Sermon – When the Promise Bites

Numbers 21:4-9; Mark 14:22-25

Farmville Presbyterian Church

March 10, 2024

– Handling the failure of living as a covenant people


What does it take for you to look up?

I remember distinctly being a child in South Carolina one evening when there was a triangle of lights sitting stationary up in the sky.  The traffic on that main road was at a standstill as others were joined in looking up at this strange sky-feature.  And I’ll tell you that there were planes flying around it that to my young mind were definitely fighter jets.  To this day, I have no idea what it was.  True story.  My parents who were taking us somewhere at the time would probably dismiss the whole episode, but that is probably because the aliens already got them and brainwashed them.  That’s the only way I can make sense of it.  Please do not let me feed conspiracy theories, though.  I am not an alien believer, but that is a different sermon.

This sermon is about what it takes to get us to look up.

Our ability to look up would not even be in question if we did not tend to look down most of the time.  The “down” is the trouble of this world: the pains that surround us, the disappointments, the griefs, and the troubles and brokenness that we too often invite.  Our eyes are quick to go down when we are feeling sorry for ourselves, when we forget our neighbor and look only to our own need.  When the snakes of the world creep up on us, we do what any normal human being would do.  We look hard at the ground and watch for the slightest movement.  In that moment of ground fixation, all that matters is me, myself, and I.  It does not even matter if we are the reason for the snakes or not.

Poor me; poor, old me.  That’s how it began in today’s passage.  The people of Israel had enough.  Even though they had God’s promise and God’s provision.  Even though they had food and water.  Remarkably, no one in the biblical narrative ever dies from starvation.  They just didn’t like what God provided.  Survival was not enough; they wanted variety.  It was not flavorful enough or had the right texture or they were sick of eating it day in and day out or maybe all of the above.  The eyes were already down by now.  Their gaze was fixed down on themselves with their self-pity and selfishness, and then God gave a real reason to look down.  Since they were already staring at the dust, might as well give them something to wake them up down there.  The snakes represent that rejection of the holy, the righteous, and the good.  They represent a rejection of God that we see even from the beginning of things in the very Garden of Eden.  At our origin, the snake and the human are set as enemies.  What God seeks is not what the snake seeks.  That’s tough for snakes, and snakes are not really good or bad, but no one likes snakes, so it is easy to make them a symbol for what is wrong in the world.  You have to look down to see a snake.  It forces us to face what is below us.  There in that agony below they find the pain that comes from defying God, the pain that pushes them to seek God, again.

So much pulls our gaze down.  Every self-seeking decision that pulls us away from others is down there.  When we harbor shame and guilt, the eyes go down.  When we divide and blame, the eyes go down.  When we betray friends, allies, and those in need, the eyes go down.  When we ignore the pleas of the innocent, the eyes go down.  When we refuse to see history or life through the eyes of others, ours go down.  When we reject our hand in the hurt of this world, our eyes go down.  When we build a church that is more about appearances than actual, world-changing community, the eyes go down.  And when the eyes are down, the distress comes, the disaster comes, and the suffering sets in.

The beautiful thing about life is that no one gets through it alone.  The more we figure out how we need each other and how we are better with each other in wider and wider circles, the better our lives are.  It hurts us to keep our eyes down.  It hurts us to reject God in the face of the other.  It hurts us to forget the world above our knees.  It is time to cry out to God.

When early sailors stayed out for too long on their ocean voyages, many of them developed the disease scurvy, and many of them died.  They had no idea that it was a simple vitamin C deficiency.  Packing citrus was all they had to do, but their solutions before they knew better were as creative as they were ineffective.  My favorite was burying people up to their necks on land.  Scurvy was a terrible affliction, though, and nothing to be trifled with.  People basically fell apart under a list of terrible symptoms.

In today’s passage, the problem and the solution are the same.  Once God heard the prayers of the people, we have this strange bronze snake on a pole.  When the people looked at it, they were healed and saved.  When they chose to lift their eyes from their self-pity and find a hope greater and beyond themselves, they were saved.  When they saw a world bigger them themselves, they were saved.  When they looked up, they found the help of God.

This is the key.  The answer to the worlds’ problems and our suffering is not lurking at our ankles.  The answer is up.  Moses raised that bronze serpent named Nehushtan in order to raise their gaze and share a vision of something higher, something greater, something pointing us toward God.  Yet even the statue Nehushtan became an idol that they held and kept for hundreds of years.  King Hezekiah in his reforms many, many years later found the statue and destroyed it.  It helped point the people to a better place and a better way, but it could not be the ultimate answer.

That’s when Jesus stepped in.  He joined in the trouble of this world and embraced a people with their heads down and their eyes to the ground.  They were a people with no hope, bad hope, and no openness to God’s Kingdom.  The ones who heard Jesus’ voice were the ones who were broken and ready to be healed.  They were ready to have their eyes lifted.  Jesus became the new Nehushtan when he was lifted on the cross.  His pole was his death.  The cruelty of the Romans lined the roads with dead and dying bodies, criminals and threats to the Roman world on crosses.  This was the height of cruelty in the ancient world.  They were not way up in the air though, but closer to eye level where you would stare more face to face with those who stood in Rome’s way.  Their crime was also listed there as a stark warning to all.  I have no doubt many people tried to avoid their eyes and kept their gazes fixed down.  Who would want to see the horror of corrupt humanity and evil empire on wide display?  And yet, Jesus continues to remind us to look up today by holding his place on the cross.

Last week, we shared in our Lenten service at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church down the street.  Many of you have probably noticed different types of crosses.  The traditional Roman Catholic cross is a crucifix with Jesus still on there in suffering.  This is the cross of his death.  The protestant cross is an empty cross, one that we would cherish after his resurrection, even if there is no mention of the cross in the gospels after his death.  The cross, nevertheless, became the symbol for God’s healing love for the world.  The depth of that love that unites all people lifts our eyes together.  Every cross is an invitation to pull our gaze up.

I’m happy to concede that this is a strange story, but it is one that pushes us to consider where our eyes are.  Are we staring at the ground waiting for the next problem and ignorant of the world and its needs around us?  Are we stuck living for broken ways that reject the face of God in the other?  Are we afraid of actually doing something that gives us hope for tomorrow?

Interestingly, after this passage, the people of Israel never complain against God again before reaching the Land of Promise.  Maybe they were confident with the great bronze serpent traveling with them.  That was a poor savior, however, and could not rescue them from evil.  Our Savior is a different kind of salvation and offers us hope for today if we are willing to lift our gaze.  This is about finding help and hope in a community living with brokenness that we struggle to admit.

When I look up, I see the potential for the kind of witness of God’s Kingdom that Farmville has never seen.  I love the idea of true, enduring collaboration with our sister churches, especially those historically left out of these relationships.  We need better for Farmville than it has ever known.  We need hope for our community.  We need to find true community as it is held up on the cross.  This is something that could never happen underfoot.  It will require our vision clear and lifted, but if we are willing, we will see Jesus do something even greater than we can imagine.  To God be the glory.  Amen.