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We are not abandoned in the wilderness

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2024

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

It can be difficult for us to reconcile this vengeful God of the Old Testament with the loving, forgiving God who guides us in the Gospel. Our reading this morning from Numbers is just one example. Directed by God, Moses has led the people of Israel out of the brutality of slavery. They have travelled far, under even more brutal conditions.

But the trials are beginning to show. The euphoria of freedom is becoming weighed down by the reality of life in the wilderness. Should we judge the Israelites? They had already endured so much, and to escape one horrific situation to find themselves worn down and exhausted by yet more trials, would have been a lot for anyone.

But, boy, they certainly sound petulant, whining about their lot. There’s not enough food to eat and or water to drink. And what there is, they complain to Moses, is awful. They can hardly stomach it.

How many whiners did Jesus listen to? How did he respond? By turning their own words upon them or teaching them a lesson about being a Good Samaritan, or understanding that one prodigal son returning home does not displace them.

But the Israelites are not whining to Jesus. Instead, our God of the Old Testament, we are told, teaches them a lesson – by tossing poisonous serpents into their midst, to bite them.

Now it certainly does the trick and turns them around: they come back to Moses ashamed and ask for forgiveness. Lousy food is one thing; deadly snakes -, that is quite another.

But this hardly sounds like our God of the Gospel. So let us look at the story again.

The people of Israel were falling victim to a common human failing: forgetting to appreciate what they had. They were like people who, at first, when they win the lottery, are overflowing with joy and quit their jobs and make plans for all the great things they are going to do. And then life creeps in again - in the imperfect, frustrating way that life has of creeping in – and their happiness plummets. If they are lucky, it only falls right back to where it was before they got that winning ticket. There’s been plenty of research looking at how often this happens when people win the lottery. They get much happier for a while, and then their happiness falls back to regular levels. That’s because the lottery is not a ticket to happiness What sustains us for the long run is our approach to life – our faith, our attitudes, and our hopefulness.

Complaining too, is a human condition. This week, I read about how 15th century Germans coined a phrase for it: Greiner, Zanner. Or “whiner, grumbler.” Indeed, we are a discontented lot of Greiner, Zanners these days, it seems. Quick to snap at servers or at drivers who cut us off. Earlier this week, my social media feed gifted me with two middle-aged male travellers on the Vancouver Sky Train beating each other bloody. Read the comments under a typical newspaper story or post – full of vitriol. No matter how often we are told that life overall is better now than how humans had it in the past –with better medicine, better food, safer communities, longer lives – we seem to spend most of our time grumbling about the little things, while the really big problems, like climate change, just get bigger. Or we stop at complaining instead of acting.

But back to the Israelites. Listen, the wilderness could not have been fun. It’s possible, that even those Egyptian slavers were no longer looking so bad. At least then, they had food and water, a roof over their heads. They had known what to expect from one day to the next. But now their lives had become uncertain, and that triumphant feeling was fast dwindling away.

How God ultimately solves the problem of the serpents is the key lesson for us. Because Serpents are always turning up at our feet – not placed by God - but put there by life, by unlucky circumstances, by our own mistakes. In the wilderness, God doesn’t take the serpents away – for they will always be there. Instead, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, to heal the people who have been bitten, to give them a place to find hope, with everything going wrong.

In our gospel, we hear Jesus compared to that serpent lifted up by Moses in the Wilderness. Jesus is that solid ground in the wilderness, that place to bring our problems and our trials, and to be heard.

For we are told in the gospel, “God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Jesus.”

God does not put serpents in our paths; God gives us Jesus, the person to whom we may appeal when the serpents are nipping at our heels. The person who will hear us when we are whiny and complaining. The person whose teachings will remind us to have perspective, to have hope.

And what does Jesus remind us to do, when we are stuck in Greiner, Zanner mode? He reminds us to ask ourselves: what can we change about this situation? Who is really suffering? Have we tried to see the situation from a different perspective?

Perhaps we can be reassured by the fact that people are not so different today compared to the days of the Exodus. Maybe that’s more disappointing than reassuring. But let’s face it, we are also quick to forget the good thing that happened yesterday in the midst of the lousy thing that’s happening today. We judge first and open our minds later. We are often our own worst serpents.

We are mid-way through Lent. This would be my challenge to you for this week. Take some time to think about your complaints. Those things that really upset you. The people or action you hear yourself grumbling, even whining, about. And then ask yourself, am I being a whiner, grumbler? Am I creating my own serpent? Is this worth the time and energy I have put into it? Or, would I do better to change perspective and invest my energy elsewhere?

It is hard to stare deeply at the parts of ourselves that are miserly and mean. But Jesus is not here to condemn us for our imperfections. We will not be abandoned in the wilderness. Jesus is here to face the serpents with us, and to help us save ourselves from them.


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