’s thirsty and without water now. So Acorn is insistent in his thirst, and in his demands that we do something about it.

I thought about Acorn and his water bottle rattling about a week ago, as I asked God for something that I didn’t feel I should be asking for. I don’t think it’s any great secret that the past year of my family life has been a bit rough. There’s been a lot of health issues, a lot of me driving around and sitting in doctors’ offices and hospitals for multiple members of my family. And while I pray and try to stay positive and strong and all that, there are moments when I feel defeated and weak. About a week and a half ago, I went to bed feeling defeated and weak, and that night I had an amazing dream. In the dream, a person was comforting me. That’s it—that’s all that happened. But it was so much more than that, because in the dream, I FELT a comfort and a peace and a security and a love that I’ve never felt in waking life. In religious terms, we’d call it a peace that surpasses all understanding. When I woke up, I wanted to claw my way back into the dream, back into the comfort, but of course I couldn’t. Instead, I concluded that the dream had to have been a gift from God himself, and I gave thanks.

For a day or two. In those two days, life continued to happen, as life will. And the feelings of comfort that I felt in the dream slowly faded, as dream emotions will. And once again I got ready for bed feeling defeated and weak, and I prayed, “God, I know you just did this for me, and it should be enough. But if you could just send me the dream again, let me feel your peace again, I can’t tell you what that would mean to me.” It was no good telling me that God had just given me figurative water a few days ago. I was thirsty again, and so I whined to God, asking for more, now.

So you see, I feel a bit bad for the Israelites wandering in the desert in our Old Testament lesson for today, wanting some water and some decent food. This story is the last of five stories commonly called the “murmuring” stories; the murmuring stories tell of all the times that the Israelites murmured and whined about the lack of food and drink in the wilderness during their Exodus from Egypt. We tend to be pretty hard on them. The commentaries that I read on this week’s readings were all pretty hard on them. Had they learned nothing? God had provided them with water and food time and again. God had freed them from their slavery. God had parted the sea for them. God traveled with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. What more could they want, the scholars all asked.

And I pictured myself as one of the people wandering in the wilderness, trying to find my way to the Promised Land, and I thought, “They’re thirsty and hungry. It doesn’t matter that they were given food and water just one short chapter ago. They’re thirsty again. They can’t help asking for more any more than Acorn can help jerking his water bottle around, or I can help asking for the peace that surpasses all understanding again.”

And you know, theologically, I have to question their true sinfulness here. The New Testament has Jesus say on multiple occasions that God listens to those who are persistent and insistent in their prayer. Remember the parable of the wicked judge who gave into the demands of the poor widow just because she wouldn’t give up and stop bugging him? Jesus says that we should pray like that. So what’s the problem with the Israelites asking for food and water?

I suspect that the sin of the Israelites wasn’t that they asked for food and water again. I suspect that the sin of the Israelites occurred in the sentence before that, when they asked God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God hadn’t brought them up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Some of them would die in the wilderness, of course, including Aaron, Miriam, and Moses. But God wasn’t going to let the whole of Israel die in the wilderness. He had made—he had initiated—a covenant with them, and that covenant was pretty simple. He had brought the Israelites up out of Egypt so that he could bring them to the Promised Land, so that he could be their God, and they could be God’s people, a holy people, and a blessing to the nations.

Their sin wasn’t that they asked for food and water. Their sin was that they doubted that God would uphold his covenant.

We have been talking about covenant since the first Sunday of Lent. We’ve heard God form several covenants with humanity. That he would not wipe us out or destroy the creation. That he would give Abraham a son, and make of him a great nation. That he would lead the nation of Israel to the Promised Land, and give it to them, so that he could be their God and they could be God’s people, a holy people, and a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And in our Old Testament lesson for today, the people doubted all of that, and asked of God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

And so God afflicted them with poisonous snakes.

This is, quite possibly, one of the strangest parts of the Bible—at least it is if we think that God afflicted them with poisonous snakes for asking for food and water. Jesus himself would later say, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead? Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” No—God didn’t send poisonous serpents among the people because they asked for fish or water. He sent poisonous serpents among them because of their true sin—they lacked faith that God would keep his covenant. They failed to trust God to keep his promises.

It was a serpent that brought sin into the world in the book of Genesis. And it was snakes that came and afflicted the people now, meaning that they were afflicted and poisoned and some of them died as a result of their own sin. Our Old Testament lesson tells us that God sent the snakes, but in a sense the snakes are the direct result of the sin of the people, and they symbolize the biting and poisonous consequences of our sin, and of our lack of faith, of our lack of trust.

God has formed a covenant with us. It’s a new covenant, initiated by God through Jesus. We’ll talk about it more next Sunday, but the new covenant promises a new Promised Land that we call the Kingdom of God. It promises us not just that we will be God’s people but that we will truly know God in our hearts and in our lives. It promises the wiping away of every tear from our eyes. It promises living water. It promises us freedom from the slavery of sin and death. It promises new heavens and new earth. It promises eternal life for those who believe, who trust that God keeps God’s promises.

So my friends, I pray that I’m not wrong in what I’m about to say, but I would encourage you to continue asking God for water when you’re thirsty, for food when you’re hungry, for comfort when you feel defeated and weak. Jerk that water bottle around. I don’t think there’s sin in that.

But we do need to repent. We need to repent of all the times when we are thirsty or hungry or defeated or weak and we waver in our trust that God keeps God’s promises—that God honors God’s covenant. God is leading us to the Promised Land. There are still snakes in our midst, and sometimes they bite and sometimes they kill. But God is leading us through them, and has turned the instrument of our destruction into the thing that saves us, has turned the cross into our salvation. God hasn’t brought us up out of anywhere so that we might die in the wilderness. Lent will not last forever, Easter will come, and the snakes will not get the final word. That belongs to God.

“In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.

Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
God’s already won.

In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.”

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