Psalm 130: A Season of Waiting for Morning

First LightToday’s Psalter:  Psalm 130 (Lent 5A)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;  my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.  O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.  It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

The Psalmist writes from the deepest bowels of life.  It is his or her lowest point, feeling so overwhelmed with despair, almost hopeless.  And yet, there, is the sound of the still small voice.  It’s only a whisper but it is there.  The Psalmist strains to hear, laying there in the darkness, unable to sleep, unable to see the light of the morning.  It is a Psalm of faith.  It is the expression of one who though wallowing in the depths of sadness and despair, cannot feel God’s Presence and, yet, knows in the deepest part of his or her being that God is there.  It is the writing of one who knows that there is always morning, if we will only wait.

The words of the Psalm promise us that no matter how dark the night will be, there is always morning.  There is always redemption.  The King James Version depicts it as “plenteous redemption”.  We often hear of redemption as if it is some sort of payment that God required for our sins, as if Jesus’ death was somehow foreordained because we were such sinful creatures that God could take it no more.  But redemption also means restoration, to bring something to a better state.  It is what the Psalmist knows.  God is there, though unseen, restoring, recreating, even in this moment of darkness.  Redemption is not about payment; it is about the promise of morning, the promise of life.  Redemption is not about what Jesus gave us or what Jesus did for us but what God in Christ does even now.  God brings morning.

The Psalm does not give us empty promises that “everything will be alright”.  Rather, it is honest.  Sometimes life hurts.  Sometimes life hurts more than we think we can bear.  Sometimes we have our own dark night of the soul.  But in the darkness, we learn to wait.  We learn to hope.  That is what Lent is–a waiting in the depths.  We are journeying now deeper and deeper into the darkness.  We know that it will be painful, at times even unbearable.  But our faith tells us that God is present whether or not we can feel the presence.  And so we learn to wait.  We wait through pain and betrayal and last nights together.  We wait through darkness and death.  We wait in the stillness and foreboding silence.  We wait because we know that morning always comes.

Bidden or unbidden, God is present.  (Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536, Also attributed to Carl Jung, because the quote was posted above his door in his house in Switzerland.)

“Out of the Depths”, John Rutter, “Requiem”

On this 5th Sunday of Lent, claim your own depths.  Imagine what your own recreation looks like.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

I have posted a reflection on the Stations of the Cross as a “page” on the blog.  If you go to dancingtogod.com and click on it at the top, you can view it.

 

You, Resurrected

 

The Raising of Lazarus, Duccio de Buoninsegna, 1308-11
The Raising of Lazarus, Duccio de Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Scripture Text:  John 11: (1-16) 17-44 (45) (Lent 5A)

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

This has always been at the very least a strange story to me.  I think I once had some image of Lazarus walking out of the tomb, with tattered grave clothes dangling and an unbearable stench following him, and then dressing and sitting down for a nice fish dinner with Jesus and his sisters.  But the Scripture is not here to show us magic or to in some way depict a God that with the veritable snap of a finger can just put everything back like it was before. (Well, I don’t know, I supposed God CAN, but why?  That’s not really the way God works.  God has something much better in store.)  This story is taken as a precursor to Jesus’ own Resurrection.  It was Jesus’ way of promising life.  But, ironically, it is also the act that turns the tables toward Jesus’ demise.  Here, standing within two miles or so from Jerusalem, the journey as we know it begins to wind to an end.  Even now, the Sanhedrins are gathering their swords and the night is beginning to fall.

So, why would Jesus do that?  Surely he knew what might happen.  Surely he knew how many red flags his presence near Jerusalem had already raised.  And what about Lazarus?  Who was this mysterious man whose main part in the whole Biblical story is to die and be raised?  Why do this with someone as seemingly insignificant as this?  Maybe its because Lazarus is us–you and me.  Maybe the whole point of the passage is not to point to Jesus’ Resurrection but to our own.  Do you think of yourself as journeying toward resurrection?  Do you believe this?  Sure, we talk about journeying to God, about journeying to the Promised Land, whatever that might be, and about journeying to where God call us.  But do you think of it as resurrection?  Do you think of yourself dying and then raised?  Maybe each of us is Lazarus.  Maybe that’s what Jesus wanted us so badly to believe and live.

We talk a lot of this Lenten journey as our journey to the Cross, our journey with Christ.  So, does it stop there?  I think the story goes on.  Jesus is Resurrected.  Maybe that’s what Jesus was trying to show us–not that we would be somehow plucked from death in the nick of time and not that God really has need of putting our lives back together like some sort of Humpty-Dumpty character, but that we, too, are journeying toward resurrection, toward new life.  Lent is the journey that shows us that.  Lent shows us that the journey is sometimes hard, sometimes painful. Lent shows us not that death will not claim us but that death will not have the final word.  Lent shows us that our faith tells us that there is more.  Lent shows us what it means for Christ to unbind even us–even you and me–and let us go.  Through all of life’s transitions, through all of life’s sad endings, through all of life’s unbearable turns, there is always a beginning.  There is always resurrection–over and over and over again.

There was, indeed, something I had missed about Christianity, and now all of a sudden I could see what it was.  It was the Resurrection!  How could I have been a church historian and a person of prayer who loved God and still not known that the most fundamental Christian reality is not the suffering of the cross but the life it brings?…The foundation of the universe for which God made us, to which God draws us, and in which God keeps us is not death, but joy.  (Roberta Bondi)

As our Lenten Journey begins to turn toward Jerusalem, what does it mean to be a part of it?  And what does it mean to envision you, resurrected?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

Psalm 23: A Season of Shadows

ShadowsPsalter for Today:  Psalm 23 (Lent 4A) (KJV)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Lent is a season of shadows.  During this time we walk through the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, and, even, the shadow of our former selves.  Maybe that’s the point of Lent–to wrestle us away from our comfortable, perfectly-manicured lives, from all those things that we plan and perceive, from all those things that we hide and, finally, teach us to traverse the nuances that the journey holds.  And yet, think about it.  What exactly creates shadows?  The answer is light.  Light must be behind the shadowed object.  So, the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, even the shadow of our former selves cannot be without the Light.

This season of Lent is one that by its very nature is a journey through wilderness, through loss and despair and doubt and not really knowing what comes next. It is a journey through a place where all of a sudden God is not as God should be. No longer is God a freshly cleaned-up deity handing out three cotton candy wishes to faithful followers. In the wilderness, we find God in the trenches and in the silence of our lives. Or maybe it is that that is the place that we finally notice God at all. When our lives are emptied out, when our needs and our deepest emotions are exposed, is the time that a lot of us realize that God was there all along. Maybe Lent is way of getting to the depths of ourselves, the place where in our search for God, we find our faith in God, and there in the silence we find our hope.

In her book, When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor tells “a story from the Sufi tradition about a man who cried, “Allah! Allah!” until his lips became sweet with the sound. A skeptic who heard him said, “Well! I have heard you calling out but where is the answer to your prayer? Have you ever gotten a response?” The man had no answer to that. Sadly, he abandoned his prayers and went to sleep. In his dreams, he saw his soul guide, walking toward him through a garden. “Why did you stop praising?” the saint asked him. “Because I never heard anything back,” the man said. “This longing you voice IS the return message,” the guide told him. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those people that think that God sends us suffering or heartache or grief to make us stronger or to test our faith or just to prove something. I don’t think I’d have a lot of respect for a God that has so little compassion for those who love God so much. God is always there, listening and guiding, and wanting us to get a sense of the holy and the sacred to which we’ve been called. But the point is that those times when life is not that great, when we struggle in the very depths of our being, are the times when God reaches through our waiting and our struggles and we can finally hear the silence that is God. We experience the biggest part of God when our need is the greatest.

Now I know that this Psalm brings about different thoughts and memories for each of us—some wonderful, some painful, some bittersweet. It’s probably one of those few passages that you can actually recite all the way through. It goes beyond the words, beyond the rhythm, beyond the hearing. It is truly beloved. It is a glimpse of the holy and the sacred.

My own standout experience with it happened several years ago. I was in seminary with little or no worship experience. I went to the funeral of one of my great aunts. And then, after the perfunctory family lunch (with our rather large family) and the funeral, we began to make our way to the cemetery for the burial. It was just a short drive. As we arrived, one of the ministers came up to me and asked me if I would like to read the Scripture at the graveside. Well, I have to tell you, when you’re in seminary, have little or no worship experience, and must now do this in front of your entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman is going to seminary to become a pastor, it’s a little overwhelming. I opened the funeral handbook (yes, there’s a funeral handbook! Perhaps we’re not as smart as you think!). And there, there it was…this wonderful Psalm. I would read that. But I did not choose it because I had opened to it; I did not choose it because it was familiar to me and I knew that there weren’t any hard words. I chose it because I knew that my grandmother, though nearly deaf, could hear it.  As I began to read, there was a stillness that settled over the crowd. The Spring wind that had been blowing all day stopped and all I heard was the faint sound of some wind chimes near the cemetery entrance. And I heard my voice but it didn’t sound like it was coming from me. As we got into the car to go, my grandmother whispered to me, “I heard you.” Don’t think it was a miracle; she didn’t hear a word I said. But it was part of her.   She had repeated it for 92 or 93 years. She no longer needed to listen to the words. She could hear them anyway.

Several years later, I stood in another cemetery beside my grandmother’s casket, reading these words again.  This time I had graduated from seminary and had a little experience in worship. But don’t get me wrong…there was also my entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman has become a pastor. At the cemetery, I read the Scripture. I chose the same Psalm, not because my grandmother could hear it, but because I could.  (I will say that my grandmother always insisted that this Psalm could ONLY be read in the King James Version, so let that be a lesson too!)

Life is filled with shadows, places that you did not plan to go, places that scare you and challenge you, places that are filled with pain.  But God did not call us to walk through blinding Light.  God called us to learn to see.  Maybe the shadows help us do that.  Maybe the shadows are the reason we see the Light.

Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world. (Thomas A’Kempis)

On this fourth Sunday of the Lenten season, look into the shadows.  Live with them.  Let them lead you to the Light.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

 

 

 


Psalm 121: A Season for Blessing

BlessingPsalter for Today:  Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Several months ago, I was about to leave a wedding rehearsal that I had just finished when the bride’s parents came up to me and asked if I could give them a blessing.  I have to admit that I was surprised.  We give blessings at baptisms and blessings at weddings.  We bless meals and houses and ships and new buildings.  We even bless our animal companions once a year or so.  But for some reason, blessings just for the sake of blessing, just for the sake of being, has become almost non-existent. Perhaps we’ve become almost distrustful of it, as if it’s some sort of implied expectation that God will shower good things upon us.  Our language has taken that concept of being “blessed” as some sort of reward, as if God has somehow built a bubble of good things and protection around us.  Well, truthfully, that’s just bad theology.  No where are we promised that God will shield us from bad things or continually shower us with good.  Faithful living does not guarantee that one will become healthy, wealthy, and wise.  The promise is that God will journey WITH us through all that life holds, even through the valley of the shadow of death.

This Psalm is known by some as one of the psalms of ascent, a traveler’s psalm.  It was often used as one began a journey and was a reminder to look to that place where God was, to know that God was there, a traveler with the traveler.  It is also a Psalm of blessing, a blessing for one who is about to begin a journey.  In our translation, the scripture begins with a question.  But since there’s no real punctuation in the original Hebrew in which it was written, this may or may not be intended this way.  Maybe, rather than a sojourner looking for help, it is one who acknowledges that he or she is not alone.  “I lift up mine eyes to the hills from where my help will come.”  This is the Lord who, no matter what happens, will keep your life–through all that life holds, darkness and life.  The Lord is always and forever present, never drifting away or slumbering. The chorus from Elijah (Mendelssohn) uses this theme.  “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.”  God is always there.  This is the promise of faith.

The Hebrew call to be a blessing (Parshas Lech Lecha) is used eighty-eight times in the Book of Genesis.  A blessing is a gift.  It involves every sphere of our existence.  It is not, as our language and our culture seems to depict, payment for a life well-lived; it is not taking the bad things of life as God’s way of strengthening us or something; it is not somehow straining to proclaim the bad as good; and it is certainly not living some unreal existence where darkness does not seep in at all.  Being blessed means to be recreated.  It takes time.  To be a blessing is to enter the story.  God calls, God promises, and, as the Psalmist depicts, God walks with us, ever-present and ever-faithful.  That is how God is revealed.  When we enter the story, we are truly blessed.  We begin again.  We are blessed to be a blessing, one who journeys with God.

A Blessing is a beginning, a new beginning, an acknowledgment that, even now, recreation is happening.  Life is a blessing.  Even darkness and wilderness and desert spaces in our lives are blessings as they look ahead for the Light to come.  On Ash Wednesday, we were blessed with ashes as this Lenten journey began, as we were reminded who and whose we are.  We began again.  God walks with us on this journey.  We know that.  Intellectually, we know that.  But knowing it deep within our being is what being blessed is all about.

Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now. (Joan Chittister, in Listen with the Heart:  Sacred Moments in Everyday Life, p. 8)

On this second Sunday of our Lenten journey, know yourself blessed, know yourself recreated, know yourself as you begin again.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

On the Steps of Death

???????????Lectionary Passage for Today:

To read the Passion account assigned for today’s Lectionary Reading, go to John 18:1-19:42

How did we get here?  How did we so quickly move from the teachings on the hillside in Galilee to this?  I guess we kept thinking that he could make it better.  After all, he always made so much sense, always drawing us out of ourselves, out of the life that we thought we were supposed to have.  What could we have done differently?  It was right there, right in our hands.  Life was right there.  Why didn’t we pay more attention?  Why didn’t we dispense with silly arguing over who was greatest?  And what do we do now?  We can’t go back.  Everything has changed.  We have changed.  We are different.

The last three stations are the hardest.  The twelfth station depicts Jesus’ death on the cross.  “It is finished.” As Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain tore in two, revealing a new world in which holiness was no longer separate and hidden from view.  Trembling and shaking in the darkness, the earth opened to reveal a glimpse of a future yet to be.  And through our grief and tears, God entered the heartbreak and brokenness of the world and in that moment began recreating it.  In this moment, God’s future enters our present.  And in the most unfathomable act of love, the cross becomes God’s highest act of Creation.  Because with it, we and all of Creation are made new.  That which is finished is the beginning of life.  In this moment, our own eternity is conceived.    

Station 13 of this Via Dolorosa has Jesus being taken down from the cross and his body given to his mother.  There is no documentation of this in canonical Scripture.  Perhaps it was skipped.  It is a hard thing, after all because, after all, it is indeed over.  There is a sickening finality to it all.  Why did it have to end like this?  Why did it have to end at all?  We were just beginning to understand.  We were just beginning to get what we were supposed to be doing.  And now it is over.  And then there’s this darkness.  It’s never been this dark at this time of day.  It adds to the pall of our souls.  We have to go back now.  But to what?  After all, deep down we know that he changed us.  How can we live now in the world?  How can we go back?  And yet, in this moment of our deepest despair, we remember that we have found love.  Life will be different because we have found love.

Station 14 is the burial of Jesus in the Garden Tomb.  Joseph of Arimathea, a “secret disciple”, we are told, provided a tomb that no one had ever used.  It was appropriate, this virgin tomb, a fitting ending as someone finally made room.  How can we leave?  We have walked away from graves before and left the remains of a life behind us.  But this…this is different.  And so we strip our altars and we strip our lives and we try to make room for you.  And then we wait.  We wait for you to come.  We wait for you to rise.  We keep vigil and we enter into deep prayer,
knowing the day will come.  And we wait.  We wait for our eternity to be born.  We waited for your coming once before, for your birth.  But this is
different.  Now we wait for our own.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In what seemed no time at all, Bethlehem has become Golgotha, swaddling clothes have become burial cloths, and the manger?  The manger has become a cross.  God did not send Jesus to die but to love.  And he did that to the end.  And somewhere along the way, we have changed.  We haven’t become who we are called to be yet but the road has turned and we know that Life is up ahead.

Where Are You Christmas? (Faith Hill, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

The pilgrims sit on the steps of death.  Undanced, the music ends.  Only the children remember that tomorrow’s stars are not yet out.  (Ann Weems, “It is Finished”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, 77)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Were You There As Jesus Prepared to Die?

Today’s Scripture Passage:  Mark 14: 1-25

To read today’s portion of the account of the Passion, click on the below link:
http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=200334750

Galilee is behind us.  The parade is long over.  There are no stars overhead to light our way.  The Passion has begun.  It’s an odd term, from the Latin passionem, or suffering.  It looks similar to the word passive (Latin, passiuus), which definitely doesn’t make sense to us.  After all, we’re talking about Jesus!  But the words are indeed related.  The Passion, this time of suffering and being “handed over”, is a movement from planned and intentional action to no longer being in control.  All of Jesus’ actions are accomplished.  It is finished.  It is a time of waiting–waiting for others’ response, waiting for our response.  We are called to enter The Passion, to enter this handing over.

“Christ in the House of Simon”
Dieric Bouts, 1440’s
Staatlisch Museen, Berlin

And, so, in the first part of The Passion reading, Jesus prepares for what is to come.  First, he is anointed.  I really like the version that the Gospel writer known as John tells, but this is Mark’s year, so we’ll go with it.  You see, John names her.  John brings Mary into the story, into a relationship with Jesus.  Mary, or whoever this woman is, takes the expensive perfume and pours it onto Jesus.  Takes…and pours.  Where have we heard that before?  It is sacramental.  This simple act of holy extravagance brings her into the story, into life.  She is forever remembered not because she wasted the oil but because she was part of preparing Jesus to die.  With extravagant and self-giving love, she entered The Passion.  She poured herself out and handed herself over.  I wish I could be like that. I wish I could sit at the feet of Jesus and, without any regard to what is “appropriate” or “expected”, pour everything out. I wish I didn’t hold myself back.  I wish I could pour myself out with holy and even wasteful extravagance.

As the time for the Passover meal nears, the disciples begin to prepare and plan for the meal.  It would be Jesus’ last.  The disciples didn’t seem to know it at the time but this would be the final time that they were all together.  Don’t you wander what the conversation was that night?  We’d like to imagine that it was rich and deep and profound, that it was prayerful and contemplative, theological and steeped with rabbinical thought, that it was something they would remember.  But last words are seldom like that.  They are usually profoundly quotidian.  Rather than resembling the life that we envision, they usually resemble the life that is.  That’s probably what happened that night.  There were side conversations about family and acquaintances.  There were comments about the weather and whether it might have been unseasonably hot or unseasonably cold that evening.  And there were some speculations about the political environment and the tensions that hung in the air even that night.  They did not solve the problems of the world.  They just ate and drank and sat together. 

“The Last Supper of Christ”
Pieter Jansz.Pourbus, c. 1562-5

And then Jesus takes the bread and pours the wine.  Takes…and pours.  It is sacramental.  Yet another act of holy extravagance that brings us all into the story, into life.  But the story’s ending is far from ordinary.  And to be part of it, we have to take and pour…We have to become the body and become the blood.  We have to take the cup from Jesus, this cup that has been poured out for us.

But behind the scenes, there is darkness and betrayal swirling in our midst.  We don’t know what to do with this.  It is one of us.  It is one whom Jesus loves. It is one who has sat here this night and shared our meal and shared our lives.  Oh, please, do not let it be me.  As I dip this bread, let me become who I’m supposed to be.  Do not let it be me.

The truth is, we cannot be there with Jesus as he prepares to die unless we, too, are preparing for our own.  We cannot talk of this handing over unless we can let go of that to which we hold.  And we cannot take the bread and the wine unless we make room for it in our lives.  Were you there?  Were you there as love was poured out?  Were you there as Jesus took and poured?  Were you there in the betrayal?  It is too late to go back.  It is too late to change anything.  The Kingdom of God waits for you up ahead.  But you have to let go.  You have to die to self.  No longer can we just talk about something else and hope that death will go away.  We have to die to live.

So, on this Monday of Holy Week, how would you answer?  Were you there as Jesus prepared to die?  What part in The Passion did you play?  Are you preparing to die?  For that is the way that you will live.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

LENT 4B: A Lesson in Snake-Handling

“The Brazen Serpent”
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
BJU Museum & Gallery, Greenville, SC

Lectionary Passage:  Numbers 21: 4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

OK, this is just odd!  It’s one of those passages that probably wouldn’t have made it into the lectionary except that the Gospel writer that we know as John included it.  (We’ll read that this week too!)  Personally, I think it’s a little over the top–sending poisonous snakes.  I mean, it seems that the people were only asking for a little variety in their menu.  Isn’t this a little out of proportion?  I mean, really:  complaining…bad; poisononous snakes all over the place…REALLY bad.

But from the very beginning of Creation, as one of the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible explains, the snake has slithered on its belly and eaten only dust and yet it has done so without a word of complaint.  So, then, what better character to rule over the people who have murmured over a choice of food?  Essentially, the snake comes to teach humility and patience.  But we as humans cannot resist being more than a little squeamish at the character.  There is something about a snake that demands our full attention.  When someone mentions that a snake is nearby, we don’t ask what lessons can be learned.  Instead, we climb on the furniture or over one another to get out of the way.

Our full attention…to how many things do we give that?  And how many things would we rather climb on the furniture or run to get out of the way rather than dealing with them?  And it is interesting that in order to save the people from the plague of snakes, God gave them a snake.  So, when someone is bitten by a snake, he or she is to look at a snake.  What sense does that make?  Think about it…we are to look at our fear; we are to look at those things that tempt us; we are to look at those things that distract us and pull us away from God.  (Goodness…that sounds a lot like this season of Lent!)  And God, in God’s infinite wisdom puts them on a pole so that we cannot avoid seeing them.

But only in the wisdom of God do we counter something that we fear with that which we fear.  Here, God’s antidote for the snakes is a snake.  Isn’t that sort of paradoxical?   We have to look beyond that with which we are uncomfortable.  We have to look into a sight that brings such fear, such loathing, that it is hard for us to find God’s presence in it.  And, deep within it, is the sight of humility and patience, a creature that, according to Creation mythology, had resigned itself to surrendering to that which ruled its life.  And by looking into one’s fear, by looking into one’s death, one is freed—the ultimate paradox. 

It is notable, too, that nothing is said to imply that God destroys the snakes.  Essentially, God does not destroy the enemy—God recreates it.  Isn’t that an incredible thing?  You see, we need to recognize that the traditional Jewish reading of the “Garden of Eden” story differs from the classical Christian version.  While the snake has often been identified in both faiths as Satan (or satan), the Jewish understanding is not that of something or someone outside of God’s command or a rebel against divine authority.  Rather, it’s sort of a prosecuting attorney, entrusted with testing, entrapping, and testifying against us before the heavenly court.  It’s part of God’s way of maintaining order.  It’s part of God’s way of showing us a mirror to look at ourselves.  So, from that standpoint, these snakes or serpents are not enemies but, rather, part of our ourselves.  (On some level, maybe that’s more uncomfortable even than enemies!)

So, the simple equation is this:  the cure for snakes is a snake…the cure for something is to stare it straight in the face.  Where have we heard that before?  Centuries later, God did it again.  The cure for our death is death—death of those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God, death of those things that make us less than human, death of those things that are not part of who we are as images of God.  And, if you remember, the cure for a life of pain and suffering and temptation is life eternal.  Snakes for snakes; death for death; life for life.

Those whose eyes are fixed on the Son of Man as he is lifted up ultimately see God’s healing of the world.  The Cross is that thing at which we are forced to look, forced to see a part of us that we do not want to see, forced to see the way we murmur and complain about our lives when they’re really not that bad.  In an odd way, the cross is that snake on a pole.  So as hard as it may be, stand still.  It doesn’t make sense in this world.  It’s gruesome and loathsome and filled with danger.  But God, in God’s infinite wisdom, takes it and turns it into life.  We don’t need to become snake-handlers; we just need to be aware of that to which we should be looking.  So, walk now, toward the cross—the instrument of death that gives you life.  

On this seventeenth day of Lenten observance, go commune with a snake…no, just kidding!  Instead, give someone today your full attention.  Do not get pulled away by your cell phone or your watch or your calendar.  
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli