John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9
In the past three months we have witnessed a miracle. On Christmas Eve Sam and Kelley’s son was rushed to UVA with a massive brain injury. This church immediately entered a season of prayer. We fervently prayed, “Let Brian survive 72 hours.” Then, as hours turned to days and days to weeks our prayers changed. The complications of such an immense injury began to weigh heavy on everyone’s heart. I witnessed a mother who refused to imagine a complete recovery was not possible. I witnessed a father who wondered aloud why God allowed this to happen. I witnessed a wife trying to understand the present in light of the future. I witnessed a church turning to God but not knowing what to pray. I witnessed myself praying to God for guidance in my choice of words as I sat with two dear friends who needed me to be more than a friend.
And then a miracle began to evolve. Suddenly we witnessed what few of us imagined possible. Suddenly our role and our prayers became clearer. Suddenly, as one, we gave thanks and celebrated the power of our faithful God.
Yet, in that same trauma ward, there were other parents, other friends, other people of faith praying for a miracle that would never be realized. Would they give thanks and celebrate the faithfulness of God?
What is faith? It is certainly something easily turned into a cliché. Faith can give us strength in times of weakness and yet make us weak when we exhibit too much strength. Faith is the belief in something beyond ourselves yet when we think we have figured out God, we discover we weren’t talking with God at all.
For me, faith is trusting in a mystery I will never completely understand. This mystery speaks in parables and difficult truths which too often offer more questions than answers. I believe in God. I place my faith in God. But sometimes I find myself whining at God when God chooses to contradict my insights.
For many, faith begins with a verse we learned as children. “For God so loved the world, God gave his only son.” Karl Barth believed John 3:16 to be the gospel wrapped up in one verse. This morning our text contains the verse that precedes this universally known statement of faith. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
I don’t venture into the Book of Numbers often. I love Genesis and Exodus. Then I skim Leviticus and Numbers so that I might give Deuteronomy the attention it deserves. This morning, thanks to the writer of the Gospel of John, our full attention needs to be focused on an odd yet revealing story tucked deep in the book of Numbers.
It begins with the children of Israel in full whine mode. There is nothing odd about this. One could suggest the children of Israel whined throughout the entire Old Testament. Perhaps that is why they are called the children rather than the nation of Israel. The complaint this time concerned the route taken to reach the Promised Land. It’s not like they had road maps or a GPS. They knew they were lost. They knew they were running out of food and water. The results was they were quickly losing faith with Yahweh.
Walter Brueggeman, my favorite Old Testament scholar, likes to say, “You don’t mess with Yahweh. Yahweh might be slow to anger, but when God’s patience is tested, hide the women and the children.”
Poisonous snakes suddenly appeared. Ever encounter a snake up close and personal. We do crazy things when a snake crosses our path. I was fishing with Amelia McCulley a couple of years ago when she spotted a snake swimming in her direction. She was in a kayak. All she had to do was slap the water with her paddle. Instead she threw her brand new fancy fishing rod at the snake. Both the snake and Amelia escaped without injury. The fishing pole still remains on the bottom of the Shenandoah River.
The children of Israel were not so fortunate. People were bitten and died. They cried to Moses, “We have sinned against the Lord. Pray to Yahweh to take the snakes away.”
God said to Moses, “Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When the people look upon it they will be healed.”
What a strange story. Why would the writer of John use this illustration to announce the death of Jesus? This raises so many questions about the role of God and role of humanity in the death of Jesus. We talked about this a couple weeks ago when I preached on the foolishness of the cross. This morning I want us to focus on the foolishness of faith. Moses said to the children of Israel, “Look at the snake and believe God will heal you.” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Look at the cross, and know God will heal you.”
There is nothing logical about this. One of my favorite comedians was George Carlin. He was a brilliant guy that made a career on exposing what he believed to be hypocrisy. He included God on that list. Carlin claimed, “We not only believe in some invisible guy up in the sky, we give money to him because if we don’t he promises we will burn in hell. And, oh yea, and then we claim God loves us.”
Carlen and a host of others have laid out arguments debunking God that are irrefutable to the logical mind. Yet faith never claimed to be rational. Praying before a bronze snake or the cross makes no sense whatsoever in the light of day. But that is not where our lives are always lived.
My grandmother Andrews was a woman of great faith. She came to visit Deb and me when we lived in Wilmington. After Martina would go down for her nap we would sit on the porch and talk. I would share some of my burdens of being a husband, father, and minister. She would say to me, “Andy, you’ve got to lay that burden on the cross where you can look at it. Burdens either kill us or make us stronger. You put it on the cross. You don’t have to bear it by yourself.”
George Carlin would scoff at such nonsense. Sometimes I do too, until life gets serious, or my burden becomes too heavy, or I wonder if there is any hope of discovering the dawn.
Then I remember my Grandmother’s words.
Sometimes we just mess up. The snakes of life are swirling at our feet and what happens next might not be so pretty. Place it on the cross. Give your failure a good honest look. God doesn’t promise to solve the problem, but confession goes a lot further than excuses.
Sometimes we are uncontrollably angry with someone. We have justified our next step regardless of the chaos it might cause. Before you act, place that anger on the cross and pray there might be another option. Reconciliation before vindication will not give you instant gratification. But it might save a relationship.
Sometimes tragedy has fallen upon us. We have no answers and we are losing hope. Place that burden on the cross. The end results might still be heartbreaking but even should we walk through the valley of death, we know God’s presence and God’s community will be walking with us.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” That is not quite good enough for a lot of folks. But it was good enough for my grandmother. It’s been good enough for Kelly and Sam. And it might be sufficient for anyone one brave enough, humble enough, or even foolish enough to lift up a burden, a sin, a fear, or even a nightmare, and place it on the cross.
It takes more than reason and common sense to trust in God’s grace. It takes believing in a covenant relationship older than life itself. It takes believing in the idea that God does love the world. It sometimes takes choosing the faith of your 85 year old grandmother over the logic of George Carlin. To many folks this seems so foolish. But then if faith always made sense, it wouldn’t be called faith.
To God be the glory. Amen.