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Sin. Repentance. Salvation. Those are the three notions that are at the heart of today’s scriptures. They’re presented and talked about in different ways, and yet they all (including the other readings for the day: Psalm 107:1-3,17-22 & Ephesians 2:1-10) affirm that God alone saves. Why does God continue to save humankind when humankind persists in sin and rebellion? How do we understand that in 2015 California?
Numbers 21:4-9 – the saving serpent on a stick
his story is odd. It’s rarely preached on, but is always paired with John 3 in the Lectionary for it’s the narrative about the serpent to which Jesus refers in John 3:14. The Israelites are in the wilderness between slavery in Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. As Moses leads them they become unhappy. They romanticize the past, quarrel amongst themselves, accuse God of being unfaithful to them and then attack Moses for his seemingly failed leadership. In the unavoidable hardness of life’s journeys, stuck in the present between the remembered past and anticipated future, it’s the place in which we all turn on each other, our leaders, and even God for not delivering what we think we’re due.
Throughout the wilderness journeys God has been merciful and forgiving, when they longed for the food of Egypt, when they wanted a leader, when they were afraid of the Sea of Reeds and Pharoah’s army of chariots at their backs. But here Yahweh is harsh and uncooperative. God responds to their complaints with punishment. Yet something happens between verse 6 and 7. The narrative does an about-face. The people who were complaining and belligerent, and now submissive and repentant. Commensurate with their change, God who dispatches death, now offers life and health.
John 3:1-21 – Jesus lifted-up – God’s salvation for the world
This larger story of Nicodemus is well known, as is verse 16. But 14-21 are a bit foreign. Jesus is lifted up – like the snake in the desert – to save God’s people. God hasn’t punished the people for their complaints, but rather Jesus focuses upon God’s love of the world and desire to save it, to heal it, to deliver it from bondage and decay (Romans 8). Those who look upon the lifted-up (resurrected and crucified) Jesus will receive eternal life – which somehow exists in the present (John 6:54-55) through the action of Jesus who has life in himself (John 5:26).
Questions for going deeper:
1. What word grabs your attention in today’s selections?
2. How do you struggle with a complaining, uncooperative spirit – in relationship to God, to others, or maybe even to what you know if good for you?
3. How do you react to God as a God who gives life and takes life, who punishes and blesses, who heals and who curses?
4. Has Jesus saved you? Or is he saving you? How?