Sermon for B Lent 4 March 11, 2018

Based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21.
Duane Larson, Senior Pastor

There is always some humor in the people of God, if even kind of dark. We just read of the Israelites having been out on their exodus for a while. They had become impatient with their wilderness journey. They felt like they were going in circles, …because they were. They tired of manna and rationed water. They complained about the menu in overstated terms. “There is no food and no water,” they said. And then they said, “we detest this miserable food.” They anticipated Yogi Berra, because they pretty much said “We have no food and it tastes awful, too.”   That is also sort of like Mark Twain’s words in Huckleberry Finn about the preacher; “He never charged nothing for his preaching and it was worth it, too.”

If you must ask, really, this sermon is free. Unless you choose to pay.The thing is, the Israelites were trying to adjust to a god about whom they had known little or nothing. Oh, Moses had gotten to know God, from the burning bush conversation onward to the mountain top, and God’s spirit leading them in circles and straight lines in the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. But the hoi polloi–the crowd of Israelites–they had only known this god who chose them first by the plagues he had sent against the Egyptians, then most definitively by the Passover Angel and the quick exit from Egypt through the Sea of Reeds. They had only known invented gods–idols–before then. Whoever this god was who was taking care of them with water from a rock and manna from thin air, well, since their journey was now no longer a festive spring break, this god had worn out his welcome for the sheer trial of it all. They may as well have been on a broken down cruise ship with no radio, no food, and little else but full bilge tanks.

And then the snakes came. The record never says that God sent the snakes as punishment for their complaining (as if the waiter had done worse than spit in their soup for the ingratitude of them all). But snakes came –because the desert is full of asps and rattlers don’t you know. They interpreted as punishment what is common in life’s desert. So they pleaded with this god like they did to idols from before. This was okay, even if God was better than the peoples’ expectations, God did not waver, this God who chose them from the dust. God would be faithful, as he promised to Abraham and Sarah long before. So God instructed Moses to make a sign of healing. Whoever would look on that sign of death–a snake on a pole–would be healed from the serpents’ bites and live. God had chosen these fickle people before they even knew who he was. God would continue to woo and protect and give life. However long it would take, God would shape these odd people from ingratitude into blessings to all nations. And God would accommodate to them and their bad decisions because, well, God so loved them that God would be faithful even if they treated him as if they were the ones on control.

That’s telling indeed. Because the history of God’s people is that God’s people are always getting God wrong, treating him as a superpower image of ourselves; presuming to tell God how God should be God on our terms, not God’s terms. It is a short step from there to where we treat God as if God really were a mere graven image, an idol, a magical sugar daddy, a projection of our own feeble masculine imaginations and denied deficiencies. It should be no surprise that the serpent on the pole was destroyed a few hundred years later by Hezekiah because the people of Judah had been worshipping it as an idol of Baal, not Yahweh.

But God the Lover who accommodates to the Beloved even and especially when the Beloved do not know they are beloved and do not know that they have a divine Lover, this God unlike all other humanly imagined gods, this god, the only God, will not, does not, stop non-violently loving. God did what God had to do to get through to all these apples of God’s eye. So God gave himself in God’s Son, God let himself in Jesus the Christ be lifted up on the cross, not just any snake on a pole, so that all who finally “get” what this love means for them will not perish but have eternal life starting now from even this non-eternal side.

This is the greatest news ever. But we still turn it inside out and wrong. Because we still do not get that God the Lover accommodated God’s self to our awful ways so to get through with the better, the holiest message of love. You see (please, see), we still interpret and speak of this God and cross thing as if it was part of God’s eternal calculus to save us from sin, as if some divine payoff had to satisfy God’s righteousness, in a way that humankind could never on our own do. In point of awful fact, the cross was not God’s invention. It was our invention. Humankind crucified God because we would not have it any other way, not because God had to have it this way. God chose to love rather than to be right. So in answer to humanity’s violent creed of an eye for an eye, in answer to our re-making regularly of God after our own fallen image, our unpredictable loving God heard our cry for bloodlust and offered God’s own blood instead. Jesus’ sacrifice was not to sate God’s wrath, but to show God’s response to ours; to show the depth of God’s love; to show that God’s love will suffer our violence, and that God’s love will have the last word over our ways of death.

God accommodated God’s self to us to show us that the way of finally forever stopping a bad guy with a cross is not merely to be a good guy with a cross, but to say, definitively, there will be and must be no more crosses, no more torture, no more violence, and surely no such hideous thing as sacred violence; that only when the need to control others with “religion” is turned into the selflessness of amplifying life for others, only when swords are turned to plowshares , only when crosses–yes! –are transmuted into bleeding hearts: only these are God’s way of being God; only these are the ways of God’s love.

Oh, I sorely know that love and care of neighbor sometimes in this fallen world calls for calculated responses of violence for justice. But do not assume, do not project, that these are God’s ways. God prefers differently. Look instead directly to the once occupied but vacated cross and tomb to see how God deals with fallen humanity’s ways. God accommodates to our bad habits. God suffers them. But God does not approve. Instead, God loves. And God redeems by love, by transforming us by the power of love intro the scintillating lights of hope and care for others. As Ephesians says, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). And “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21).

Duane Larson               Christ the King Lutheran Church   Houston, TX                March 11, 2018