Reading Ramblings – March 15, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Context: We are more than halfway through the Lenten season. Although Holy Week is technically part of the Lenten season, it is celebrated in a different way starting with Palm Sunday, so there is only one more ordinary Sunday in this Lenten season.

Numbers 21:4-9 – This can be a challenging reading. God sending serpents to punish his people is not necessarily an image of God many modern readers are comfortable with. Yet we see a cycle in this reading. This is not the first time God’s people have cried out to him for help. They cried out to him in Egypt, also, when they were being systematically oppressed and killed by their Egyptian masters (Exodus 2:23-25). God rescued them when they cried out. Yet now they complain and cry out to God against his care for them. Despite God providing food and water for them repeatedly in the wilderness, they continue to cry out against him. The serpents are a reminder of the death that they would surely have already suffered in Egypt had God not saved them. Faced with actual death rather than the imagined death they complained of before, God’s people repent. And once again, God provides a rescue for his people.

Psalm 107:1-9 – Verses 1-3 are a straightforward call to praise God. Verse one asserts the goodness of God and verse two invites the worshipers to affirm this truth. The psalm then identifies four separate groups that have received the blessings of God. The reading assigned for today only includes the first group – those who wandered and experienced hunger and thirst. Although not necessarily written with an eye towards Numbers 21, it certainly might hearken back in general to when the people of God wandered in the wilderness. The importance is less the particular struggle (wandering/hunger/thirst), and more so the appropriate response now, on the other side of rescue – thanksgiving to God who provides more than just meat and bread to sate our physical needs, but satisfies our spiritual needs (v.9).

Ephesians 2:1-10 – The theme of God’s mercy in the face of our sinful rebelliousness continues. Paul reminds his hearers/readers that at one time they were indeed enemies of God, their hearts hardened against him in their sinfulness. This is a bold accusation to make, considering at least some of Paul’s hearers/readers are Jews, people who considered themselves in right relationship to God! How might Christians hear these words today, perhaps brought up in the Church and never having known of a particular time in their life when they didn’t know God?

For one, we should remember that there is still the “prince of the power of the air”, the enemy of God who, unable to assault God, contents himself with the suffering and rebellion of God’s creation. If we consider ourselves to be morally neutral without God we are wrong. As Luther stated, we are slaves. We are by nature slaves to the evil leader of this present age, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our chains are broken and we are made slaves in Christ. We are saved, and we were in need of saving – whether we realized it or not. Our present condition of grace through Jesus Christ has nothing to do with our moral character or self-discipline or innate goodness. Rather, it is all to the credit of God the Father through God the Son. We have no room to boast, to feel superior or smug. We have been given everything (vs.6-7), but the emphasis is on the giver, who is God.

But Paul continues after many of us would prefer to stop reading. There is more to the story. We have been given everything in Christ, but we are no longer our own. We are indeed slaves to Christ, with the idea that we are to evidence in our lives the richness of his forgiveness and mercy. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

John 3:14-21 – Jesus is engaged in a late-night study session with Nicodemus. Jesus’ days are rather full with teaching and the demands of the crowds and his disciples, so perhaps it is only at night that Nicodemus can find Jesus alone and able to talk with him more at length. Jesus identifies himself with the Numbers 21 incident. Jesus himself shows us how to read the Old Testament typologically – seeing in and through the Old Testament references and foreshadowings to Jesus himself.

The event in the wilderness was real and true and historical. It is not a story invented to prove a point but an actual occurrence that mattered a great deal to many people involved. Yet in that real incident, there is a foreshadowing of Christ. The bronze serpent was lifted up as the means of saving those who had been bitten by the snake. Likewise, Jesus himself will be lifted up on the cross, as the means of saving all of us who have been bitten by the snake – Satan and sin. It seems so simple, too easy to our modern ears and eyes used to relying on a pill or an injection. Simply to look up in faith, to trust in the salvation extended, and in that trust to live.

For those who object and balk at the idea of being slaves to Christ (and we all balk at one level or another, sooner or later!), we must remember the nature of Christ. Christ does not come to condemn. We are not slaves with a fearful and terrible master. Rather, Christ comes to save. We are slaves in him who offered himself in exchange for us. We are already dead. Jesus does not arrive in the world to kill those who will not receive him. There is no need for that. Like the people dying of the serpent bites, death is our condition. In being raised up Jesus provides only forgiveness, only grace and hope and life itself. Not condemnation but pardon. Not death but life.

There is nothing we can do or say to add to this. The people dying of serpent bites could only look up towards the bronze serpent and they were saved. We are directed to the elevated Son of God and told to trust and live.

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