Serpents and the Cross: Preaching Lent 4B

I’m preaching this Sunday on the passages in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ll try to update this post throughout the week with some thoughts and observations that I have. Consider all of the notes here brainstorming more than ideas that I’m fully committed to. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments!

The texts this week are: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

What does it mean to be lifted up?

The first thing I noticed about these passages is the connecting point of being “lifted up”. The connection between the passages from Numbers and John is obvious, because Jesus says it explicitly: He is like the bronze serpent (or rather, the bronze serpent points to him). Everyone who looks upon Jesus will receive eternal life. But I’m also thinking about how this relates to the Ephesians 2 passage, especially verse 6: “…and raise us up with him…”.

John’s use of the phrase “lifted up” is interesting. The Greek word is “ups-o-o” (it’s hard to transliterate into English, so just go with it…). Throughout the New Testament, and the Greek translation of the Old, the word is used to refer to Jesus or God being raised up, seated in heaven, or exalted, or to God bestowing honor upon human beings (“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  In fact, in most places in the Bible, the English translations usually render “ups-o-o” as “exalted.” More often than not in the New Testament, it’s used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection and/or ascension. John, however, only uses “ups-o-o” to refer to the crucifixion, to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. For John, the exaltation of Jesus begins with the cross. What if we read Ephesians 2:6 through this lens? We are raised up with Jesus, and that begins with the cross. When we allow ourselves to be crucified, those who look upon us will receive eternal life because it will be as though they were looking at Jesus.

Is God Overreacting a Bit?

It also seems like it would be tempting when reading Numbers 21 to think that God is overreacting to the Israelite’s complaints. The people speak against God and Moses. God responds by sending fiery serpents among the people. Sounds a bit harsh. As I was working with the Hebrew text, I noticed something. The preposition is the same in both actions (even though we translate them differently in English). The people speak against God and Moses. God sends fiery serpents against the people. (this is usually translated “among the people”). Perhaps rather than questioning the justice of God’s decision, we would do better to begin with the assumption that God is just, and that this punishment fits the crime. Perhaps the bite of a fiery serpent really is the equivalent of being spoken against. The potential lesson: our words are powerful, and can do more damage than we think.

What do you think? What strikes you in these passages? If you were (or are) preaching any of these passages, what would you focus on? (I’ll try to keep updating this through the week…)

Deeper Gratitude = Wider Mission

I recently started working my way through the book, The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. It’s a spiritual formation book (one of Renovare’s), and after each chapter, Smyth suggests a “Soul Training Exercise.” At the end of the chapter I read today, the exercise was titled “Counting Your Blessings.” It’s a cliche phrase. All I could think about was the cheesy hymn with the chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. I almost turned the page to skip right over the exercise and move on to the next chapter. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exercise was simple. Make a list of good things God has blessed you with for which you ought to be thankful. Try to make a list of 100 blessings. So, I pulled out my macbook, opened the word processor, and started my numbered list. The first few things on  my list were easy to think of because they were either obvious, very simple, or in my immediately memory: the beautiful, clear blue sky I got to look at while running yesterday afternoon; an encouraging message I received from a friend; a funny joke that made me laugh; my icon of Jesus that helps me focus when I pray; etc.  But then the exercise got a little challenging. Not because God isn’t good, but because making a list of 100 anything becomes daunting after the first 10 items or so.

I tried to keep growing my list by looking at what I had already included and identifying other blessings connected to them. My friend who sent the encouraging message is also a loving, compassionate person in general. The person who told the funny joke has a gift for adding humor to situations that would other wise be less pleasant. My icon was painted by an iconographer whose work has helped thousands of others worship Christ more intimately.

Then it occurred to me: Making this list of blessings was forcing me to go deeper with my gratitude, and the deeper I went the more outwardly focused I became. The first things on my list of blessings had to do almost exclusively with myself. I was thankful for the blue sky because I got to see it. My friend’s message encouraged me. The joke made me laugh. The icon helps me pray. But my deeper expressions of gratitude reflected things and people who are blessings to others. The beauty of creation is a gift God is always giving to everyone. My friend has a gift for encouraging a lot of people, and it’s a gift that God uses in her to build up our church. My joke-telling friend makes a lot of people laugh and diffuses a lot of tense situations for a lot of people. My icon is actually a reprint of an older, larger icon that’s been seen and used by many in the Church.

The deeper we go in our gratitude, the broader our outlook becomes. If we want our churches, or our own lives to be missional, outward-focused expressions of God’s love for the world, then we need to practice the discipline of gratitude. Count your blessings. You’ll be surprised what the Lord will do.

Mustard Seeds Beginnings…

I was asked to contribute a piece to my home church’s Lenten Devotional. I was assigned today’s lectionary readings which includes Mark 4:26-34 – the parables of the growing seed and the mustard seed. Here’s what I wrote:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how…. It is like a grain of mustard seed…” – Mark 4:26-27, 31

In my ministry of starting a new church and starting a new ministry for Graduate students, I often reflect on the image of the mustard seed. The kingdom of God starts small. When we started The Upper Room Church, there were only 8 of us meeting in a living room. When I started Graduate Christian Fellowship, there were just 3 of us praying together in a classroom at Carnegie Mellon.

I used to think of those small groups as “mustard seed” beginnings of my ministry. I don’t anymore. I’ve come to realize that my ministry had even smaller, less noticeable beginnings. My ministry started in 2nd grade in a Sunday school classroom at Parkwood. I still remember the lesson: “We’re Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus’ disciples tell other people about God.” Easy enough. The next day, I went to school, sat down next to my deskmate, Joe, and started telling him about how God created him and me and everything else. That’s what I was supposed to do, after all. I was Jesus’ disciple.

 

I’ve lost touch with Joe, and I highly doubt he remembers our brief conversation about God more than 20 years ago. But I remember it as the first deliberate action I took as a follower of Jesus; a mustard seed beginning to a ministry of telling many more people about God. A mustard seed planted by my church family, fulfilling the promise they made at my baptism to raise me in the faith. Keep planting mustard seeds, Parkwood, you never know how those seeds will sprout and grow.