Preacher: Jeff Davidson Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21
When I read these passages, my mind went back to a board game that I used to like to play when I was a kid. I haven’t played it or seen it in a long time, but I know it’s still out there. Our version of the game was called “Chutes and Ladders.” Do any of you remember that game? In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know the game, here’s a quick description. You start at the bottom of the board, and the goal is to be the first player to get to the top. You roll a dice, and move your piece the appropriate amount of spaces. Sometimes your move will end on the bottom of a ladder. When that happens, you get to move your piece up to the top of the ladder, saving you having to move all of those spaces. On the other hand, your move might end at the top of a chute. Then you have to slide all the way down to the bottom of the chute, and it will take you several moves to get back to where you had been before. It’s a pretty straightforward game.
It also seems like it’s kind of a value-neutral game, a game that is just about entertainment and that doesn’t have any kind of deeper message or meaning. The popular version that we buy and sell and play here in the United States is value-neutral, but the game hasn’t always been that way. Chutes and Ladders came to the United States in 1943, based on a British game called Snakes and Ladders. The basic concept of climbing up or sliding down was the same, but there were specific vices and virtues associated with the snakes and the ladders. You could climb ladders labeled Thrift, Penitence, and Industry that took you up to squares named Fulfillment, Grace, and Success. On the other hand, if you landed on squares named Indulgence, Disobedience, or Indolence you would slide down the snakes to places labeled Illness, Disgrace, and Poverty. Snakes and Ladders came to Great Britain in1892, and was all about teaching values to children.
You’ll note that I said Snakes and Ladders came to Great Britain in 1892. That’s because it was originally a game from India. It was an ancient game called Moksha Patam. If you put “Moksha Patam” into Google translate, it tells you that it means, roughly, “salvation.” It was a game that taught Hindu philosophies, vices, and virtues including reincarnation. The ladders represented things like generosity, faith, and humility; some of the snakes were lust, anger, murder, and theft. The moral of the ancient game was that one could attain salvation by doing good things, but doing bad things would lead to you being reborn as some lower animal of some kind. There were more snakes in the old game than there were ladders – more ways to fall short than to succeed, but the Victorian British evened out the number of snakes and ladders, and eventually in the United States the snakes were replaced by chutes and the whole idea of the game as an illustration of how to live your life was removed.
The Israelites wandering in the wilderness were demonstrating a vice. I don’t know if it was in any version of the game or not, but the Israelites are a good example of ingratitude. They don’t appreciate what they have. That’s a mild way of saying it. They don’t just not appreciate it, but they’re bitter about it. They’re angry about it. You can tell that they’re angry because their complaints make no sense. “We don’t have any food! And all the food tastes bad!” It’s like the baseball catcher Yogi Berra is supposed to have said about a restaurant. “That place is so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.”
The Israelites’ ingratitude leads to consequences, and they have to spend all of their time looking down. After all, if there are poisonous snakes all over the place, you’re going to keep your eyes glued to where you’re walking so that a snake doesn’t slither up to you, or so you don’t come upon a snake unexpectedly. Looking up is the last thing you want to do in a setting like that.
Still, that’s what Moses called upon the people of Israel to do. If and when someone is bitten, all that person needs to do is stop looking down and look up. Look up, find the bronze image of the poisonous serpent, and that person will not die. I guarantee that from the moment of that announcement, all of the Israelites knew where the serpent was, and whether they were headed towards it or away from it or whether it was to their right or to their left. They needed to orient themselves in relation to the bronze serpent, so that they could quickly locate it to save themselves when they were bitten.
Our Gospel reading from John contains within it probably the best known verse in the Bible. When we read this passage, though, the temptation is to focus on John 3:16 – “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.” and to forget about the rest of the verse. That’s too bad, because the whole passage is good. In verses 14 and 15, Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He says that he, too, will be lifted up and that whoever believes in him will be saved. And then, of course, he continues into verse 16 which we just heard.
People who were bitten by a snake didn’t actually have to believe in the bronze serpent. What they had to do was look at it. What they were having faith in was not the bronze serpent itself. What they were having faith in was God’s promise, through Moses, that looking up at the snake on a stick would save them. They had to have the faith to stop looking down, stop looking at all the different snakes that might be slithering around them, and to look up at the bronze snake.
In order to do that quickly, they had to know where the snake was. They had to know which direction to look. They had to know where to go to be able to see the bronze serpent. It’s doubtful that all of the Israelites were able to live all of their lives within the sight of the bronze serpent, so it makes sense that from time to time they might have to walk a little bit to be within view of it, and they had to know which direction to walk in. They had to arrange their lives around the ability to look up and see that bronze snake.
So believing in Jesus, believing in the Son of Man lifted up like Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, means more than just an intellectual acceptance of the reality of Jesus being God’s son, having died, and having been raised from the dead. It means more than just having faith, although it starts with faith.
We know, because of what we read in the book of James, that true faith leads to good works. So we know that truly having faith in the risen Son of Man means that we will always be prepared to look up and see him. We will always be ready to stop looking down at the ground, and to look up towards Jesus, whether we are thinking about the dying Jesus raised on the cross or the risen Jesus being raised into heaven.
We also know that if we want to do that, we need to know where to look. No, not physically. We can’t look up physically and see the risen Christ, no matter where we are or how far we walk in any given direction. What we can do, though, is orient our lives around Christ. Arrange our lives in such a way that Christ is at their center. Live our lives so that we are never too far away from Christ, or from where Christ wants us to be. Pay attention to our lives and to what is important in them so that nothing takes the place of Christ.
We can’t let other things, whether it’s family or politics or economics or country or material possessions – whatever it might be, we can’t let other things get in the way of Christ. We can’t let other things block our view of Christ. We can’t let other things be raised above Christ in the way we think about or live our lives. I’m grateful for Julia. I love her, and I’m glad she’s a part of my life, and I’m glad for those things every day. When we’re glad for things every day, though, it’s easy to take them for granted. That’s why I’m also glad that there are things like her birthday or our wedding anniversary or Valentine’s Day to remind me of how glad I am, to make me stop and think about how glad I am for her.
Some people are able to keep their priorities in order all the time. I’m not. Most people aren’t. Just as I need things like a birthday or an anniversary to remind me of how glad I am for a given relationship in my life, I need things like Lent to make myself look at how I’ve arranged and oriented my life. Is Christ really lifted up in my life? Am I able to look up and see Christ, or am I looking down and letting myself be distracted by other things, or am I looking up but my view of Christ is blocked by some other thing that I’ve made too important in my life? Am I loving darkness more than I love the light? Am I climbing ladders of virtue towards Christ, or sliding down chutes or snakes of vice?
As we make our way through Lent together, I encourage you to keep your eyes up. Keep Christ at the center of your life. Don’t let other things block your view of him. Just as with Moses and the Israelites, you too will be saved. Amen.