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Text: Numbers 21: 4 – 9
It has been one year since the Pandemic began. One year, give or take a week, since we closed the church buildings to in-person services. One year since we moved online and had to learn whole new ways of doing church, of worshipping together, of praising God with music and prayer.
This has been odd , to say the least. Coming into this new call, for me, in the middle of a pandemic has been exceptionally challenging. It’s been really hard to make connections with you all when I can’t come around after church, coffee in hand, and just sit down.
You know, as a high introvert, the idea of having to socialize at coffee time after church was once the most terrifying thing about ministry to me. Now I miss it more than anything else about in-person church services. One day, one day we’ll all be vaccinated.
(Just so everyone knows, we are going to continue to follow Provincial health guidelines and continue to err on the side of caution given our vulnerable membership; you might be getting vaccinated, but we’re not getting back together until I am; and, honestly, I personally don’t want to get back together until we can sing together again)
What I’ve noticed in the year since has been that COVID paralysis has sort of come and gone in waves. There was a point in the spring last year when everything shut down, and everything was uncertain, and we were all just waiting. Then by Easter, we started thinking and dreaming and discussing ways we could work with this, and into the summer ideas became reality. Churches began moving services, bible studies, meetings all online, and it seemed like this transition could work. Then, by fall, started setting in the zoom fatigue, the exhaustion, and as the cases rose in the second wave and lockdowns got stricter, I think the winter has been especially hard.
It’s very seasonal. We’re in a second Lent with COVID, looking toward a second Easter. Maybe this time it will stick, as Christians have been wishing for the last 2000 years. Maybe this Easter will be the one that sticks. Maybe Christ will actually stay risen this time. But for now, we find ourselves once again marching inexorably toward Jerusalem.
At this point in the Exodus story, the Israelites have been wandering the desert for a long time. Several times it has seemed like the end, they have just gotten near to the promised land, and then God has turned them around and kicked them away for some indiscretion or other. The Sinai peninsula takes a week at most to cross on foot, not 40 years. Walking from South Africa to Korea wouldn’t take 40 years. So, just as we might have been over this already if maybe we’d have gone into stricter lockdown at the beginning, maybe if we’d actually all worn masks right from the start, maybe if we’d been washing our hands like we’re supposed to, maybe if our healthcare system were better funded in anticipation of something like this; maybe if the Israelites had just not complained, had not built idols, had not asked to go back again and again, they’d be home already.
But the exhaustion and weariness breeds resentment, so the Israelites just cannot stop complaining. “We’re going to die again, it’s never going to end!” They want to give up, and go back to Egypt, again. Can’t we just give up on the wandering, the bland mana, the heat, the sore feet, the carrying of the infirm and vulnerable? Can’t we just give up on the masks and the social distancing and the everything being closed? Maybe we were slaves, maybe some people will get sick, but the price for freedom or for health seems too much of a burden.
And then we get a weird story about God punishing the people by sending venomous snake (not poisonous, translators of the NRSV) among the people, and Moses curing them by putting a snake on a staff and lifting it up as a totem. And then maybe 1800 to 2000 years later (the traditional dates and what archeology has uncovered differ) Jesus talks to a guy named Nicodemus and says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And because Jesus says that, that’s really the only reason we are reading the weird snake story today.
I’m going to focus on this, and the weird story of the snake. You don’t need more sermons on, “For God so loved the world . . .” Well, maybe you do, but still. I’ve never preached the snake story before.
There was a superstition in the middle ages that if you went to the mass at church and were looking, really looking at the communion host the moment it was broken in two, you wouldn’t die that day. And for most common people, back when the mass was in Latin, there were really no hymns and what music there was would also have been in Latin, no sermon, it was really the only reason to go to church: to see the body of Christ being lifted up, the Elevation as it is called in the liturgy.
When we lift up Christ, what exactly are we looking at? We Protestants do not tend to have the image of Jesus on the Cross, the corpus or body on the crucifix; we prefer the image of the “empty cross,” that points to the Resurrection. We say the image of Jesus’s body is too morbid, too depressing, too scary.
But when we look at Jesus on the cross, we see in Jesus the things that are hurting us. That is the image of God’s solidarity with us. God is not afraid of us, is not afraid to go into our hospital rooms for fear of being infected, not afraid of looking at us because She finds our wounds too disgusting, not afraid of holding our hands because some of our blood might get on Him. That is why a serpent is lifted up so that those who have been bitten by serpents can look at it and see the validation of their pain.
Jesus is a victim of oppression; we gaze at him and see our own oppression: Poverty, injustice, discrimination, colonialism, mental illness, violence, abandonment. Some other ministers I’ve talked to think we should avoid the “blood and gore” of the Jesus story because talking too much about it can be traumatizing to those who have experienced it, or something like it. But the pain that we have, we see in the cross, but it is not re-traumatizing; it is cathartic. God is with us through that pain.
This is the important thing about the crucifixion, when we get to it. There’s a lot of dimensions to it, and we can talk all we want about atonement, Jesus being our substitute, our souls “bought with the precious blood,” but the heart of it, for me, is that Jesus is Emmanuel; God with us, not just in life but in death as well. We all die; we are mortal, from dust and to dust we shall return. But God is with us through all of that. Our death becomes His death, so that Her new life can become our new life.
At the heart of it, that’s what the weird snake story means too. The Israelites grumble, they get bitten by venomous snakes, they die, but God is with them in the wilderness. God is with us in our wildernesses and being bitten by our snakes too. Just a little while longer, and we will see the promised land, but we cannot go back. But God is with us.
“In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. Thanks be to God.”