Whenever snakes appear in scripture, as we have today in the reading from Numbers and the Gospel of John, you know it's not a good thing. Snakes always represent that which is trying to take one away from God, to distract one from God's desire. In the reading from Numbers God has just released the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and they're wandering around in the desert eating manna, which is sort of like pieces of Wonder Bread falling from the sky. The people have grown weary of this bland diet, they actually wish they were back in Egypt, back as slaves, and so they complain. God gets angry at their complaining and punishes them with snakes that bit and kill them. Then God realizes thats a bad idea. Moses and the people pray for change and God responds by having Moses build a bronze snake and post it on a pole. Then whenever a person is bitten by a snake they can look at the bronze snake and live.
What in the world does the bronze snake stand for? Has God actually required them to build an idol?Or, is it possible that in turning the snake to bronze and putting it on a pole God has taken all of the power out of the snake? God has taken away all of the power of the snake to distract people and turn them away from God.
In our Ash Wednesday service we are asked to observe a Holy Lent through self-examination and repentance by prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditating on God's Holy Word. What does repentance mean? (seek forgiveness). Repentance literally means to turn around, or to turn back to God. So in Lent we are asked to look at our lives and how we are living, to consider how we could live healthier fuller lives though fasting from that which keeps us from God, through self-examination by looking at the broken relationships and seeking to make them better, through self-denial which means deny the parts of ourselves that keep us from God - that turn us away from God - and to open ourselves up in prayer to consider where and how God is present in our lives. Sometimes we don't see God until after the fact. But other times we are aware of God's presence in the moment.
How do we pray? In our Sunday morning services we might pray in the silence before the service beings. We pray through the incense that lifts our prayers up to God in smoke and scent. We pray in song through the Taize pieces we are singing, each one created from words of scripture. We pray in words too, in the prayers of the people and in the prayer of the Eucharist.
Each of the Eucharistic prayers tells our salvation history story, what God is doing in and through the life of Jesus and in and through our lives, and how we are called to share the bread, to take and receive, and share in this holy meal.
We are coming to the end of Lent, just one more Sunday and then its Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In this season we are called to ponder how God is active in our lives and how we are making room in our lives to be more present to God. Soon it will be Easter, the confession will be gone, the quiet somber tone of the service will be gone. We'll be more celebratory, joyful. We'll rejoice in the life God has given us, in spring, in blooming flowers, in warmer sunnier days, in new life and hope. In turning and returning to God, loving as God asks of us, loving God, loving self, loving others.
This sermon was preached without a manuscript, this is what I recall saying for Lent 4B: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21