March 14, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

“Look at the Snake!”

Can you believe it’s been a whole year of the Covid-19 Pandemic? Sunday, March 15, 2020, was the last time that we had a public worship service in this place without limits on the numbers, sitting 6 feet apart, wearing masks, and keeping a registration list. For many of you, you haven’t even been in the sanctuary since then – the day that Nick livestreamed my sermon to Facebook as a test, just to see if it could be done.

And since then, there’s no denying that it has been a difficult year for all of us, and for some of us more than others. I know that many of you have been trying hard to see the good in all of this, despite the difficulties, and you’ve been focussing on the future and the light at the end of the tunnel.

But I expect that you’ve also been complaining. I think that most of us have been. After all, we’ve had to put our lives on hold for more than a year. We haven’t been able to worship together in our church. We’ve been separated from family and friends. We’ve cancelled plans and accepted virtual alternatives. Some of us have put ourselves at risk to keep providing essential services, and some have been devastated by the loss of loved ones, loss of employment or income, or getting sick ourselves.

We have good reason to complain, and some of us have been doing so loudly – against the public health leaders who decide on restrictions that make our lives difficult, against the politicians who roll-out vaccinations too slowly or with wrong priorities, against our neighbours who are breaking the rules and putting others at risk, against the Universe or God, or whoever was responsible for causing or not stopping this pandemic from taking place.

This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures is both unsurprising and kind of strange. In the midst of their long journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land, the Hebrew people sin. They become impatient, and they speak against God and against Moses: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the desert? For there is no bread and no water, and we hate this terrible food!”

That’s not the strange part. That sounds like a pretty reasonable complaint in a difficult situation. The strange part comes next. Instead of reassuring the people, or feeding the people, or encouraging the people to hang on just a little bit longer, God sends poisonous serpents among them. Many people are bitten, and they die.

And suddenly their attitude changes – the ones who are still alive, anyway. They immediately repent, they admit their bad attitudes and their snarky comments, and they ask Moses to ask God to help them. Moses does, and they receive these very strange instructions: “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live.”

Weird, huh? God doesn’t get rid of the poisonous serpents. And God doesn’t inoculate the people against the effects of the poison. And God doesn’t provide them with medicine to take when they get a snake bite. No, God tells them to make a bronze snake, and set it on a pole. And everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Just look at the snake.

The reality is that when we sin people get hurt. When we are unkind or unfaithful to our loved ones, the people we love are injured. When we perpetuate stereotypes or make racist comments, our neighbours are wounded.

When we fail to provide loving care for those who are sick or dying, or when we fail to provide for the poorest members of our society, or when we do not stand up for justice for all people throughout the world, people are hurt and damaged by our action or our inaction.

And God, no matter how much God loves us, does not wave a hand and wipe away the effects of our sin. No matter how much we may implore God to fix it, God does not snap her fingers and take away the hurt that we have caused by our sin. Just as God did not simply remove those poisonous serpents from the wilderness where the Hebrews were living.

Instead of taking away the snakes, God told the people to make a statue of a snake and put it on a pole. “Don’t forget that there are poisonous snakes that may come out! This is what they look like!” It was like a warning sign of sorts. When the people looked up at the snake on the pole, they remembered the effects of their sin. And maybe, when they looked at it, they changed their ways.

The text from John’s Gospel today makes reference to the first story. It begins, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.”

It’s only the fourth Sunday in Lent, but this reading is pointing us towards what we will pause to ponder on Good Friday. The author of John’s Gospel is talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. He’s telling us that the Chosen One – Jesus – had to be lifted up on a cross just like the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole. And those who see him and believe, just like those who looked up at the snake, will live.

It’s the kind of statement that can sound pretty strange, especially to those who haven’t been hanging out in church circles for years and gotten used to the language and the imagery…. You just look up at a bronze serpent and you live? You just believe in Jesus and you are saved? You live forever just because of that? How odd, and how seemingly arbitrary!

But it’s not arbitrary. Really, it’s not. What is happening in the looking is that the people are being transformed.

Whether it’s the Hebrews looking at the devastating effect of their complaining and speaking against God, or any of us looking at the terrible, horrible impact of our human sin on the Begotten One of God, we come face to face with the results of our hatred, our neglect, our jealousy, our impatience, our selfishness, our laziness, our bitterness, and our pride.

Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of the evil and injustice that is caused by our human sin, and he’s lifted up so that we can’t avoid looking at him, so that we can’t deny the things that we’ve done or failed to do. And eventually, if we are willing to look, so that we will be transformed.

John’s Gospel, including our text this morning, describes Jesus as the Light of the World. Christ is the light “that came into the world, [but] people showed they preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil.”

You see, it is Christ who shines light into darkness. Jesus’ life and ministry reveal the goodness of God, and his death on the cross reveals the sinfulness of human beings. In what Jesus does and in what is done to him, both good and evil are revealed, and we cannot help but see them.

Although God did not cause the Covid-19 Pandemic, I believe that God has been using the pandemic to shine light on a lot of things, and lifting them up for us to see.

Certainly, a lot of love and kindness and generosity has been revealed. We’ve seen people caring for their neighbours and making personal sacrifices to keep others safe. We’ve seen faith groups adapting, finding new ways to keep worshipping and serving, and going above and beyond to care for people and respond to new needs arising in their communities. The pandemic has revealed the fact that the church cannot simply be closed. Even if we are outside our buildings for more than a year, the church is the people of God living and loving and embodying Christ’s presence in the world.

But the pandemic has also revealed a lot of difficult things – not only that our health care system has limits and that a viral pandemic has the power to break them – but that our society is plagued by inequalities that must be recognized, acknowledged, and rectified. We might have predicted that Black and Indigenous people would be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We should have known that our long-term care facilities would not be able to manage such an infectious disease effectively.

Like a serpent mounted on a pole, or Christ himself lifted up on the cross, it took protests, demonstrations, and lots of media attention to begin to wake us up to the unjust systems in which we continue to participate. And the reality is that unless we are willing to look at these things, they’re going to continue to kill us – wounding our relationships, breaking our experiences of community, destroying our societies through growing conflict, hatred, and violence.

I think the only way to move towards healing is to begin telling each other the truth. And as I think about that, it’s bringing back memories of participating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings and National Event in Saskatoon some years ago.

The whole point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to make space for the truth about the Residential School system in Canada to be told and heard publicly. It wasn’t just about providing financial compensation for the students who attended the schools and were physically, sexually, or culturally abused.

And it wasn’t just about government and churches making apologies to them either, although that was and continues to be an important thing for us to do. But I think that more than anything, it was about speaking the truth. It was about survivors telling their stories and Canadians taking the time to listen and seek to understand.

Of course, looking at the effects of our sin is not easy. It’s not easy to look at the image of Christ bleeding and dying on the cross on Good Friday, and it’s not easy to sit and listen to the stories of those who were taken from their families as young children, made to live in the Residential Schools, and often physically and sexually abused.

If you attended any of the TRC hearings or national events, you may remember seeing little paper bags scattered throughout the room and marked with the word “tears.” There were many tears shed in those hearing rooms – by those who were telling their stories, by those who were sharing their pain, and by those who were coming face to face with their sin and the sin of the institutions to which we belong.

And when the people cried, we dried our eyes on tissues, and we put the tissues in those bags marked “tears.” And eventually, those tissues and the tears that they contained went into the sacred fire and they were burned. The tears of pain, and sharing the pain, and telling the truth, and hearing the truth were gathered together and burned.

And when the survivors, and their families, and others stood with them in solidarity around that sacred fire, I know that there was some healing taking place. It was the kind of healing that cannot happen when our sins are hidden in dark places, when our failures are down-played, or ignored. It was the kind of healing that only takes place when the lights are turned on, and the truth is spoken, and the sin is acknowledged.

The poisonous snake is lifted up on a pole. Our crucified Lord is lifted up on the cross. The truth about the Residential School system is told and heard and acknowledged.

But we must remember… as we journey towards Good Friday, as we acknowledge and begin to look at the systemic racism, colonialism, and ageism in our world, our society, and our churches, and as we open our eyes to see any sin within our own particular lives…

We must remember that “God did not send the Only Begotten into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved. [Yes,] God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.”

Friends, may God give us courage in the coming months and years to look at the snake, to look at the cross, and to participate with God and our neighbours in healing the world.