March 15, 2015

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:27 AM by David Hawkins

“Not My Doing”

Old Testament Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.

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.

New Testament Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

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, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God —not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Sermon: "Not my Doing"             Rev. David Hawkins

For this season of Lent, we will be looking at both the Old and New Testament Lectionary scriptures, focusing especially on the many different covenants that God has made with his people, and the way these covenants have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

We began Lent with the promise that God made to Noah, that God would never again allow us to be destroyed. This promise was symbolized by a rainbow, but it was sealed by the coming of Jesus Christ to our world, God, walking, living, healing, teaching among us.

Then we talked about God making a promise to Abraham, that he would be a blessing to all the nations, the father of all people. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this promise to Abraham was extended and made real to us, even now, today, that we, too, are to be a blessing to all the world.

Last week, we talked about the specific covenant between Israel and God, a covenant that was sealed by the giving and the receiving of the ten commandments.

This week, we aren’t looking at a particular covenant, rather, we are witnessing the back and forth between God and his people as they learn what it means to live in covenant.

It’s not an easy thing, this life with God. Let’s just face it, Israel has had a tough time. By the time we catch up to them in today’s scripture, they’ve been wandering in the desert for years, surviving famine, drought, war, and the general danger of living out in the wild. And they’ve just about had it. If we’re honest with ourselves, we would be at the end of our rope as well. And so, they complain, like we would . They complain a lot. They complain to Moses. They complain to God. They’re not happy with the way things are going.

There have been a couple of times, though, that they’ve gone beyond complaining. There’s been a couple of times they have been pretty insistent that this whole trip has been a mistake, that it would have been better if they had just stayed slaves in Egypt. They’ve made their mistrust of God’s providence clear a few times, even to the point of building a golden calf, thinking that maybe it would provide better security for them than God has.

But through it all, God has continued to keep them, as a people, alive. By all accounts, they should have died in the desert. They were surrounded by enemies, both the human kind, and the natural kind. But for forty years, God keeps them from harm. He protects them, as he said he would.

The problem is, they don’t see it like that. They don’t see the protection. They don't see God’s hand in the fact that they are still alive. I’m not sure how they account for their survival, but it’s obvious that they don’t credit God for it. They have forgotten that God saved them from Pharaoh, that God saved them from rebellion, from insurrection, from attacking armies. They had forgotten that God gave them manna from the trees, water from the rock, quail from the sky.

I’m not sure how they thought they had survived thus far. Maybe they thought it was their own skill, their own hard work that kept them safe. That their security was their own doing, that they were responsible for keeping themselves alive. It’s hard to say what they thought about the fact that they hadn’t died of thirst, or hunger, or heatstroke, or war, while wandering unprotected through the desert, but, it was clear that God had very little to do with it, at least in their minds.

And they let Moses know all about it. They fed him a constant stream of abuse, of complaining, of the same old demands to go back to Egypt. They don’t want this life any more. They don’t want to walk this path any longer. They don’t trust where it’s taking them. They don’t trust Moses. And most importantly, they don’t trust God.

And so God allows the realities of life in the desert to rise up bite them in the rear end. By no longer holding back the snakes of the desert, He lets the Israelites experience life without his protection, lets them see just a glimpse of what it means to live at the mercy of a heartless and dangerous world, a world that would just as soon kill them as look at them.

It’s an effective reminder, and they get the message.
With the burning realization that they had no idea what God had been doing for them, they ask Moses to talk to God for them. They have come face to face with the reality that there are dangers in this world that they could not have even imagined, and that their lives depended on God’s grace more than they ever knew. And with this realization comes the plea for God to save them from the belief that they could actually save themselves..

And once again, God hears their plea, and delivers them from certain death. God tells Moses to build a standard, a long pole that can bee seen by everyone in the camp, and to put a bronze serpent on it, and tells him that anyone who is bitten will be healed if they raise their eyes to look at it.

And it works. Those who have been bitten, recover. But, here’s an interesting thing. God doesn’t take the snakes away. Apparently, they become part of the journey. A really, really awful part of the journey. The snakes are with them the rest of the way, a burning reminder of what life is like without God’s protection. But as long as they look at the bronze serpent on the pole, they will be healed. As long as they keep their eyes up, life among the snakes is bearable Uncomfortable at times, yes. Painful at times, even. But bearable.

Now, it’s important to remember that it’s not the bronze serpent on the pole that is healing the people. It’s God. The serpent itself has no power. But by holding up a symbol of their pain, God has given them a reminder that he is greater than their pain. And we all need that reminder from time to time. (look behind at the cross)

There is something so very true about this story, isnt’ there? I mean, some parts of it might seem almost magical to us, fiery snakes, a bronze serpent on a pole, all that stuff. But at the heart of it, this story is our story.

It’s our story because sometimes the life of a Christian is not all that easy. And sometimes we forget that we are also under the protection of God. It’s so easy to start thinking that our lives are our own, that we are in charge. It’s easy to think that we don’t need God anymore, that it would be easier and better to just live life without him, to live our lives without being concerned about our relationship with each other, to live our lives for ourselves, and leave it at that.

But when we disregard our need for God, when we start living as though it’s up to us, we might find that some of the choices we make can come back and bite us in the butt. When we try to do it our way, we are uncomfortably reminded that when we ignore God’s covenant to be with us. When we refuse to live in that covenant with one another, we, too, can be overtaken by the snakes of our own actions.

And snakebite hurts. It burns. And sometimes, it’s deadly.

There’s something about this story that describes the human condition: that we live in a fallen, dangerous world; that even when we do walk the path that God has set before us, we are still in danger of being bitten.

Because God still hasn’t taken the snakes away. We might wish that he had. We might even think that he should have taken them away. But, God doesn’t take the snakes of temptation, the easy choices, the selfish, fearful, un-trusting decisions that we make every day away from us. God doesn’t take the grief, tragedy, and fear that are part of living in our world away. These snakes are still with us, reminding us of our own sin and mortality. They are part of what it means to travel in the wilderness.

God hasn’t taken the possibility of sin and death from us. God hasn’t taken pain, or grief, or sickness, or doubt, from us. It’s still there. It’s always there. It will always be there. This is the truth of this story. We know it’s true, because we see it all the time. We live it every day. Life is hard. Sometimes it can feel like an endless trek through the desert.

But this story also reminds us that God doesn’t leave us alone to deal with all this by ourselves. God has promised that he won’t leave us alone with the pain of what it means to live in this world. God knows that we can’t do this on our own, and he has promised to be with us, to heal us, to catch us when we fall.

And this is what the Apostle Paul is telling the church in Ephesus, that God has raised up Jesus Christ as the completion of this promise. When we feel overwhelmed by the desert snakes of sin and fear and pain, when we thirst for forgiveness and healing, the cross of Jesus reminds us that God has put himself on that standard, for all of us to see, to know that he is greater than pain, that he is greater even than death, and that in him, we find our salvation.

By grace, through faith, we are saved, and this is not of our doing. It’s the doing of God, based on a promise that was given a long time ago, a promise that he has kept for His people, over and over and over again.

And it’s a promise that assures us that when we are find ourselves in the wilderness, and are surrounded by the snakes of fear, sin, poor choices, and confusion, when we are convinced that we have been forgotten, that we are alone in this world, all we need to do is lift our eyes to Jesus, and remember his promise to be with us, to heal us, to save us, to love us, until the end of the age.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ

we bend our knees

and lift up our hearts,

giving glory to God forever. Amen.