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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

Lent 4: Up on a Wooden Pole

Oh Israelites I feel your pain. I remember when I was a couple of years into writing my PhD thesis. I felt completely exhausted and was simply unable to make any more progress on writing. I remember one morning going to Morning Prayer and yelling (in my head) at God: “why did you call me out of the life I had. I don’t see a point in this abstract work producing a book that no one but my supervising committee will read and I’ve discovered that theology just raises more questions and leaves a lot of things I wanted clarified, unclear.

And guess what our OT reading was for that morning: “the Israelites were going around Edom, having just defeated the Cannanites with God’s help, but the people got impatient along the way. They spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’” Can you see the parallel between my own lament to God and the Israelites’? We’re both saying, “Lord you brought us out of what we were doing where at least we had the basics covered, we could provide for ourselves, and now things seem to be falling apart. Are you too weak to provide? Did you forget to provide? Do you despise us or want to humiliate us in front of others? Why are you not acting to get us out of this situation NOW!” 

And what does God do? Well I’m afraid that the Lord says, “okay, have it your way.” And he sends serpents among the Israelites that bite them and many die.” Now let’s stop here for a moment. While the story might be literally true. The fact that a serpent just happens to be the creature associated with Satan suggests that there’s a deeper meaning to this part of the passage. God does not withhold from Adam and Eve the consequences of their free choice, and those consequences of choosing to prioritize their own power and knowledge over God’s cause a ripple effect of sin in the world that continues to “bite” us today. So I’d suggest that the serpents biting the Israelites represent sin tearing down, even to the point of death, Israelites who turn to their own ways rather than trusting in God’s own. 

In my case, my own frustration and anger and insecurity destroyed relationships I had that I deeply valued, compromised my innate talent for research and writing, and caused a catastrophic belief that I was a persistent failure that lasted years afterward. In all of this, I lost any passion or motivation to do my work or to serve God. It really was a metaphorical death of the gifts given me by God. So too we hear about the death of many Israelites. That’s the spiritual meaning, the deeper meaning that I think this passage is calling us to recognize. So the Israelites turn to their intercessor Moses and say, “we have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you, [we have not persisted in faith that God will provide for us when and how we need it]. Pray to the Lord to remove these serpents i.e. our sin, our blindness, from us.” 

So Moses intercedes with prayer: “Father, help them for they do not know what they are doing.” And the Lord says 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 does this. And when an Israelite was bitten, they’d look at the serpent mounted on the wooden pole, and they would live. 

This time, our Gospel writer John gets at the deeper spiritual meaning in this story: “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.” Moses can intercede with prayer to God; but he cannot overcome the effects of sin that prevent hope for new life, reconciled to God. But as God himself, Jesus Christ is the offering, he is the intercession, who is lifted up on the wooden pole, the cross, so that when people turn to him and not just look, but listen, and follow, they might be released from the death that sin brings us, and find the freedom of new life in Christ. 

In my case, that release came with the words of these passages: look at Christ. Look at his perseverance. Look at his faith grounded in hope answered by the assurance foreshadowed by Moses and the Serpents and fulfilled in his own love for us in going to the Cross so that we, his brothers and sisters, might have life. The release that came was to let go of my fear about being a failure. I was able to eventually get out of my own head, my old patterns of self-destructive thinking.

That opening allowed me to find a small, concrete reward in my work each day, it allowed me to seek help from others rather than turning everything over in my own head. It allowed me to gain perspective. I was able to finish my dissertation. This slowly built my confidence and sense of calling back up. But it did so with a tremendous change: I gained humility and compassion for myself and others that did not exist before. Now more and more, I can see God in places I’d never thought to look before. And that in turn has allowed me to trust God when things seem to be going off the rails. A cascade effect of grace overcoming sin borne by all of us. Such is the gift of God: that he so loved the world that he gave his only Son, not to condemn us, but so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have the hope of life not just after death, but right now, with God. AMEN


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