Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 18, 2012
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Numbers 21:4-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 2:1-10
Reading 4: 
John 3:14-21
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Numbers 21:4-9

Given the pattern established in the First Testament readings for the previous Sundays in Lent, we would expect the reading today to introduce the fourth covenant in the historical sequence, the covenant between God and the House of David, the covenant that became the basis of the Messianic hope and that Christians believe was transformed and universalized in the New Covenant in Christ. Instead, the lectionary provides us with this incident from Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, when poisonous snakes attack the people and Moses heals them by forging a bronze snake effigy and displaying it on a pole. In its context with the other readings assigned for today, the snake story seems to serve two primary purposes: it provides a specific example of the covenant process, and it sets the stage for the Gospel reading.

This story illustrates the general covenant process in that it describes one instance of the creative transformation of an occasion of destructive sin into a new possibility of blessing, the intention of God disclosed in the first covenant with Noah and refined in the subsequent covenants with Abraham and Moses. Here the people are nearing their goal of the land of promise, but first they must detour around the hostile territory of Edom; on the way they become impatient, and in their impatience they grumble against Moses, God, and the manna that sustains them. In response to their grumbling, God sends the snakes among them, until they recognize their sin and confess it, at which point God instructs Moses how to use the serpent effigy as a cure.

The story follows a pattern that is repeated throughout the accounts of the forty-year wilderness sojourn: the people complain, God punishes them, the people repent, and God restores them. To many modern and postmodern readers this pattern is problematic, suggesting as it does an image of God as a petulant, vengeful old man who gets angry and punishes those dependent on him for the merest of infractions or the slightest hint of disrespect.

The image is indeed problematic; but it offers some subtler aspects as well. We can see the people’s grumbling not simply as the breaking of a rule or a fit of adolescent-like disrespect, but as a certain kind of weakening of relationship. The basic covenant relationship is that God will liberate the People from oppression and danger, and the People will shape their lives by the teachings of God given in Torah; both the human and the divine sides of the covenant are predicated on a fundamental fidelity of trust and responsiveness. By grumbling against God and rejecting the manna God provides, the people are breaking — or at least straining very badly — their fidelity to God, they are not living out the full ideal of trust in God and God’s commitment to liberate them from danger given them in the covenant. Weakening their relationship to the One who liberates them from danger then exposes them to danger, here in the form of the “fiery” snakes.

The story attributes personal agency to God in “sending” the snakes among the people; but we can note here that biblical language for God frequently uses anthropomorphic and personal imagery for God side by side with more transcendent and impersonal terminology; we can also recall the theological principle that we use anthropomorphic and personal imagery for God because it is the least inadequate, and not because God is “really” a person in the common psychological sense. The story about the snakes may be intended to illustrate less a personal petulance on God’s part than a kind of “law of nature” in a panentheistic universe: just as you should expect dangerous consequences if you strain against the “law” of gravity, so you should expect dangerous consequences if you strain against fidelity to the One who liberates from danger.

The repetition of the grumbling-punishment-repentance-healing pattern throughout the wilderness period can be seen as the people’s gradual learning how to keep the human side of their covenant with God, how to apply the principles of Torah to their actions so as to live in faithfulness to the God who is faithful to them, how to live the covenant process of creative transformation of sin into new potential. What the people learn in this story is the specific creative transformation of the object that endangers them into a sign of renewed trust in the saving power of their God.

This leads to the second purpose of the story in this lectionary context: it sets the stage for the Gospel reading by introducing the bronze serpent effigy, a traditional fixture of the Jerusalem Temple, which Jesus will reinterpret and creatively transform with reference to himself.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

The Psalm selection is a portion of a much longer poem combining stories of several instances in which people in distress are rescued by God. Verse 19, “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress,” is a refrain that recurs throughout the poem. This segment parallels the First Testament lesson: the people in the wilderness “loathed any kind of food,” the manna God provided, and “their sinful ways” led to “sickness” and “affliction” as a result of being exposed to the poisonous snakes; but when they repented and called for help, God “sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” The appropriate response of the people, therefore, is to give thanks to God and to “tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy.” The psalm selection differs from the Numbers account in that it makes the sickness and affliction a direct consequence of sinful ways, rather than the result of an act of personal volition by God to “send” agents of poisoning in retribution for sin. Nevertheless, both passages illustrate the same basic pattern: that straying from the way of fidelity to the One who liberates from danger leads to danger, while return to that One leads to healing and thanksgiving.

Ephesians 2:1-10

The Ephesians reading follows in important ways the same rebellion/redemption pattern as the stories in Numbers and in the Psalm. Those who lived in a weak relationship to the One who liberates were “dead through trespasses and sins,” following a “spirit” of disobedience, guided only by “desires of flesh and senses,” and “by nature” inheritors of patterns of behavior characterized by “wrath.” For those who have accepted Christ, however, that weak relationship has been strengthened: God in “mercy” and “love” and “gift” has made them “alive together with Christ,” “saved” them by “grace,” rescued them from bondage of self-centeredness by exercise of free and generous self-giving, and “raised” and “seated” them with God in Christ “in the heavenly places.” This creative transformation of life, while immediately effective in worldly experience, appears also to have important metaphysical and transcendent ramifications: the terms describing the faithfuls’ heavenly status are all in the present tense, indicating a depth of relationship with God that is already being realized, while leaving still some even greater ideals in “the immeasurable riches of grace” to be realized “in the ages to come.” All of this is because “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works” — that is, we are inheritors of the covenant process, those called to use our human creativity in the larger environment of divine creativity to co-create generative alternatives to corruption and violence and sin.

John 3:14-21

We saw last week how Jesus re-signified the Jerusalem Temple as the place God causes the divine Name to dwell by connecting it to his own body as the incarnation of the Word, and pointed to the promise of death and resurrection by reference to the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple. The Johannine motif of re-signifying key symbols by reference to Jesus is continued in this week’s reading, as Jesus uses the bronze serpent from the Numbers passage, and from later Temple practice, to signify himself being “lifted up” on the Cross and from the grave.

The serpent effigy that Moses lifted up brought healing to all who saw it; when Jesus is lifted up, those are given eternal life who “believe.” This effectively sets in apposition “belief” and “sight”; that is, for John “believing” is more than an intellectual act of agreeing with propositions that cannot be logically demonstrated, but “believing” is a kind of perception, a knowledge derived from involvement in the thing that is known.

This leads to a second re-signification in this passage, when Jesus includes and transcends the notion of “judgment” by new reference to himself. Jesus has not come to “condemn”: his role as Son of God and Messiah is not to be conqueror and judge, bringing condemnation to all God’s enemies, as was often thought of the Messiah in first-century Judaism; instead, his role as Son of God and Messiah is to bring “eternal life,” “salvation,” “belief,” and “light,” all words used here as roughly equivalent pointers to a transcendent quality of life whose full concreteness cannot be captured in any single abstraction of word or image.

In this new quality of life, “judgment” is not the same as “condemnation,” but “judgment” is something more like “being clearly seen.” The Greek word for “judgment” used in the original text is the same word from which we get the English word “criticism,” which can indeed be taken in a negative, condemnatory sense, but which also has the sense of informed and mindful appreciation, as in “literary criticism.” Jesus here reinterprets the theme of judgment to be an enlightened and clarified experience of the meaning and actions of one’s life, the “deeds” that are “true” and that “have been done in God.” This creative transformation of the idea of judgment can be seen as part of the overarching covenant to deal with sin redemptively rather than destructively that is the theme of this entire Lenten sequence.