Reading Ramblings – March 11, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2018

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

Context: Past the halfway mark in Lent, it’s easy to start thinking ahead to Easter. But we need to take our time. Give ourselves time to immerse ourselves in the waiting, the anticipation, and the reflection that should stem from what comes ahead. But this requires remembering why the events of Holy Week came to pass. Not just the victorious empty tomb, but the cross and the burial beforehand. The death of Jesus is not a tragic accident but rather wrapped into a divine plan to rescue creation from sin and death and our ancient enemy, Satan. This is not something we can accomplish on our own, but rather must trust solely in God’s gracious goodness for our reconciliation, just as the snake-afflicted Israelites had to trust to a rather strange sculpture in the center of camp to save them from the venomous bites. The life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God all have a purpose – the salvation of creation and the glory of God.

Numbers 21:4-9 – Impatience and ingratitude are hallmarks of people, and certainly when in a group feelings of discontent can quickly bubble into dangerous situations. Quickly forgotten are the children murdered by the Egyptians, or the horrible demands made of the Israelites in order to work them to death. Now they are no longer amazed by the miraculous appearance of manna every morning. They weary of wandering. God’s reaction is swift. If they prefer death in Egypt, He can certainly oblige them without all the hassle of journeying back to Egypt. Venomous snakes infiltrate the Israelite camp, and those who complained against the goodness of God now wail in the midst of divine judgment. But in the midst of this the people recognize their fault and repent, and God forgives them and offers them life and mercy instead of the death they were demanding in their stupidity so recently. God’s righteousness requires that evil be punished for what it is, but God’s mercy insists that where there is repentance, punishment should not be given. What happens on a small scale in the middle of the desert 3400 years ago or so is played out on the cosmic stage 2000 years ago with the death and resurrection of the Son of God.

Psalm 107:1-9 – Hundreds of years later, the psalmist captures what the appropriate response of God’s people should have been to rescue from slavery and genocide and miraculous sustenance in the wilderness! The author may have this period of history in mind, and it certainly is right to praise God for his goodness to his people in the past. Yet we are also called to offer praise here and now for his continued presence and work in our lives and in his creation. Perhaps it is more often than not easier to look backwards to see God’s grace than to see it here and now. It is easier when the unpleasantness or discomfort of the moment passes to paint God’s work in a glowing haze, obscuring the fuller picture of our sinful responses in the moment. We are called by God’s goodness to his people in the past to expect and look for his goodness to us today, creating a chain of praises to God that extend throughout creation history.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – What are our complaints against God? How has He failed us? In what way has He deprived us of any good thing? God has answered our most primal need – addressing not the material wants and needs that occupy so much of our time and energy, but rather our deepest spiritual and existential crises – our brokenness and separation from God resulting in death. So deep is our brokenness that we put off these issues, this disjunct at the center of our being and our existence, content to be distracted and misled by the prince of the power of the air – insubstantial but convincing all the same. In our foolish distractions we continue in the wrath of God. It is from this that we have been saved, for this that we are to give God thanks and praise. It is these deepest issues that are at the center of our new life in Christ and to God’s glorious praise. While we still deal with the reality of sin and death in our world, we do so in the assurance and hope that these are transitory things, and that all things are, in fact, being remade new in Christ. We couldn’t accomplish this. We were dead in our sin, unable to save ourselves. We can only receive what God is doing through Jesus Christ in awe and gratitude and praise, as well as in transformed lives where we are now truly able to love one another in meaningful and holy ways.

John 3:14-21 – Jesus meets at night with Nicodemus, a pharisee and likely a member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish religious authority that still was granted nominal authority under the Romans to attend to matters of doctrine and practice of the Jewish faith. Nicodemus is mentioned several times in John’s gospel but not in the other gospels. The fact that he meets Jesus at night may not be so much an effort to be covert as it is a demonstration of Jesus’ popularity – it was difficult to get any one-on-one time with Jesus during the day, when He was the object of the admiration and curiosity and delight of the crowds He healed and taught. Today’s reading picks up with Jesus drawing the parallel between what God does for his people in Numbers 21 and what God will do through his chosen suffering servant, the Son of Man.

The Old Testament is history, to be sure. But as God works throughout all of history, He is able to weave in and through it patterns and themes that repeat. And in terms of Biblical history, those patterns and the specific events anticipate the coming of the Son of God who would suffer and die for creation. We read the Bible for history – family history at that! – but also to help guide us as we continue to watch and wait for God’s fulfillment of his promise to us in Christ’s return. This prompts Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ incredulity. If Nicodemus knew his Scripture as more than history, he would not be so perplexed by the person and work of Jesus.

Towards this end Jesus clarifies – as the serpent in Numbers 21, Jesus is not sent as a punishment but rather as a rescue. He is grace, not the Law. The Law is already here and does it’s work of convicting us and pointing us towards death, just as surely as the serpents did. Jesus comes only as grace, the alternative to the death we are already headed towards. The serpent’s venom has done it’s work and it only remains as to whether we will accept the free grace of God in repentance of our sin that kills us, or whether we will in bitter rage cling to our sin and reject God’s grace, preferring death and eternal separation to admitting our error.

This is the real possibility of sin – that we prefer our sin to God’s clarifying and redeeming light. That we prefer what we think ourselves to be rather than what God declares we can be. God will not force our love. He will allow us to continue our darkened path, rejecting his light and salvation. But this is merely an affirmation of the state we are already in, rather than a new judgment.

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