March 15, 2015 – 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The other day a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. Perhaps you saw it. It was a photograph of a digital scale, and she included a celebratory description, indicating that this was the first time in a long while that she had been on the “good side” of this particular milestone weight. I must confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that my first thought wasn’t congratulatory. Instead. I wondered aloud to myself, “What is she thinking? I wouldn’t share a picture of my weight on Facebook even if I lost a hundred pounds!”
You see, for me, weight has always been an issue. I was chosen last for the kickball team. My cousins made fun of the shape of my body. I cried because they didn’t make Guess jeans in husky sizes. For almost my whole life, my weight has been one of those personal failures that I do not share with anyone. In fact, I barely even share it with myself.
But I love standardized tests. I delight in performance evaluations. I look forward to high school reunions. I even enjoy the machine in the pharmacy where I can hold really still and breathe really slowly and get my pulse and my blood pressure down to a level that astonishes most people. I love those things because I am good at them—because they are ways that I can demonstrate to the rest of the world that I am a success. But my scale is another story.
When I am in a good pattern of running three or four times a week, I will hop on the scale—as long as no one else is around—and look down at the number to see how I am doing. But, when things get busy and I am not able to exercise the way I know I should, I won’t go anywhere near the scale. I know it’s bad, but I don’t want to see that number staring up at me. I’d rather pretend that things are worse than they really are than know the ugly truth. I’m like the guy—and it’s almost always a guy—who has had some terrifying symptoms for years but refuses to go to the doctor because it’s not really real until someone in a white coat with letters after her name gives it a diagnosis.
No one likes confronting his physical or professional or relational failures. Even though we know that they exist, we don’t want to encounter them. So what, then, does that say about sin? What is it like to confront your spiritual shortcomings? What is it like to come face to face with the ways that you have let God down?
You’ve heard the story about the Episcopalian or Presbyterian not wanting to wait in a long line at the liquor store. As soon as he walks in the door, he boldly declares, “Oh, Brother Billy! What are you doing here—looking for sinners?” sending all the Baptists running for cover. That reminds me of how much fun it is to go to Publix right after church and catch…I mean, see…some of the parishioners who didn’t quite make it to church on Sunday morning. All joking aside, it isn’t fun to confront our sin or to have someone else confront it for us. Whether we’re kneeling down in a confessional booth or making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” no one looks forward to sharing his deepest failures with anyone else. You may not worry that the federal marshals will come and bang on your door in the middle of the night, but there are truths about yourself that you don’t want to share with another living soul. You have your own metaphorical mugshots that you don’t want to show up on the internet. If Nathaniel Hawthorne taught us anything it’s that all of us have at least one scarlet letter hiding under our shirts.
And that brings me to the bizarre story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. By this time in their journey from Egypt to the Promise Land, the people of Israel had been walking for a long, long time. Finally, they had arrived on the border of their destination, but the King of Edom refused to give them safe passage through his land. So Israel had to make a long detour out of the way. Understandably frustrated, the people began to grumble against God and against Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” they cried—not for the first time. “We are hungry and thirsty, and we have nothing to eat except this worthless manna.”
At that point, as the author of the story tells us, the Lord seemed to lose his temper, and he sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, many of whom died. In a panic, the people ran to Moses and said, “Moses, help us! We have sinned against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he might take these serpents from us.” So Moses prayed, and God offered him a solution: “Make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole, and those who are bitten shall look upon that serpent and live.” And that is exactly what Moses did, and, sure enough, whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would gaze upon the bronze snake and live.
There are many strange stories in the bible, but this story belongs somewhere near the very top of that list. God gets angry at his faithless people and sends poisonous snakes to punish them. The people have a change of heart and beg Moses to save them. And, after Moses prays to God, God tells him to make a serpent out of bronze—an idol, if you will—and to affix it to the top of a pole. And somehow looking at that bronze statue of a snake was enough to heal these snake-bit people. How in the world did this happen, and, more importantly, how in the world did the people who put the Hebrew scriptures together allow this story of salvation through pseudo-idol-worship to stay in the bible?
Like all passages in scripture, this story isn’t just a tale from history. It’s written in order to teach us something. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the faithless people who were saved found salvation by staring the exact consequences of their sin right in the face. Healing began when the people gazed upon the same serpent that had bit them. And where do you think that healing came from? That bronze serpent didn’t have any power to save the Israelites. Idols are empty images of metal, wood, or stone, fashioned by human hands. Only God has the power to save his people, and salvation comes through faith, and faith requires repentance, and repentance means taking a long, hard look at our sin so that we might leave it behind forever.
None of us enjoys encountering the totality of his or her failures. We’d rather hide from them or pretend that they don’t exist or stick them in a closet where they will collect dust. But the truth is that we are all snake-bit, and the only way we will ever get better is by looking in the mirror and admitting our wrongs. Confronting our sin is the first step. God asks us to believe in his promise of forgiveness—to trust that no sin, no misdeed, no failure is big enough to separate us from his love. If we are hiding our sin from ourselves and from God and from one another, we aren’t trusting in the power of his forgiveness.
There’s a reason that Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Salvation begins when we feel the freedom that comes from acknowledging our sin to a God who has pledged to love us regardless of it. Gaze not upon a fiery serpent but upon the crucified Son of God. Behold not only the magnitude of his sacrifice but also the magnitude of your sin—our sin which held him there. Look upon the manifestation of your own misdeeds as they are nailed to the cross and be saved by the one whose love will always triumph over even your biggest failures.
 From Alcoholics Anonymous. http://www.recovery.org/topics/alcoholics-anonymous-12-step/.