Monthly Archives

March 2018

Barabbas

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Barabbas”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 25, 2018

 

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 15: 6-15

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

 

 

I read this week about a Civil War legend, one that I was not able to substantiate historically, so perhaps the story is just that – a legend.  Perhaps the next time we see our former moderator Bob Smith, we can ask him about it since he is now lives in Gettysburg, PA, the setting for the story.  Immediately preceding the battle of Gettysburg, a resident of the town named Hannah was deeply disturbed by the rumors of what might happen.  Hannah was a staunch supporter of President Lincoln and the Union army.  She was most opposed to slavery.  She held a deep hatred in her heart for the leader of the Confederate forces, General Robert E. Lee.  And Hannah was most protective of her hometown of Gettysburg and she did not want to see it trampled or damaged by cavalry and cannonball.  One afternoon before the battle began, Hannah heard that General Lee was approaching Gettysburg via the Chambersburg Road.  Since she lived alone and had no weapons, she took the poker from her fireplace, mounted her horse and started down the road to meet General Lee.  Or course nothing happened.  Lee’s army rode on to Gettysburg.  Hannah never actually confronted the general.  The bloody battle actually happened.  But once the war was over, many of the town’s women remembered what Hannah did and had quite a bit of fun with her.  At a quilting party another woman said, “Hannah, what in the world did you expect to do with an old fireplace poker against the great Southern army general?”  Hannah replied, “I really didn’t expect to do anything.  But I did let them know what side I was on.”

This is Palm Sunday, the day in which we recognize and celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem.  We wave our palms and we shout “Hosanna” as we recognize that the one who rode into the city humbly upon a donkey was the Son of God bringing with him the Kingdom of God.  Yet today also begins what is known as Passion Week.  Many traditions read the entire narrative of Jesus’ arrest and trial as part of the Scripture lesson this day.  I would like for us to focus on a small piece of that story and upon the importance of one of the characters in Jesus’ passion.  That man was named Barabbas.

In Mark’s gospel, Barabbas in mentioned following Jesus’ examination before the chief priests and scribes, as he stood before Pilate for his civil trial.  Mark’s version of the event fits most of the other gospel writers’ interpretation.  Pilate seemed to understand that Jesus was innocent and that Jesus was brought before him by religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their power or at the very least a menace to the established order.  Pilate was looking for a compromise or at least to escape responsibility for what seemed to be foregone conclusion – the conviction of Jesus.  And so remembering that there was a Passover custom that allowed the governor to release any prisoner to the people, he offered to sentence and then release Jesus.  But it was Barabbas that the crowd wanted set free.  It was his name that they chanted right before they pointed at Jesus and said, “Crucify him!”  Pilate resigned himself to the cries of the crowd.  Barabbas was set free and Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Who was this man who enters the story of Jesus so briefly yet importantly as Jesus stood before Pilate?  We don’t know much about him because he is only mentioned in this scene and nowhere else in the Bible.  Perhaps the experienced among us recall Barabbas from the 1960’s movie starring Anthony Quinn.  There are some important questions about his name.  The name Barabbas itself means “son of the father” or perhaps “son of the teacher.”  If the former is accurate, Barabbas should have had a first name.  Some manuscripts even say that his first name of Jesus, thus he was known as Jesus bar Abbas.  A handful of scholars believe that his first name of Jesus was left out of the gospel accounts because early Christians did not want the name Jesus associated with a criminal.  If the latter interpretation is true and his name meant the son of a teacher, his father probably held an important position in the Jewish religious community as a rabbi.  Certainly then, Barabbas was a well-known young man in Jerusalem.

Apparently Barabbas was in prison for taking part in a revolt against the Roman authority.  In other words – he was a Jewish insurrectionist who was charged with treason and murder.  The average Jew in Judea hated the Romans for their occupation, hated the rulers that the emperor appointed to govern the people, hated the tax enforced to pay for the rule, and hated the armies that walked the streets to enforce the rule.  Many dreamed of a messiah – a leader sent by God who would arise to command them into battle and drive the Romans from their land and restore the kingdom of Israel and the Temple to its former glory.  Apparently, Barabbas was one of those and he had tired of waiting for God to act.  He took action on his own and now sat in prison for attempting such a political and military uprising.

And so on that day Pilate offered to the crowd a question or choice.  Would you like me to release Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas the Zealot?  It is interesting to note that there is no historical record of the existence of such a custom as prisoner release.  The gospel of Luke, written by a person deeply concerned with presenting accurate history, does not mention it.  But Matthew and Mark and John write about Pilate conveniently using the custom to avoid responsibility.  Did the gospel writers make the custom up?  And if they did, what was their point?  Some scholars believe that the blame for Jesus’ death had to be taken away from the Romans and placed squarely on the shoulders of the Jews.  The early Christians who lived under Roman rule did not want to be part of a religion that followed a man executed as a political revolutionary by the Romans.  That would be dangerous and give the Romans an excuse to crack down on them.  The legend of Barabbas gave them a reason to make the Jews responsible.

But there is another explanation for this story in the midst of Passion week, one that I certainly prefer.  There is a theological motive for the choice that Pilate gave to the crowd: Jesus or Barabbas.  Barabbas was the perfect image of the way of the logic and power and authority.  He was full of political and military bravado in a world that always seems to be inspired by such talk.  Jesus’ teachings were distinguished by love and sacrifice and mercy.  Barabbas was a man of action, of violent action, who appealed to nationalism and hatred.  Jesus taught peacemaking, concern for the rights of others, and the love of one’s enemies.  Barabbas seemed to be comfortable with the ways of the society. Jesus pointed others to the ways of God, of turning the other cheek and standing for the poor and oppressed.  Barabbas was the choice of the religious leaders who allowed the political circumstance of the day to define their actions of faith.  Jesus said that God alone should be worshipped and the building of the Kingdom of God is more important that earthly allegiance.  Barabbas’ solutions to the problems of the time made sense to people and appealed to their understanding of human security.  Jesus’ solutions were impractical and called for change that threatened one’s comfort.  Barabbas probably looked and thought and acted in a way that appealed to the masses.  Jesus certainly did not.

Why does this mention of Barabbas occur in the midst of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem?  I believe deeply in the genius of the gospel writers and I believe that they were trying to teach early Christians and even 21st century Christians an important lesson about Jesus and about what following Jesus truly means.  This week that we are about to enter follows a narrative that asks many questions and presents many choices.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Who are you?” and “What is truth?”  Judas asks, “What will you give me if I betray him?”  When Jesus predicts his betrayal at Upper Room, the disciples are quick to ask him, “Is it I?”  The woman near the courtyard fire points at Peter and asks, “Weren’t you one of his followers?”  Peter quickly denied it.

There are lots of questions asked in the narrative we remember this week, but perhaps none more important that the one Pilate asks of the crowd and the same question that each of us must consider with the words and actions of our lives, “Do you prefer Barabbas or Jesus?”  Do you choose the ways of the world or the ways of God?  Are you comfortable with the standards of violence and greed or will you choose a calling that turns the other cheek, and lifts up the needs of the weak and poor?  Do you prefer the comfortable status quo of Barabbas or can you follow the difficult challenge of Jesus the Christ?  Are you drawn to words that promise power and strength and control or do you wish to heed the call for love, forgiveness, and exchanges of mercy?

American theologian and member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy Margaret Farley writes, “We do not resist the forces of suspicion, fear, and violence by adopting the patterns of evil they represent.  Through the death of Jesus, all death is overwhelmed; through the humiliations of Jesus, all humiliation can be transformed.  This is not because of the death or the humiliation but because of the love that was not broken.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem lamenting its failure to understand the things that were for its peace, he did not…give up the struggle against the works of war.  There is a time to stand before all the world in a word of truth- bearing witness to a life, a love, a dignity so great that neither death nor anything else will destroy it, or even render it silent.”

As people of faith, there are questions we must answer.  While they are asked every hour of every day, this week the questions seem clearer.  It is as if the writers of the gospels are holding out a mirror for us to look into.  Do we see an image that we do not recognize and would rather not see?  Do we choose Barabbas or Jesus?  Do we choose hate or love?  Do we prefer retribution or forgiveness?  Self-centeredness or sacrifice?  Righteous anger or mercy?  Do we embrace greed or compassion?  Status or humility?  Self-deception or honesty? While it may not be wise or certainly not Christ-like to grab a fireplace poker and head out to battle General Lee, we might want to consider the wisdom of Gettysburg Hannah’s words.  In a day and age where it is easy and popular to live in a worldly fashion, it is time to show the world and everyone around us just whose side we are on.  Do we choose Barabbas or Jesus?
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Days Are Coming

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Days Are Coming”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 18, 2018

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

In a sermon on this morning’s Scripture passage, the Rev. Dr. Bennett Guess tells of a conversation he had with his sister many years ago.  They were in the car together, on the way to Bennett’s first year of seminary classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  Somewhere in that journey, perhaps on a side road in rural Kentucky, his sister turned to him and said, “Now, when you go to seminary, I want you to figure out all of this God stuff and then tell me what you believe.  Then I will believe that too.”  It didn’t quite work out that way but perhaps that is how many ministers feel or perhaps that is how many of us feel about religion.  If we can make it rational, if we can construct tangible rules and practices and measurements, then we can know how to do it and we can get others to learn it just as we have learned it.

I am beginning to get excited about the appearance of Diana Butler Bass here at Meadowbrook in just a couple of weeks.  In her book Grounded, that I knew some of you have read, Diana relates a conversation she had with a successful executive seated next to her on a flight.  The woman first inquired about Diana’s vocation and Diana replied that she wrote about religion and spirituality.  “Religion isn’t a very popular word, is it?  I used to be religious.  I grew up Catholic, but left the church over the sex-abuse scandal.  The church doesn’t make much sense in the world as it is now.  But I still believe in God.  I’d say that I am a spiritual person.”

Diana answered back, perhaps as we might answer, “Lots of people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’  What do you mean by that?  Who is God to you?”  The woman went on to speak about how she found God in nature, in her relationships with friends and family and neighbors, and in the work she does in the world.  She found God in her service feeding the hungry at a local shelter, in a jazz service at the local Episcopal church, and in offering hospitality to those who are ill or grieving.  The woman went on to say that she sometimes felt guilty about not attending church anymore.  But joining an organization seemed a strange way for her to relate to God.  She said the institutional church was so broken, so hypocritical.  She finished saying, “But these other things- the Spirit all around, caring and praying for people, working for a better world, they ground me.”

Those of us who grew up within the church and those of us who participate in the church with our time and money and energy may find a story like this to be quite frustrating.  The woman’s experience of the church is not like ours.  There are many things in within the church- worship and fellowship; music and prayer; learning and service- things in which we readily find the presence of the divine.  Yet we look around us and know that things aren’t going so well.  We see that the ranks in the pews are thinning.  Worship attendance overall is significantly down, especially among the young.  It is logical for us to blame a world that is increasing secular.  We can point out people who are uncommitted or whose priorities are out of whack.  We know that we live in a world in which the sacred space of Sunday morning is now wide open to sports and shopping and sleeping in.

Diana Butler Bass’ theory is that people have not lost their spiritual appetite at all.  They simply are finding ways to feed that appetite in places outside of organized religion.  For them, church has become a place where there is too wide of a distance between practice and structure and the experience of God.  More people today are finding God not in the high mountain sanctuaries of organized faith but in the more meaningful heart-felt interaction of everyday life.

Diana writes about the conventional God who existed outside time and space, a being beyond imagining, who lived in distant heaven, unaffected by human life.  This God was all-powerful, all knowing and was in all places.  This is the God worshipped in organized religion.  She then writes that the grounded God is speaking today, a “God in relationship with space and time as the love which connects and creates all things, known in and with the world.”  This God is not above or beyond us, rather “entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.”

Now we may want to argue this theory, saying it is a generalization of the practices of organized faith.  Perhaps the image of an all-powerful God isn’t the motivation of our faith and service.  Yet deep down inside there is a part of us that thinks that what brought us to faith should also work for others.  We want to believe that there has to be somebody out there who finds value in what we do and how we do it.  It stings when I consider that future generations may find that what is sacred and important to me to be of little value to the nurture of their own spirits.  I know that sometimes this change in our religious culture overwhelms me.  It scares me.  I wasn’t trained for it.  I don’t completely understand it. I often feel like a dinosaur, the same way I feel when I use the Oxford comma or leave two spaces between sentences in my typing.  Sometimes it feels as if I am in exile, carried away against my will by the tides of change, to a land away from the comfort of tradition and security.

This week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture are the words of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah offered these words to his faith community about six hundred years before Jesus was born.  His words offered a prophetic voice to that community, raising questions about the meaning of ritual and tradition and calling people to a more personal or perhaps we might say “grounded” experience with God.  The people of Jeremiah’s community were probably sick of hearing from him and certainly were tired of his message.  The prophet had been warning the king and the people about the danger of taking their covenant with God too lightly.  He cautioned them that their practices were really designed to suit them and to make them comfortable and were not actually honoring God.  He told them that ignoring God’s intention in favor of their own preferences would lead them to destruction.

However suddenly, in this reading we hear this morning, Jeremiah’s tone changes.  There is a more hopeful sound to his voice.  A day is coming when God will make a new covenant with God’s people.  This new agreement will not be measured through the keeping of laws or traditions.  It will be written onto the hearts of individuals.  The people will not need to be taught the specific precepts of the Law.  They will not have to learn all that has happened in the past.  Rather each follower of God will now be able to know God personally.

These words fit so well with our Christian teaching and with our understanding of Jesus that we might overlook the original context and what the words might have meant to the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time.  When he said them, the armies of Babylon were laying siege to the city.  When he wrote them, the Temple was destroyed, left behind in smoldering ruins.  When people read these words they were exiles in Babylon, waiting for a return to their holy city and their home.  It was hard for them to see any kind of hope in the future.

This is why this promise of something coming in a new day was so powerful.  God didn’t stay behind in the ruins of the Temple.  God hadn’t abandoned them in their new and uncertain circumstance.  God traveled in the heart of each believer.  Nothing about God was lost.  God was grounded within them.

These words are good news for us today.  A day is coming, perhaps the day is here.  The new covenant doesn’t require the structures of the old. The new covenant isn’t about institutional change but rather about a change of character within.  We don’t respond to God because of rules or practices or obligation.  We don’t need written mission statements to instruct us of what we are called to do.  We respond by “second nature” in a sustained, vibrant, intimate relationship with God that mirrors God’s ways of love, grace, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

I’ve shared with you before a story told by Walter Wangerin.  His son Matthew as a teenager was going through a difficult time.  Matthew was rebelling against everything his parents taught.  On more than one occasion the boy had been caught stealing comic books from a local store.  After one incident, father Walter was in deep despair.  Believing he had run out of options, he resorted to something he had not done in years- spanking.  He performed the action with great deliberation, almost as a ritual.  But when he was finished, he was so ashamed of himself that he ran from the room crying.  After pulling himself together, Walter went back into the room, grabbed his son, and hugged him long and hard.  Nothing more was ever said about that night.  And Matthew never stole another things.  Years later, when Matthew as a grown man, he and his mother were reminiscing about the stolen comic books.  Matthew said, “Do you know why I finally stopped stealing?”  “Of course,” his mother replied, “It was because Dad finally spanked you.”  “No,” said Matthew.  “It wasn’t the spanking at all.  It was because Dad cried.”  The tears of his father were like a new covenant written in the heart, a relationship now grounded not in rules but in love and grace and forgiveness.

There is a power of hope in these words.  There is a power of hope that speaks to me through the hopelessness that I consider when searching for answers to the problems of the church as an institution.  There is a hope that comforts me when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the darkness that is the world today.  The hope comes from a God who comes to the gathered community not through following rules and planning successful programs but through the grace and mercy which flows from the hearts of the individuals who form that community.  The hope is born when we gather not of our obligation but because we find that being in a community that practices love and acceptance and forgiveness bring us closer to God.  The hope springs from a belief that God’s actions on our behalf are not motivated by our fidelity to tradition but by God’s love which transforms us into people who want nothing more than to love others as God loves us.  God wants to be real for us.  God’s love wants to be part of us.  God’s grace is written in our hearts.

This covenant speaks to a people who sense the failure of old ways yet who now hear God saying that God isn’t finished with us and there is something more to be done.  This covenant speaks directly to us, changes us, and makes all the difference in our lives.

 

An Unpredictable God

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“An Unpredictable God”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 11, 2018

 

 

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.

 

As I was lying in bed a couple of weeks ago, flipping through the digital television channels to see if anything interesting was on, I came across an old black and white Western movie.  It was probably filmed in the 50’s or possibly the early 60’s.  The scene I stumbled onto was a group of settlers, crossing a mountainous region, and discussing where they were either going to make camp or perhaps even build a cabin.  A question of dialogue from one of the characters caught my ear.  He asked, “Do we know if we are above the snake line?”  The snake line?  I had never heard of such a thing before.  I was familiar with the timber line but I didn’t know such a demarcation existed for snakes.

The next morning I googled “snake line” and found this.  There is in nature, a real and definite line in elevation above which you will never find a snake.  Early American settlers referred to this line as “the snake line.”  When they were purchasing property or decided where to locate a house or cabin they would try to clarify whether or not that piece of property was above the snake line.  When the land on such places was often more rocky, harder to clear, and certainly not as fertile as land in a rich valley, early settlers knew that the land below was frequently infested with rattlesnakes, adders, and copperheads.  And so they chose to raise their families on the higher ground, above the snake line, rather than risk snake bites for themselves and their loved ones.

Nearly fifty-six percent of all Americans admit that snakes are the thing in life that they fear most.  Snakes consistently beat out speaking public, heights, closed in places, mice and spiders as our worst fear.  I always scratch my head when I consider that more of us fear snakes than a serious medical disease, although 1 in 13 of us will contract such a major disease in our lifetime while only 1 in 70,000 of us will be bitten by a snake.  More people are killed annually by bee stings than by snake bites yet many more people are frightened by snakes than bees.

Yet I have to admit, the presence of a snake makes me feel very uneasy.  A few weeks ago while vacationing in Florida, I came across a snake in the path to our room.  Perhaps I should say more accurately, the snake came across me.  When he suddenly slithered across the path, moving from one garden to another, I must have jumped a foot.  I certainly was glad that no one was around to capture my reaction on camera!

William Willimon writes about a hike that he took with a group of people through the mountains of western North Carolina.  Before the hike began, one of the hikers said, “I want everyone to know that I am deathly afraid of snakes.  I suffer from herpaphobia.  So I am fine, but don’t anyone come across a snake and if you do, don’t tell me about it, or I will go truly ballistic.”  Another member of the group, a perhaps overly rational man, responded to the woman by saying, “That’s wonderful.  The thing you fear most in life is a secretive reptile, the chances of which seeing are extremely slim.  I almost envy you.  I fear planes crashing into buildings, mass killings, a virus from Asia, and the collapse of my 401K.  You are lucky if the thing that scares the wits out of you is a reptile.”

In the book of Numbers there is a strange passage about snakes.  The people of Israel, led by Moses, had left slavery in Egypt and had wandered in the wilderness for some time.  After months or perhaps years, they grew tired wandering.  They grew impatient at the progress they seemed to be making toward the Promised Land.  They actually detested the miserable manna that they were forced to eat, manna that God had earlier provided when they complained about being hungry.  Now the food didn’t seem to match their more selective palates.  One author puts it this way, “The people of Israel were tired of living on God’s desert welfare.”  They were cranky and whiny.  They were impatient and short-tempered.  They seemed to have forgotten that God had rescued them from slavery in the first place and was leading them to a promised land.  There was nothing that Moses could do about the complainers.

This is where the story gets really strange.  As a responses to the complaining, God sent poisonous snakes among the people.  God lowered the elevation of the snake line considerably!  And the snakes did what snakes do best-bite.  The bites were literally painful, fiery bites that killed many of the people of Israel.  The word “seraph” comes from the word “fire,” so these snakes packed a painful punch.  These serpents were lethal and the people soon understood that if God didn’t do something about them, many of the people would perish.

The Israelites got down on their knees and begged Moses to move God to save them from the snakes.  Now, it may be hard for us to comprehend God sending such calamity upon people, even people showing such a lack of faith.  We may not believe that God works in such a cold and heartless manner.  Or perhaps this is just a story, a story that finds a divine hand in a terrible situation, a story that blames God when there is no other likely cause.

And the story gets stranger.  The people of Israel came to their senses and confessed of their sin of speaking against God.  Moses came up with a solution to the snake problem.  He called for a bronze snake to be placed upon a pole, and lifted above the people.  While we might see this as a clear violation of the Second Commandment against worshipping false idols, the people of God were called to look up and gaze upon the snake.  By looking up, they would look past their fear of what was on the ground surrounding them.  By gazing at the object of their fear, they would be able to seriously deal with their fears.  The whole thing seems rather preposterous to us today, but God suggested it.  It may seem rather counter-intuitive, but that is how an unpredictable God works.  Moses followed through.  The people believed.

Scott Hoezee writes that it is curious to him that God is able to do a great number of things more easily than deal with the presence of sin and evil.  Compared to the birth and life and crucifixion and death and resurrection of Jesus- the whole act of Creation was a snap.  While God can part seas and cause the sun to stand still in the sky, God cannot simply snap fingers and make sin and evil and the darkness of humanity disappear.  Something more complex, something more meaningful, something that actually involves God’s people has to happen in order for such difficult problems are addressed.

So here in the book of Numbers, in the story of God’s people wandering the in wilderness, we have this story of a snake lifted up to help the faithful people of God get through a plague of snakebites.  The people had to look at a snake, the very thing that was afflicting them, before some kind of healing and relief would happen.  They had to confront their fear.  They had to be honest about who they were and how they had fallen short in God’s eyes.  They had to truthfully confront their limits of life.  They had to stop looking down at the pain and anxiety surrounding them and start looking up at the hope of God which provides greater meaning to any situation.  The lesson is that God takes our fears, our shortcomings, our sins, our limits; God takes these things from beneath our feet where they impede our journey.  God lifts them up where we can see them clearly and walk forward with faith.

Perhaps that is what this season of Lent is all about.  As we walk through the wilderness of life, as we wander between promise and fulfillment, we can often turn away from God.  We can settle for less.  We can pursue pleasures and delights.  We can make choices and decisions that blind us to what it is that God is calling us to be.  And then we encounter the bite of the snake.  We are confronted by the reality that what we chasing and what we are building is really meaningless.  We are aware that this gift of life can leave us at any time and we have not yet embraced it or used it as God has intended.  Lent is a time to be honest about all of that- about the snakes that bite at our heels and the sin that keeps us separated from God.  And it is about understanding the unpredictable God’s solution.  It is not escape.  It is not a simple scrubbing or cleaning.  It is not a denial of reality.  It is a process of looking up, of seeing and understanding God’s redemption of our lives.  It is a realization that God will ultimately work through our death and our limits through the hope of resurrection.  It is in knowing that we must confess to be forgiven, we must hurt before we are healed, and we might die before we can live.