“Are we THERE yet?”
This is what the 5th and 6th graders wanted to know. We had LITERALLY not been out of the parking lot of Eagle Eyrie retreat center for more than 10 minutes headed home to Richmond.
I told them we were there, which puzzled them.
But what confused them more was 2 hours later, when we all knew we SHOULD be on an interstate of some kind, and we found that we were instead traveling in a 45 MPH zone…which turned onto a thinner road with 35MPH a sign. We drove by sleepy looking neighborhoods and then it looked like the GPS was going to take us down a dirt road.
We were NOT LOST. Not exactly.
We had just been listening to music, talking, laughing, passing candy, we had missed the BEST and FASTEST way home, and we were taking some crazy backroads. Thankfully we were still well-stocked with popcorn, skittles, and Hersey’s chocolate.
“But, where ARE we?” The youth wanted to know. And as I looked in the rearview mirror, I have to say, it felt as if the youth were losing confidence in their leaders. Their faces looked as if they were straining to imagine a scenario where we arrived safely back in the parking lot in Short Pump to meet their parents.
It’s hard to say if the Israelites are LOST – God IS leading them after all – but they sure are taking some crazy backroads. I mean their trip has taken so long, people have started dying of old age. Miriam dies. Then Aaron dies. And when this starts happening, as you might guess, the people lose confidence in Moses. And these traveling Hebrews who are somewhere between their beginning in Egyptand their hoped-for ending in a promised land don’t have skittles to pass, or Taylor Swift tunes to crank in order to lift their spirits And man do they need cheering up!
First, they complained that the water in the desert was bitter, so God showed Moses how to sweeten it. Then they complained about being hungry, so God gave them manna. Then they asked for meat, so God gave them quail. But nothing makes them happy and they continue to grumble to God about their leaders, until finally they’ve been out there so long and so many years have passed that they grumble against God himself. And complaining about their leaders is one thing but complaining about GOD is another.
So, God has had enough and sends fiery serpents among the people, and they bite the people, so that many of the Israelites die.
But the people repent.
They admit their guilt in speaking against God and even apologize for speaking against Moses and ask Moses to pray that the Lord will take away the fiery serpents. And Moses prays and God has compassion.
In a startling turn of events, God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole, raise it up so that all eyes can see it, and when anyone who has been bitten looks at this bronze serpent, they will live.
By looking at the very thing that has caused them misery, not looking away or covering their eyes, but having to look at the source of their pain, the Israelites are given healing and life.
You and I just stood together and confessed our sin – personally and individually and collectively with all humankind — with our violence and inability to feed the hungry, and our apathy in the face of other peoples’ suffering– and by looking at the source of our misery, and by not hiding from it, by refusing to pretend it doesn’t exist, by acknowledging that our pain and failure is our own fault – we are opened to receive healing.
The life we hold fast is the new beginning God has made from our ending. In baptism, God puts to death our sin and selfishness and forgives us and gives us a new start.
The Israelites are healed, not by some magic bronze sculpture hoisted above Moses head, but by the repentance it inspires.
Their suffering comes to an end when they finally begin to acknowledge that they were wrong to speak against the God who delivered them out of slavery.
OUR suffering comes to an end when we tell the truth to God and to ourselves that we need God, we can’t make it in life without God, we are completely dependent on God’s goodness to survive.
We would never have to wrestle with this strange story from Numbers if the writer of the Gospel of John didn’t recall it as an image that helps us make sense of Jesus.
But John tells us that in the same way that the serpent was lifted up
in the wilderness so that all who looked at it received healing, so Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised up from the empty tomb, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, so that all who look to Jesus see God’s healing power.
In the cross we see OUR sickness and pain placed on Jesus, who takes it willing FROM US so that we might be rescued and healed.
In the cross we see God takes the sickness and sin of the whole world.
He takes all that is ruined and depraved and spoiled and sour and evil-intentioned. He takes it, and in return he gives us love, kindness, friendship,
And so we see in Jesus the depth of God’s love and we know we can trust God
– Not just as in idea we subscribe to – But we can TRUST God with our life
so that our relationship with God informs our life, our choices, and our actions.
The Israelites are healed in the wilderness when they look at the bronze serpent
EVEN THOUGH the fiery snakes are still at their feet — God doesn’t get rid of them!
But they can look to God and trust him, so that they pick up their feet and keep walking, keep traveling those crazy backroads, believing God will lead them to the new beginning he has promised.
And we can pick up OUR FEET and keep walking.
The cross is revealed as God’s healing for a world against God, and against itself, and the Holy Spirit helps us to trust God.
So we can pick up our feet and keep walking through the world in which we are called to work with co-workers who are hard to respect,
to forgive the spouse who frustrates us,
to invest in the friendship that takes more than it gives,
to pray for the person that we don’t want to pray for,
and to try to live a virtuous life and make decisions based on kindness when it feels like our culture has judged that passé.
We pick up our feet and keep walking because Jesus invites us to walk with him
on the adventure of love that is not returned.
Sometimes the love Jesus calls us to give is not returned to us by the world, but Jesus fills us with trust in God’s love and God’s healing.
We aren’t dependent on the love we might receive from the world,
So we can be completely focused on lifting up Jesus….
in our words and in our speech,
in the lives of our youth,
and in the service we do.
In youth group last week, we watched a video provided by the ELCA to prepare us for our trip to Houston this coming summer.
In the video, in a public outdoor mall a crowd is gathered in front of a huge x-ray screen, perhaps 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide.
Just like the crowd that is gathered, as we watch the video we see images of people standing behind the screen. But all we see are skeletons of the real people behind the screen. As the people behind the screen move; as they dance, walk around, hug one another — we can’t see the person’s skin color or their gender, their sexual orientation or how much money they make, if they have a cognitive disability or their religion.
Its only when the people walk out from around the corner of the screen, we see their bodies in all their detail:
We see a couple in love, holding hands, one Asian and one black,
We see a woman who is Hindu and a pastor who is female linking arms,
We see 2 sisters, one looks to have a cognitive disability, smiling and laughing,
We see a young family with a daughter who has two mothers,
We see a couple married 50 years on their walkers, in a bear hug.
On the screen we read:
“Love has no gender.”
“Love has no race.”
“Love has no disability.”
“Love has no age.”
“Love has no religion.”
Unfortunately, the church didn’t make this video.
But we should’ve.
And the last line we read should be:
“Love is Jesus.”
God is Christ loves the world, and especially all those people who have ever been judged or bullied or hated.
Jesus has been given to us and to the whole world, to each and every human person, to all of us who are just alike, in that we are:
in need of healing,
and loved by God.
We are called to love as God loves.
Are we there yet?
On this journey,
By God’s grace,
today we are given a new beginning.
We have a God who LITERALLY forgives the past and who is present with us as we walk into this new day.
Come and see Jesus lifted up for you.
And may the love that is poured out on us in Jesus, fill us and overflow in our lives, as the Holy Spirit inspires us to give our life away for the sake of the world.