Numbers 21:4-9 – Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness. Murmuring. Fiery serpents.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 – They cried to the Lord in their trouble and he saved them from their distress…
Ephesians 2:1-10 – Dead in your trespasses, for by grace you have been saved by faith… for good works.
John 3:14-21 – 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. Light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness. For God so loved the world…
Numbers: The Serpent Lifted Up – In Lent 1 we had the covenant with Noah, in lent 2, the covenant with Abraham, and in lent 3 the covenant with Moses. This week we continue with Moses.
Moses led the people out of slavery into freedom, but they would rather return to the old ways. After their hunger is satisfied with manna, they respond, “We hate this food.” So human. The people whine. Scholars call it the murmuring motif, but we know what it is: whining. And so God sends serpents to kill them.
Unlike the unconditional covenant of Noah, the covenant with Moses is conditional. If you keep my statutes and commandments, I will be your rear guard. After the attack of the fiery serpents, the people repent! “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord (and against you, Moses). Help!” So Moses prays. God instructs him to take a bronze serpent and put it on a pole that whoever looks upon it might live. The people are healed.
Ephesians: Grace through Faith – Chapter 2 of the Letter to the Ephesians describes the transformation the Ephesians have taken. What one believes changes how one lives. Like Peter in the gospel for Lent 2B, the Ephesians were focused on earthly things and not as concerned with spiritual things. Dead in their sins, they were following the “prince of power of the air.” This phrase is used nowhere else in the New Testament. Satan is not in hell (a word that never appears in any of Paul’s letters), but in the space between earth and heaven. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” Paul tells the Ephesians that following the prince of power of the air leads to becoming children of wrath.
In contrast, God, rich in mercy, loved us when we were at our worst and made us alive together with Christ. Like Christ, we too are raised up and seated in the heavenly places. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…
Salvation is by grace through faith. It is not our own doing. It is a free gift, not by works (ἔργων, ergon). Ephesians 2:8-9 says,
For 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, so that no one may boast.
At the same time, though we are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works. Ephesians 2:10 follows immediately after the verses above:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Christ has transformed us, and created us for good works. αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα. Being good will not make us right with God.
There is, I have seen, a kind of Lutheran overstatement of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, that implies even trying to do good works constitutions works righteousness, a reaching up to God. Ephesians is a corrective for this. We can’t climb to God on a ladder of our own righteousness. That is a foolhardy enterprise. The author of Ephesians wants us to know, however, that having been made right with God, we are free t0 become what we were created to be, children of God who live and walk in good works.
John: The Son of Man Lifted Up – This passage from John 3 is part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a character that only appears in John’s gospel (3:1, 3:4, 3:9, 7:50, 19:39). Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Jesus in the night. “You must be born again,” is Jesus’ word to Nicodemus. Later Nicodemus defends Jesus among his colleagues (7:50). After his crucifixion, Nicodemus brings some very expensive spices for Jesus’ burial (19:39).
Our passage this week begins just a little bit before the often quoted John 3:16.
Just as Moses “lifted up” (ὕψωσεν, hooposen) the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be “lifted up,” that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Just as the serpent was lifted up for the healing of the Israelites, so Christ, lifted up, will be the healing of the world. God loved the world so much he gave his Son, not to judge/condemn the world, but that it might be saved, that it might not perish.
John, like Paul, never mentions hell. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes might not… perish. Judgment comes in another form, that people prefer darkness to the light. Works may not make one righteous, but as Jesus says in various places, you can tell a tree by the fruit that it bears. If the heart is right with God, good works will inevitably come. When the works do come, we cannot take credit for them because we are naturally selfish. The only explanation for selfish people doing good works is the power of the Spirit transforming us. The whole world can then see that our works are from God.
These are interesting texts to preach. As you can see above, there are plenty of themes one could pick up.
The caduceus: The snakes come, and the people repent. Moses sets up a bronze serpent on a pole, that all who look upon it might be healed. This snake-on-a-stick becomes a symbol for the healing profession, the caduceus.
Some believe this symbol comes from a common way of dealing with guinea worm disease. Others believe this symbol comes from the cult of Asclepius, which used snakes as early as 300 B.C. as part of the healing arts. The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…”
Numbers was written around 500 B.C., describing events that took place long before. We know that many medical practices were common, however, across the ancient world.
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.”
Is this punitive? A reminder for whiny Israelites? “PEOPLE! REMEMBER THE SNAKES!” My 5th-grade teacher had a huge paddle hanging up in front of the room that all might look upon it and be healed from their urge to do mischievous things. The ominous paddle spoke for itself. So is the serpent law? Or is it gospel, an invitation to healing by placing our trust in a God who is merciful in spite of our whiny, disobedient ways?
Greek mythology, poisonous serpents, guinea worm, law, gospel, or magic. Hezekiah eventually took down the pole during his Temple reforms a few hundred years later. It seems the people began to worship the snake on the pole.
Jesus in John’s gospel revives an ancient image. John 3:14-15:
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 may have eternal life.
John sees the Christ being lifted up as gospel, healing, and salvation. God acts mercifully in the midst of a chaotic world. Christ being lifted up is a metaphor for his crucifixion and resurrection. A violent world kills its maker. This is Lord of the Flies. Gaze upon it, and understand. God responds with mercy and forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the extra mile.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The resurrection is God’s vindication of the way. The death and resurrection of Christ are healing signs for the world.
Finally, for Paul, salvation can come in no other way. The enterprise of human religion, the law, simply cannot save. It is powerless to transform us and deliver us from sin, evil, and death. Only following Christ can reveal for us the true nature of God, and offer us salvation and healing, the hope of the world.
If you’ve been using “Learning to Pray Again” for your Wednesday or Sunday Lenten series you are likely in or around chapters 22-28, which cover various ways of praying with kids, prayer stations, the Lord’s Prayer, dreaming, speaking in tongues, and praying for your enemies.
This might be a great Sunday to try some of these things out. Invite children during Sunday School to draw on the sidewalk leading to your worship space, things for which they are thankful. This invites the whole congregation to joyfully engage the hearts and minds of children.
Have an affirmation of baptism and invite members to bless each other by tracing a cross on the forehead of someone next to them. Try post it note prayers, where people write requests on post it notes and bring them forward during the offering. Move the prayers to after the offering so that you can include these concerns in the prayers of the church.
Another option is to replace the prayers of the church with prayer stations as outlined in chapter 24. Have a map where people can place stones on countries to pray for the people in them. Have a station where people can be prayed for and anointed with oil. Have a place where people can write confessions on paper and burn them, or have them write them on dissolving paper and drop them in the font. Have a place where people can light a candle and place it in sand. Use some of the children’s prayers ideas from chapters 22 and 23, like puzzles and coloring. Check out these interactive prayer stations for more ideas.
Trim other portions of the liturgy to make time for this. Skip the confession and have one of the stations be a confessional prayer station instead. You’re already omitting the hymn of praise during Lent. Offer a shorter homily.
The homily might include a brief explanation of the prayer stations, as various ways to pray. You might choose this day to preach about the Lord’s Prayer. Consider praying the Lord’s Prayer slowly with silence as discussed in chapter 25. Another option is to preach about dreams, mentioned in chapter 26. Praying in tongues (chapter 27) is a lot to cover in one homily, but it is a possibility, unless you’d prefer to wait for Pentecost.
Chapter 28 is about praying for your enemies. Jesus taught about this in the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How often do we actually do it? It was hard, and even controversial to pray for Osama bin Laden. Praying for ISIS today would get the same kind of reaction. We can pray for conversion of our enemies from evil to good. We can also pray for the victims of their senseless violence. Consider making your enemies a frequent part of your congregation’s prayers. Be sure to accompany it with thoughtful teaching on the subject, so people understand what is happening. Prayer is powerful. It will stir things up.
As you can see, with seven chapters each week, there is no shortage of topics for preaching or for ideas to spice up the prayers. Above all, I would encourage you to leave behind the canned prayers for a while and engage people (prayer team, worship team, staff, or others) in thinking about how we might creatively pray in worship in a way that sparks the daily prayer lives of our people.