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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer. Amen.

Well friends, I never guessed that today’s readings would bring in the snakes.  I wouldn’t say that I hate snakes, but it is true that I don’t really like them.  And even the fact that the readings call them serpents not snakes, doesn’t make it any better!  But since Jesus, in his words from the Gospel of John, also refers to the passage from Numbers we should probably pay attention. 

And just as I don’t like snakes there are also a few other things that I don’t like about this first reading, which gave me more of a yuck-er than a shimmer.  At first glance, for sure! 

So of course, this is where it seems we need to begin.  The Israelites are on the journey of exile, and they are getting rather grumble-y. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Now, the fact that they had just journeyed through a victory against the Canaanites, the fact that they were daily given manna, and the fact that God had made water come out of the rock might have made this a good time to continue the journey in gratitude and renewal of trust that God has got this.  But nope!  The grumbles have begun again – as they always do – and they are not impressed with the menu or the locale.  And so, they begin to grumble to and about Moses, their leader, and about Yahweh, the One who sent them on this journey.  Their grumbling became more of a speaking against the very One who gave them life, protection, and provision.  One commentator described this grumbling as “sawing off the branch that you’re sitting on.”  How often do we grumble for getting what we want, but not the way we wanted it? 

And how does God respond, well we read “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” And there it is – the things that I really don’t like about this passage all bound up in one sentence.  Serpents were sent, serpents got their bite on, and many died.” This is not the response that we would expect to come. And this response makes it hard to want to follow One who would do such.  

Might it make it any better if we don’t just jump to a literal “the Lord sent the snakes” to a more probably accurate image of the people being led into an area of the wilderness where these poisonous snakes just naturally dwell?  Maybe, or maybe not but as a people who are so closely connected to and in relationship with the divine, they very quickly connect the actions of the snakes to the response of God.  

The burning sensation of the snake bites becomes the very felt sensation of God’s anger over their grumbling.  The death of many from these snake bites becomes a very felt sensation of the death of God’s protection over them.  The people felt these sensations greatly and cried out to Moses, “we have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” We acknowledge our grumbling now please send these serpents away.  For surely, if the Lord sent the snakes, then he can take them away.

But that is not what the Lord did.  The Lord did not send the serpents away and he did not even remove the people from where the serpents were dwelling.  And so, it seems that some of our understanding of who God is and what God can or will do may need to consider more than just what we think we want or need.  If the snakes are just dwelling there because that is where they dwell, the snakes are not just gonna go away.  And if there are gonna be snakes, then snake bites may still happen.  

So instead of taking away the snakes, God just took the very thing that was bringing death and made it a tool to bring life. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” The thing that was once a sign of death has now become the way to life.  The very material of the bronze that was used to build the idols to worship, is now being used by the One who alone is worthy to be worshipped.  The impossible has just become possible.

And Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The bronze statue of a serpent in the wilderness has been replaced with the very living One who came into the world to bring life.  The light has come into the darkness. The light has come especially for those places where the darkness dwells. And the light has come to those places where we so often find ourselves dwelling.  God did not send the darkness and God did not send away the darkness. God sent the light so that the darkness is no longer dark and death is no longer the final word. 

In the midst of darkness and death, and in those places where darkness and death dwells, look to the One who has been raised from the dead so that we might live in the light.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, that verse seems to be one of the most well-known verses in Scripture and it often amuses me where and when it is being used. For example, is a placard of the verse, really, going to bring about conversion at a baseball game or along a highway?  This feels more like a bite than a blessing.  But just as the point has been so often missed before, as I laugh at the placard, maybe I am missing the point again, too.  Or more we can miss what God can do with the placard, even in such an awkward place. The sign holder may be thinking read the sign and become a believer. And it could happen! But God may just be thinking well if the sign is gonna be there I might as well use it. I will use it as a reminder to all who already believe but find themselves grumbling and stumbling around in the dark.  Remember, my beloveds, keep your eyes on me. I am here with you, and for you, and I surround you with my love, my provision, and my light.  

And so again we are reminded, yes, the darkness will be there, but it loses its power as we dwell in the light.  The very fact that Jesus was speaking these things at nighttime, in what seems like a secret meeting with a man named Nicodemus who wasn’t yet convinced of Jesus’ identity - makes it even more profound. The setting was dark, the meeting was kept in the dark, and the conversation was with one who still dwelt in the dark. And Jesus gives the invitation, “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." To live in the light doesn’t just mean that we are “lit up” but it also means that our actions and our very beings point to the One who is the Light.  

That which we offer to the world and who we are in the world is a gift.  Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Ephesians.  “By grace, you have been saved, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace.” The light that we now dwell in, is then meant to shine so that others may also see and find their way in the darkness.  The light that shines in us, becomes a beacon for others. 

It isn’t just the what it is also the where.  Where you dwell and where I dwell may be different, or how we dwell in the world might be different, and even the darkness we encounter may also be different based on where our paths dwell.  But the Light that shines within us and shines through us - is, was, and always will be the same.  

So maybe this is why these readings appear during Lent.  There may be moments of darkness or a cloud of unknowing.  There might be moments when it feels like provision has run dry. And along the journey, there may be serpents and snakes.  At worst, we encounter that which wants to cause us harm and those who want to cause us harm.  At best, we are wandering through a place that is just where the snakes and the darkness dwell, and they mean us no harm.  It may require a bit of discernment to know the difference, but that’s what the light is for. To live into and to look up to.  And most importantly to be transformed by as we live into our aliveness and our joy.

And so my friends, I pray, that You will dwell not in the depths of despair but in the heights of delight.  I pray that even when you encounter those things that cause you to stumble and to grumble, you will look to the One who will bring life to your path.  And I pray that when it feels like the world is losing its way, you will feel the very felt-sensation to share your God-gifted bright light. Amen.