Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so we are now twenty-five days towards reaching our goal of forty days of sacrifice.
When one is almost four weeks into the wilderness, knowing there is still another two weeks to go, you can’t let your mind start looking ahead to the end, or start looking back at the ways things used to be … if you want to have your wilderness period be meaningful.
In today’s readings we are presented the repeated theme of Moses and the Nehustan … the pole with the bronze serpent.
That became necessary because the Israelites got deep into their time in the wilderness and then they became impatient.
The Israelites started remembering all those wonderful foods they used to eat in Egypt, but had been doing without for so long … sacrificing.
They heard that Moses’ plan was to have them cross the Red Sea and walk north, through Edom, and into Canaan … but the Edomonite ruler had said, “Nope. Not gonna do that. Request denied.”
So, there was a change in plans … once again.
More delays! More time to spend SACRIFICING!
The promise of a bountiful land seemed so far out of reach, and after leaving behind a land that the people were used to … for sacrifice that seemed to go on forever.
Many Israelites snapped.
They gave up the commitment to do without. They had had enough. They told Moses the manna and quail menu was terrible, compared to what they deserved.
They were like people who wanted a promising reward of a new lifestyle, but that dream was too much trouble to obtain.
The gave up giving up … or, in Lenten terms, they stopped doing what they had been doing … in a protest of impatience.
What happened then was God sent poisonous snakes to bite the Israelites, killing many of them.
The symbolism of snakes, today, more than the reality of people being bitten and dying from snake venom in the days of Moses in the wilderness is the same as “falling off the wagon.”
When you lose control of yourself … become impatient about things not being as good as you would want them to be … so you let yourself get way out of control. You not only return to doing those sinful things your body craves … you binge on what you should avoid.
Sin takes hold of you and shakes you like a rag-doll in the teeth of a rabid cur.
This isn’t a rabid cur, but it gets the point across.
Death is more than simply ceasing to breath and have a heart pumping blood through a body … more than having a brain that functions … when hooked up to a machine that registers brain impulses.
Death is symbolic of losing the ability to control your body’s lusts, wants, desires, and addictions.
When we read that “many Israelites died” of poisonous snake bites in the wilderness, we should register that as saying, “many Israelites stopped obeying God and returned to worshipping sin, leaving themselves unprotected from the dangers of the world.”
“Death” then means no possibility of eternal life with God, in Heaven.
Death means failure to sacrifice for the divine, choosing instead the momentary gratification of THINGS.
In David’s Psalm 107, he called those who choose death over eternal bliss, “Fools,” as those who “took rebellious ways.”
The Israelites were fools who shunned the LORD, choosing to lie on the ground with snakes.
Many of those foolish Israelites died.
Now, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he said such actions are commonplace. He wrote of “following the desires of flesh and senses,” and how human beings, “by nature [were] children of wrath. Thus, the Israelites, like Jews and Gentiles, [are] “like everyone.”
Thus, we all are inclined to be impatient, complain about our lives not going the way we want it to go, and we blame God for all our miseries. As Paul wrote, we prefer to “follow the course of this world.”
We are more inclined to beat God with our tongues, more than we are prepared to beat a poisonous snake with a club.
In the Gospel reading today, from John, we see Jesus having an encounter with the Pharisee named Nicodemus. While not read today, John wrote that Nicodemus “was a member of the Jewish ruling council.”
The Greek word written by John was “archon,” which, based on what Strong’s says the word means, says that Nicodemus was “an official member (a member of the executive) of the assembly of elders.”
He was one of seventy members.
That means he was a councilman of “the Great Sanhedrin, which was the supreme court of ancient Israel, made up of 70 men and the high priest. In the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem.”
It would be the Sanhedrin that would informally and formally try Jesus, convict him, and let the Romans crucify him. This, then, identifies the core being of who Nicodemus was.
Certainly, there are those who make it seem possible that Nicodemus was a friend of Jesus, because he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus was not a friend of Jesus.
Nicodemus was a poisonous snake in the grass.
He said pleasing words to Jesus, as a trick to get him to lay down and let the serpent slither an idea or two in his ear.
Before Jesus told Nicodemus about what Moses did, according to our reading today, it is important to realize that any reference to Moses was a reference to the Pharisees’ god. The Pharisees, as “lawyers,” bowed down before the Law of Moses.
Prior to that inference, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus could not see that in terms that were symbolic, causing him to ridicule Jesus by asking, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus then said to Nicodemus, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
In essence, Nicodemus reflected those Israelites who turned away from God, losing all patience, and who insulted God for having fed them manna and quail … not the food of royalty.
After all … if you are God’s chosen people, shouldn’t you be seen as rulers by common folk?
The Pharisees felt they were above sin, so they had been bitten by sin and were dead to God. THEY needed to be born again, like were the Israelites saved by Moses’ bronze serpent.
But, like a ghost who remains on the earthly plane, they did not know they were dead.
That is why Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Moses crafted a snake out of bronze, which (when polished) brightly reflected the light of the Sun. It was then raised up high, attached to a pole that was placed into the ground.
God told Moses to do that to save those who repented for having turned away from God. Because they turned away from God, they were bitten by poisonous snakes.
Those Israelites bitten by poisonous snakes were as good as dead … BUT … their heads were raised up to see the light of a metal-tested serpent on a pole and they were saved.
They died as impatient, sinning Israelites, and they were reborn as believing servants of the LORD.
That was when Jesus went into his explanation to Nicodemus, about darkness (sin) versus light (salvation).
Jesus said, “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”
Nicodemus slithered up to have a chat with Jesus “at night,” after the Sun had gone down.
That means Nicodemus came at a time that is common for all human beings to seek, when they have something to hide. He planned to come in darkness, so no one could clearly see it was him … a member of the council … talking with this rebel that made waves during the Passover.
We have to be able to see ourselves as Nicodemus. We have to be able to see ourselves as having something to hide. We have to see ourselves as people who cannot grasp being reborn.
Sure, it is so common we all admittedly come to church saying, “Forgive us God, for we have sinned,” but we keep the specifics of those sins private.
We shroud our sins in darkness. We prefer being seen as a holy Pharisee, rather than a low-life scumbag.
Paul admitted, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of the flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
BUT … God gave life to those who were dead from the poisonous snakebites of sin, through Christ.
“By Christ” means, “By grace we have been saved through faith.” FAITH is not your own doing, as it is only possible through the gift of God. That gift is known as the Holy Spirit.
When one is filled with the Holy Spirit, NOTHING our bags of self-flesh do is based on our will … our works.
We cannot boast of being servants of the LORD, when we are graced with His power … not ours.
We receive the power of the Holy Spirit ONLY WHEN we can handle the responsibility … when we have the patience … when we leave the darkness behind and enter into the light.
LENT is ALL about finding the light, ALL about leaving the darkness behind.
Paul said, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
When your eyes can open and you can see that truth … ask yourself:
“What am I going to do to celebrate the first day after Lent?”
“Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.”