4th Sunday of Lent Year B
Today is traditionally known as Laetare Sunday, the middle Sunday of the season of Lent. Laetare, from the latin meaning “rejoice,” Lent is half-way over. Today’s readings are about a turning point in the life of God’s people, and so they are fitting for this middle Sunday of Lent.
Beginning with our Old Testament reading, from the account in Numbers of Israel’s long journey in the wilderness from slavery towards the land of promise, the main threat facing God’s people seems to be coming from within? The natives are restless, grumbling about the manna that God has given them in the wilderness, with things getting so bad that God sends fiery serpents to bite and kill God’s people, shocking them back into quiet submission. This image from Numbers of Moses’ bronze serpent held up on a pole reappears in our Gospel today on the lips of Jesus, referring to his own crucifixion. Let’s look below the surface of the Numbers story.
What if Israel is just one more typical human group: secure in its prejudices, and suspicious of outsiders, seeing them as life’s major source of threat? So it is in Israel’s wilderness journey, fighting one external enemy after another and invoking God’s name over all that bloodshed. But in today’s reading there’s no external enemy, with violence erupting from within the community itself. The serpents, those familiar old tempters from the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, the pagan deities of the day in Egypt, are best understood, not just as divine assaults meant to whip Israel back into shape—but as symbols of idolatry and violence that erupt within Israel itself, and also within every human group. Maybe the fiery serpents are best understood for us today as metaphors of our own individual inner demons as well as our society’s. The wounding and sometimes fatal attacks of these fiery serpents represent our own self-destructive tendencies rearing up at us, and signs of our carefully constructed self-image coming adrift. This is a metaphor of every self-inflicted crisis of our lives.
Israel isn’t allowed the usual circuit breaker of finding some external cause for their suffering, but God shows them they themselves are the cause of their suffering. God offers the only medicine that will cure this self-imposed violence.
God’s tough medicine is to have Moses put the bronze image of the very thing that is tormenting them, a serpent, on a pole and make God’s people look at it, seeing what is, ultimately, their own reflection—to see exactly what it is that rules their own hearts, and thus be brought to faith’s crucial turning point. This reminder is something we need to hear—every Sunday when the liturgy calls on us to acknowledge our sins. Christian penitential practice is one version of the serpent being lifted up before us, so that in facing the truth about ourselves we can find healing from God: "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".
Jesus takes up this image in our gospel today, but it’s his own innocent, broken and crucified body that’s to be held up before the world. This is how Jesus reveals our vicious self-deceptions, only thus allowing the world to be drawn close to God in reconciliation. We’re the ones who demand that someone else pays for what we can’t face in ourselves. You and I and our collective egos in nations, in classes, in cliques and tribes, and in our often violent and destructive civilization as a whole - Jesus is the sacrifice we demand.
Our vivacious Easter God of life—our God who goes vulnerably to the cross in the person of Jesus. This is the light that comes into the world, which is at the same time the judgement of the world—the revealing of the world’s true nature. And, according to John’s Gospel today, if we reject Jesus, if we reject God’s offer of the truth that sets us free, then we’ve judged ourselves.
Our future isn’t exclusion by God, then, so much as being left to cook in our own juice in a world that is looking less and less as the one Jesus intended. If we come to Jesus and don’t look away, and aren’t afraid to admit who we are and what we’re really like, deep down, then his lifting up can be a genuine turning point for our lives. We come to the light, and so we show that our deeds are beginning to issue from God’s action in us, and no longer from typically human business as usual.
This is the message of our epistle reading today, in one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages of the whole New Testament. We humans are dead in our trespasses and enthralled by the spirit of this world—that makes us envious, self-justifying and ultimately violence-prone. But although this is the people we plainly are, God still reaches out to us in Jesus Christ, even though we belong among the dead because of our actions, raising us up with Jesus, and seating us with him in the heavenly place of honor, which means far above and beyond the reach and power of the spirit that makes our world go around.
We become new creatures and not because we deserve it, but because God loves us; because God dreams a new future for us beyond the unpromising one we seem set towards. And from this turning point come the good works of which our Gospel also speaks today, of deeds done in God—the deeds, the attitudes, the liberated habits that God created us in Jesus Christ to finally discover.
So this is the turning point we’re offered by God at our Lenten midpoint. Our baptism marks us out for this freedom and our Eucharist sustains us in our journey towards claiming it. In penitence and faith may we look full upon the image of our own sin and complicity that God gives us today in the metaphor of the serpent, and find in it the healing God intends and find our way anew into God’s presence and love.