As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
The people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And 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.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Growing up in Southern Idaho, my brother Mike and I were able to experience many adventures that could have been fodder for Mark Twain. We caught frogs and grasshoppers and water skipper bugs. We foraged for morel mushrooms with our grandparents, which I didn’t fully appreciate until years later when I wanted to cook a risotto and found them for sale at the Ferry Building for more than $50 per pound!
Near the bowling alley our family still owns, we also did something that was not particularly smart. The many acres behind the bowling alley featured lava beds from a volcano that was active more than 10,000 years earlier at the end of the last ice age. Explorers have even found remains of a mammoth and many other awe-inspiring specimens in the area. Mike and I would walk out into the lava fields and found several lava pits. Two of them had small caves. What are young explorers to do other than crawl into a cave? The opening was very small, requiring us to belly crawl. One of them probably went back 25 feet. We didn’t find any hieroglyphics or dinosaur bones, but it was really cool. I don’t think we told our mom about the explorations because she would have reminded us that the area was infested with snakes—rattle snakes to be precise. We would see rattle snakes on the local highway at night after they had slithered to enjoy the heat on the pavement. You could purchase rattles—I even had a very stylish bolo tie with a rattle in Lucite. Colleen is very sad that I don’t still have it so I could wear it to church.
Though the area was infested with snakes, somehow we never encountered one in the caves. We were trouble free kids exploring without a care in the world. We looked forward without being bogged down by worst-case scenarios like snakes.
Our ancestors in faith weren’t quite so fortunate. In today’s first Scripture lesson from Numbers 21, the Israelites are inundated with worries and suffering. First, they are sick of eating the same thing, manna, each and every day. Though this flaky substance sustained them, they lost patience. They were hungry and thirsty and convincing themselves that their time as slaves in Egypt was the Good Old Days.
As they whined, things got worse—snakes attacked them! The text even says that the Lord sent the snakes. This is one of those passages in which the Bible presents a tension that we have to wrestle with. Did God actually send snakes to make an example of people for their griping? Or did Moses get so sick of hearing the negativity that he said, “See, you brought this on yourselves. Stop whining and listen to me!” If God sent snakes as a form of punishment to the Israelites, does God also come after us when we do wrong?
This can become a slippery slope that we frequently see preachers slide down after a natural disaster. Mark your calendar for the next time disaster strikes—someone claiming to represent God will blame the victims of an earthquake or tsunami for their sinfulness.
I do not claim to have a secret decoder ring for God. The vast universe in which we live and our tiny rock of a planet are awe-inspiring beyond my ability to comprehend. I do believe that God created us in freedom, and that in that freedom, bad things arise. Snakes happen. Storms happen. Cancer happens. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Moses is presented with a solution for the Israelites—make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole, and those who look at it will survive the snakebites. While many would have attributed the power to the bronze serpent, the point was different. Moses was telling the people to look up, and to trust. They could look down and focus on the things that could hurt them, the food they didn’t like, and the luxuries they missed, or they could look up and remember the God who guided them out of the misery of slavery. They did look up for a while, but they forgot.
In our second Scripture reading today, Jesus is in conversation with a descendent of those who had been bitten by snakes in the wilderness. Nicodemus, a religious leader, came to visit Jesus in the dark of night. Jesus had been feeding and healing and performing other miracles. Nicodemus is fearful of being associated with Jesus because Jesus was considered a heretical threat, yet Nicodemus believed in him: “’Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’” (John 3:2) Nicodemus and Jesus dialogue about what it means to be “born from above.” Jesus finally seems to get frustrated with Nicodemus: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.” (John 3:12)
Jesus then proceeds to some of the most frequently quoted verses in all of Scripture:
And 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. “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.
John 3:16 is still frequently displayed on signs at sporting events and other arenas of life; however, we rarely look back at verses preceding it. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up . . .”
Moses and Jesus had observed humankind’s tendency to focus on the problems of this world. The Israelites dwelled on what they didn’t have and felt miserable. Leaders in Jesus’ time focused on possessions and power they acted as though they deserved.
The legend of St. Patrick says that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. Numerous sources, including National Geographic, point out that Ireland was not and is not plagued by snakes. The climate is not snake friendly. Indiana Jones, famous for his fear of snakes, would be quite comfortable in Ireland.
Many of our colleges taught us that Patrick’s primary objective was to make it possible for people to put green dye in beer and swimming pools and give police trouble around March 17 each year. J
If snakes represent the systems and actions opposed to God that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland in Christ’s name, perhaps we can take advantage of the occasion to drive the snakes out our life.
Snakes can take many forms that keep us focused on the small picture of our wants and needs. So many of us obsess with what we don’t have that we fail to appreciate what we do have. We can get so bogged down in worries about our health and finances and status that we fall into a pit of despair.
Moses told the people to look up. Jesus told the people that he would be lifted up, as would those who believed in him—but sometimes church people seem to forget that following Jesus is about more than talking about how we believe in him.
His teaching involved words and actions and a call to lift others up, loving them as we love ourselves.
As we look to God, our Creator lifts us up.
We come together to sing and pray and listen together hoping to be lifted up. I firmly believe that this isn’t something that pastors or elected officers or staff does alone.
We are in this together. From time to time, Calvary people share stories about ways that faith lifted and lifts them up. Today it is an honor to introduce Chris Nichols from the Calvary Chancel Choir:
My Story: Coming Through the Side Door
Almost 20 years ago, after separating from my wife at the time, I had come to the conclusion I was not running my life as well as I had told myself I had been. Much of what I had built my life around which had appeared sturdy and lasting was turning out to be more artifice, and as in many divorces, was now crumbling away. It was during this time that Dick Clark invited me to come and rehearse with the choir, led by Alden Gilchrist. I had always had music in my life. My parents had been professors and growing up I thought I was going to teach music and went through a Master’s in Music Composition. As I was completing my masters, I came to the realization that the teaching profession no longer had some of the qualities my parents had enjoyed. So I backed into business, and did pretty well. In fact, I was pretty sure I was something special. Now, some of that artifice was fading as well. So I came to Calvary to sing, and it became a part of rebuilding my life.
To my surprise, the music and this community snuck in through my personal “side door.” My own faith began to come back to life, and exploring it with the many people here became a very important part of my life. My understanding of the 1,000 years of sacred music I already loved was something we were sharing in worship. Alden led us in taking some risks too. When the choir toured in Europe, we risked singing their sacred music to them. We had people come up to us afterwards with tears running down their faces because they were hearing music they hadn’t heard in their own churches for decades. We realized Alden Gilchrist’s dream in taking the risk having the entire service week after week be wrapped around the Bach Passions as part of the worship services here during Lent, with higher attendance rates than ever before. We are taking new risks today with our exploration of diverse music and this place is full of life and diversity. Full of you and faith.
This new beginning has become the foundation for the best part of my life. A big part of that life has been a gift from this community and from God. With it come the blessings of my 17 year relationship with Carol Fox, and my lifelong close relationship with my daughter, Gabrielle, both of them singing with me in the choir, and sometime Gabrielle conducting her dad and the choir.
During tough times, I have occasionally turned to writing as a tool to better explore what is going on. The ending of something I wrote during that time titled “Migration” expresses what I feel about you, this place, and our faith journey together. It picks up after that artifice I was talking about is gone:
I stand on this now-small spit of land.
Sand grits under feet
Light sparks small waves
Kneading this new dune
No sound but pulsing wet
There from the start,
Finally open to air
I take flight
That unhealing heart
To climb the air
Drawn north by the blood
Others soon join
More graceful now
Together we fly
This is all we have.
At last I know.