Look up and see Life…

The congregation of the people of Israel have escaped from Egypt,

but their troubles are far from over.

The journey has been long and difficult –

their negotiations with the King of Edom for safe passage through the land have failed –

to avoid open war, they take the long way around.

So runs the story of Numbers, chapter 20 – the bottom line is this;

life in the wilderness is as difficult, perhaps more difficult, than life as Egyptian slaves.

The people moan. The people grumble.

They grow impatient and speak out against God.

This approach backfires – the camp is swarmed by poisonous snakes.

So let’s review: life is hard, and then, there are snakes.

A pretty fair description of life in the desert of central Palestine.

Except these people had been promised more.

Their expectations have been raised by the activity of their God –

by the encouragement of God’s messenger –

and through their experience of a particular kind of deliverance.

What Moses does is (once again) intercede.

We’re sorry, the people say – we goofed – ask God to forgive us…

And through Moses, God offers a tonic –

the ‘snake on a stick’ that is, for us,

a symbol of physicians and pharmacists –

a sign which suggests that in the right context, with the right dosage,

stuff that can kill you might also be able to cure you –

and those who were bitten and looked up at this symbol, didn’t die.

Remember this – there are still snakes.

People will still be bitten – but now, fewer will die.

They have been offered an alternative to the way things are

from the midst of the way things are.

A different way of looking at the things that plague them.

Look down and see death. Look up, and see life.

We know that God has laid a claim on us –

We can recite the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of this magnificent telling of the life of Christ

but the kingdom continues to elude us.

We see evidence of the kingdom of God in the things you do, Jesus,

but we’re tired of this miserable fare (to borrow a phrase from Numbers)…

We offer God our praise – but grudging.

We call ourselves God’s people – but we’re not at all pleased with where that has lead us.

We expected the promised land, and the country is full of snakes.

We’re hungry – we’re tired – and we’re done to death by our circumstances

and it’s God we blame (if you’re not for us, you’re against us…)

Jesus offers some very familiar advice – taken from those ancient scriptures –

“just as Moses raised up a serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man must be lifted up…”

You’re asking me earthly questions, he says to Nicodemus, (and also to us…)

but I’m offering you heavenly answers.

It’s not that Jesus proposes the elimination of the snakes –

but rather an alteration of our perspective.

Look down and see death. Look up, and see life.

Our expectation is that, since we are trying to be faithful, God owes us a break.

Since we have enlisted in the body of Christ,

we are somehow immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

since the lord is with us none can (or should) stand against us…

yet Jesus promises none of that.

This salvation Jesus calls us too –

this new life we are invited to enter; life from above –

it comes to us in the midst of our life below.

It comes as an alternative, rather than as reward for endurance.

To be ‘born again’ is to understand that we must live differently,

aware of the dangers – indeed, still subject to injury and mishap –

but no longer ruled by the fear of them.

Lifted up, the Son of Man becomes our focus – broken and battered on the cross,

he is a reminder of precisely those things that can destroy us –

but lifted up he also reminds us of the different vision of God that we are invited to

the vision that values humility, and service;

compassion, and justice;

honest, heart-felt worship.

For God so loved the world…John’s gospel so beautifully says

and in that eloquent sentence,

we are invited to experience that love in all its fullness

to acknowledge the presence of a life-altering act of God

to open ourselves to a change of perspective;

to look up and see life.



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