4 Lent B—3/15/15
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Pr. Scott Kramer
I still haven’t gotten used to the idea of going to my phone for the news. I’m still an old-fashioned newspaper guy. Maybe you get your news from your tablet, radio, or TV—there are lots of choices these days!
But regardless of where we get our news there’s a more interesting question: How do you know what to believe?
News is not just one thing. The cover story for this month’s edition of National Geographic magazine, for example, is “The War on Science.” Not everyone, it turns out, believes that climate change is real. Not everyone believes in evolution. Some think the moon landing was faked. And more recently, the big controversy–especially among those of you who are parents–is vaccinations and whether they lead to autism.
This is nothing new. There was a time when most people believed the earth was flat and the sky was a big dome overhead. When change happens too fast for our comfort or our core values feel threatened we’re tempted to go with what feels safe and familiar, sometimes even despite the evidence.
Where do we get our news? How do we decide what to believe–what’s true and what’s not? The Book of Numbers tells the most important story in Jewish faith. It’s the exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, only to find themselves wandering around in the desert. Today’s first reading is a conversation among the people, their leader Moses, and God. What do you find believable in this story? What do you find unbelievable?
Here’s part of what I read: Impatience. Complaint. Ingratitude. Blame. All of these attitudes seem perfectly believable to me. They are human responses we can identify with! So how does God deal with these very human responses? Well, in the story God kills people! “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
What do you think? Is the creator of the universe really one who goes around killing people for being human? Is the God we worship really so insecure that capital punishment is the answer to ordinary disobedience? The Book of Genesis teaches that human beings were created in the image of God. We also find, not only in Scripture but in our own lives, that we often create God in our own image.
But the story from our first reading doesn’t end there. The people confessed: “We have sinned…Pray to the Lord for us.” Moses did pray for the people, God did respond–and it’s a strange response! “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
The reason we hear this odd story in the season of Lent is that it hints at the story of Jesus, who was raised up on a “pole” (cross), that whoever turns to him will find healing, forgiveness, hope, and new life. This gets at the heart of our Christian tradition and our Lutheran belief.
But I wonder if there’s something we’re missing here. What if God didn’t send those poisonous serpents? What if this was just the people’s understanding? That would be believable! Our human inclination leads us to believe that we have power over God. We can make God happy or angry depending on our behavior. When bad things happen to us or others we are tempted to believe that it’s God’s judgment.
Imagine a different interpretation. What if this story is mostly about God’s grace? What if it’s about the Divine meeting us where we are? Oh, God says, you think I sent those poisonous serpents? Huh. Well, I can work with that. And God does. The Lord meets the people where they are and, using what they believe, offers a way through–a way that leads to life!
That’s a different way of hearing this story.
How do you know what to believe? The stories that come to us across the ages are a mix of the believable and unbelievable, not all that different from our everyday life. This past week I watched a PBS story on Robert Ripley, the creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Ripley became a multimillionaire by showing the world that ordinary human life is full of people and circumstances that we would call impossible, unbelievable.
How do you know what’s true and untrue? Jesus once said that unless we become like children we cannot come close to the Divine. What does a child do? Ask if a story is factual? Yes, maybe…eventually. But early on, aren’t they more likely to say, “Read me a story.” And then, “Read it again!” It’s the story–more than the facts–that have the power to inspire and even transform human life.
There’s a Native American leader who tells what sounds like an outlandish creation story from his tradition, with creatures and circumstances that sound unbelievable. After telling the story he says, I don’t know if that’s the way it really happened; but I know it’s true!
Whatever we believe is bound to be incomplete and maybe sometimes even way off base. But God meets us wherever we are, sometimes through wonderful, powerful stories, to help us find a way through our fog of understanding to the truth of God’s unconditional love.
Today’s readings are brimming with evidence of God’s grace. The psalmist proclaims, The Lord is good, for God’s mercy endures forever. God gathers us in from east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Let God’s people give thanks to you, Lord, for your steadfast love…for all people. We don’t have to worry so much about “facts” when it’s truth we’re after, and the truth that we proclaim is God’s all-inclusive grace!
Listen to the writer of Ephesians: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works…but created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. All-inclusive grace! All God’s doing!
It doesn’t stop there, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The word for “world” is “cosmos.” God’s all-inclusive grace comes to us through Jesus—for the sake of the whole universe. Unbelievable!
Where do we get our news? What do we believe? Christians proclaim good news. Part of the good news we proclaim is the conviction that God meets us wherever we are, whatever we believe. But we have work to do if the final word we hear is ever judgment, punishment, or anything except God’s unconditional love and acceptance of you, me…and all people!