Creekside Church
Sermon of March 8, 2020

"Snakes on a Plain"
John 3:1-17

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! This is the second Sunday of Lent, and we are continuing our Lenten series, Holy Manna: food for body and spirit. As I noted last week, during Lent, I will be referring to scriptures in both the Old and the New Testaments, and seeing how Old Testament history and stories influenced the New Testament, and how the story and the words of Christ might affect our understanding of the Old Testament.

If you are someone who has memorized passages of scripture, or even if you’ve just picked some of it by exposure -- viruses aren’t the only thing which can be shared by community transmission -- you are almost certainly familiar with John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Last week we talked about the importance of a balance of spirit and body, of belief and behavior: this is a key text in the New Testament because it so clearly lays out core beliefs of Christianity: God loves the world, Jesus is God’s Son, believing in Jesus is the difference between life and death. This is pretty intellectual stuff: it’s a lot about belief; there is not so much here which tells us how we ought to act, or behave. The statement, made by Jesus himself, happens in the context of a much longer conversation with a leader of the Jews, a man named Nicodemus, who comes to visit Jesus at night. We don’t know exactly how this conversation when down, but it fits into the broader structure of the book of John which presents a series of signs which point to Jesus as the Messiah, God’s chosen. There are seven of these signs, and their impact and wonder increases a bit each time: the first is the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine, this conversation with Nicodemus is the second, and the final sign is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

As I understand it, in the original Greek of this discussion with Nicodemus there’s a lot of clever word play: we lose that in translation, although there does seem to be some willful misunderstanding on Nicodemus’ part about being born again, and the difference between being born of the flesh and being born of the spirit: hint, they are both life-changing experiences, but only one involves emerging from a womb. The Old Testament connection is in John 3:14 and 15 -- and it goes by pretty quickly. You might miss it, or not understand the full context, unless you are an Old Testament scholar. Jesus and Nicodemus are both Jewish rabbis, so by definition they are Old Testament scholars -- Jesus is using theological shorthand, a little rabbi shop talk, knowing that Nicodemus understand the larger context.

Here’s verses 14 and 15: And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Obviously, this is an Old Testament reference. Moses and the wilderness equals the children of Israel freed from slavery in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for forty years before they reach the promised land. This is the formation story of the Jewish people. It’s also, of course, the narrative which introduces us to manna: manna is the flaky white substance which the Israelites pick up each morning (except the Sabbath) which allows them to survive in the wilderness. But what’s this about Moses lifting up a serpent? Jesus is referencing the story we find in Numbers 21:4-9; the people of Israel have been in the wilderness for years, and they are complaining: you brought us out here to die. We have no food and no water, and we hate this food. Kind of like a kid who sits down at the dinner table, looks at the plate of vegetables, and complains that there’s nothing to eat. The Israelites had food, but it was the same darn stuff -- that manna-- they’d be eating for years, and they were sick of it. They complain about Moses, and they complain about God. That is a risky thing to do. God hears their complaints, and sends poisonous snakes among them, and the snakes bite people, and many people die. The Israelites realize that they sinned by speaking against God and against Moses, and they repent and ask Moses if he can pray to God to take the snakes away. And here’s what God tells Moses to do: make a serpent and put it on a pole; everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. So Moses makes a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bites someone, they could look at that snake and live.

And Jesus tells Nicodemus, just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must I be lifted up, so that whoever believes in me may have eternal life. See how much significance is packed into that comment about the snakes in the wilderness? When we understand that context, John 3:16 has an even richer meaning: it is a warning wrapped in a promise. People are sinful: we complain, we want more than we need, we curse God when we don’t get what we want. The consequence of sin is death. Not necessarily death by serpent, but death. Cursing God is spiritual death even more surely than being bit by a poisonous snake. If looking at a snake could save you from that physical death, than the answer to the human condition of sin is Jesus Christ, lifted up on a cross. The perfect human, the Son of God, is our salvation; the answer to the human condition of sin: something we all inherited from Adam and Eve. Through Jesus Christ, God restores the world to God’s perfect intention for all people, starting with Adam and Eve -- that intention is eternal life.

See how deftly Jesus uses this story from the Old Testament to explain to Nicodemus -- and to any reader of the New Testament -- how Jesus is part of God’s plan to save the world which God loves? That Old Testament story which we might have otherwise overlooked contributes to our understanding of Jesus, our sin, and the salvation of the cross. That’s all pretty intellectual stuff, but it is at the heart of what we believe as Christians.

I said last week that I would suggest a practice for you to try for each week of Lent: these are intended to be flexible, you can do them in combination or modify them however you like. These are suggestions to give you a practical, embodied way to experience the holy manna of God’s provision. Last week I suggested slowing, which is taking a favorite food and eating it very slowly, and remembering where it came from, how it got to you, and thanking God for the goodness which God provides.

I spent some time considering how we might experience being fed in the wilderness. I don’t have manna to give you, but here is a suggestion: for at least one meal this coming week, eat only food which is not processed, or raw foods. It could be raw vegetables, a fresh salad or fresh fruit. It could also be dried fruit or nuts and could include honey or nut milk, like almond milk. You don’t have to be super legalistic about this: the point is to change-up your routine in some way, to be aware of the things which God and farmers and fruit-growers and bee keepers provide which sustain our lives without us doing much more than gathering it (and paying for it).

An entire meal of raw foods may be less than you are accustomed to eating. You may even feel like complaining against Pastor Rosanna for having you try this. Go ahead: that is part of what I want you to be aware of. It was certainly part of the Israelite experience. Complain about me, but don’t blame God. God is the one who has provided the means for this food to be grown to sustain human life. If you worked on the Ration Challenge packaging, you might have an idea of how little rice, lentils and chickpeas -- stuff with very few vitamins -- we were putting in those packages to last a person for a week. If you are tempted to complain, remember that many people -- including children -- exist on much less week in and week out.

I need to pause here for a moment of confession: I wrote that last paragraph while I was hurriedly eating a frozen dinner, because I needed to get on to another commitment so I could make my next appointment. Is eating a frozen dinner a sin? I hope not. But as Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If I choose to spend my days rushing from one thing to another and don’t take time to slow down and consider God’s goodness and care, I am being formed by a perception of scarcity. I may be getting plenty of food -- even if it’s of indifferent quality -- but I have chosen to live as though I don’t have enough time: not just as if I don’t have enough time to savor and give thanks for the food I have, but not enough time to give the things I say I believe--that God is good, that Jesus is God’s Son and that Jesus came to give us eternal life -- priority in my day. I don’t want to be too hard on myself or on you, but it was a good reminder for me that little things: especially the little things we do over and over day in and day out, are really big things in how we live our beliefs.

This morning we will have the service of anointing . . . seem insignificant, even invisible; you can’t see the oil when you leave his place. Sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of this family of faith. It’s a way to carry that awareness with us into the coming week, an acknowledgement that we commit to be open to God’s Spirit, and shaped by something more powerful than ourselves and our own agendas. It is a sign that we belong to God and are seeking to be God’s people, body and spirit.


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