Sunday, March 30, 2003

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3,17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

He sendeth his word, and healeth them, And delivereth them from their destructions.

We can't turn on the television or open a newspaper without seeing the evidence of what a messed up world it is in which we live. Not only on the news itself, but also in the things we consider entertainment. Sex, violence and greed are touted as good, while decency and human kindness are often rejected or ridiculed. Even those shows that are nostalgic, looking back to a simpler era, manage to find the worst things about human nature. Television commercials use depravity to sell products and most relationships are based on a 'what can I get out of it' perspective.

It is hard not to be upset by so much bad news and misplaced loyalty. What is there to rejoice about? Christ seems lost amid the myriad of religious possibilities, where spirituality is seen as a personal choice rather than as a gift from God. Yet, just as I am about to get lost in despair, our Father lays before us the most wonderful set of scriptures. There is nothing more uplifting than a reminder of God's grace.

Things weren't going very well for the Israelites after they left Egypt. They had nearly made it to the Promised Land when they rebelled against God and Moses. They decided it would be better to go back to Egypt than to face the battle ahead of them against a stronger enemy. They even wanted to stone those who wanted to trust God to take them into the new land that was flowing with milk and honey. God said to Moses, "How long will this people despise me? and how long will they not believe in me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them?  I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they." (Numbers 14:11-12) But Moses told the Lord that if He did such a thing, the nations would say that God was not able to do as He promised.

God had mercy on the Israelites and forgave their rebellion, but He refused to allow that generation to enter into the Promised Land, so He sent them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. During that time the Israelites got hungry for good things to eat, thirsty for fresh water. They became tired, disgruntled and impatient. In today's lesson they once again spoke against God and Moses. "Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread." The writer tells us that God sent venomous snakes that killed many Israelites. The people repented. They told Moses, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against Jehovah, and against thee; pray unto Jehovah, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people." So, Moses prayed. God had mercy on the people and commanded Moses to make a bronze snake on a pole. Anyone who was bitten could look upon it for healing.

These people, perhaps a million or more, roamed in the desert for forty years. Imagine if the Israelites had decided to leave Egypt on their own. They would have faced many dangers along the way - no food or water, dangerous enemies and natural catastrophe. Have you ever wondered why they did not face the dangers of the wilderness? It is because God was with them. He guarded and protected His people. Yet, when they turned away from Him - when they complained about His purpose and thought they knew a better way - they suffered the consequences. They rejected God's grace and went out from under the cover of His love. As soon as they repented, the moment they realized their sin and trusted God, He saved them from themselves. He healed them and saved them from the grave.

The Psalmist tells us, "Fools because of their transgression, And because of their iniquities, are afflicted.  Their soul abhorreth all manner of food; And they draw near unto the gates of death." This could refer to the incident in the wilderness as well as numerous other times when Israel rebelled against the goodness of God. It can even refer to the world today. The Israelites had manna from heaven, but in this age we have the Lord Jesus who is the Bread of Life. Those who continue to reject the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus draw ever closer to the gates of death. Yet, just as He saved them from the venomous snakes in the desert, God is ready with salvation for those who cry out to Him. "He sendeth his word, and healeth them, And delivereth them from their destructions."

That word is Jesus Christ, the living God in flesh who came to save the world. In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus identifies Himself with the bronze serpent. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life." As we watch the news and other programs, we can see how humankind continues to suffer from our own rebellion against God. Too many suffer death and the grave because they do not know to look toward Jesus for healing and eternal life. John continues this lesson with the words in which so many have found comfort and peace. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.  For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him." In the midst of this world filled with sex, violence and greed, we can look toward Jesus and there find peace.

We learn from the story of the Israelites in the wilderness that we cannot do it ourselves. It is impossible to be set free from the burdens we carry without the love and mercy of God going with us. When we turn away from God and try to do it on our own, we suffer the consequences. This scripture from Paul to the Ephesians once again shows how God lifted Christ up for our sake. We are no different than those in the desert, or even those in this world who make the news or have misplaced loyalty. The only difference between believers and nonbelievers is those who believe know where to look for salvation. We are made alive - healed and rescued from the grave - through Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory."

There's not much I can do about the bad news on the television. We live in a messed up world, one that has been messed up since the beginning when Adam and Eve tried to go it on their own. We still try to do things our way, to rely on ourselves and put our trust in the things of this world that will perish. Yet, we need not fall into despair. We need only look to the One who brings eternal life, our Lord Jesus Christ. When the world seems to be falling apart around us, in faith we move forward in God's grace, sharing the Gospel of Christ to those who are still lost in the darkness of sin and death. This is what God has created us, freed us and gifted to do. As Paul wrote, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them."

There is hope in a messed up world. His name is Jesus. Thanks be to God. 

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