Numbers 21:4-9 Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.
A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”
The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”
The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”
The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”
The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”
Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?
One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.
Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers.
But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed.
So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see.
In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.”
We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.
In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.
There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.
Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.
But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.
It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.
But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.
Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?
Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.