Sunday, March 11, 2018

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!”

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!” You remember that line from The Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Snakes are the one thing that Indiana Jones is afraid of and suddenly he is faced with the prospect of crossing a pit full of them.

Why do snakes make our skin crawl? Maybe for you they don’t. Some people seem fond of snakes. Strange people. Speaking for myself, I am terrified of them. Even a picture of a snake has the power to creep me out. I never visit the Reptile house at the Zoo.

Sometimes I even have nightmares about snakes. Nightmares strangely reminiscent of that scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark which still haunts me. Sometimes I dream the snakes are in bed with me and I jump up screaming.

Studies suggest the humans have evolved  the innate ability  to sense snakes — and spiders, too — and to learn to fear them. This sensitivity helped our ancestors survive in the wild where a bite from a snake was an immanent and life threatening danger.

The symbol of the snake as a deadly threat is imbedded deep in our collective unconscious. I think this must be why they appear in my nightmares so frequently. I tend to have these dreams when I am feeling stressed, anxious, fearful, or even guilty. My mind is preparing my body for a fight or flight situation.  

Of course the snake is almost universally depicted as a sinister creature, not least in the Bible. The snake is humanity’s primordial enemy beginning in the Garden of Eden when the serpent lead Eve and her husband astray. God even promised to place enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the snake. He says, “he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

This is more than just a folksy story meant to explain why people dislike snakes. It is description of the battle that goes on within all of us between our lower and higher natures.  

God cursed the snake for his part in the Fall,

Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.

The snake represents our lower nature, the flesh, the part of us that is tied to the earth, cursed to slither in the dirt. It is an irrational beast full of deadly poison.

When human beings rebelled against God they fell under the power of the serpent. Each generation struggled in vain against the snake. Each generation was stricken by the serpent’s poison and died.

This drama plays out again in our Old Testament lesson. The people of Israel rebel against God in the wilderness and as a result the Lord sends fiery serpents against them.

This is how God’s Judgment works. If we rebel against him, he lets us have our way. If we will not serve him, then we will serve our passions instead. To serve God is life but to refuse God and serve our sinful nature is death.

Saint Paul said it this way, “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, He gave them up to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.”

In our Lenten wilderness journey we struggle against the destructive passions and impulses that draw us from the service of God. We war against the deadly attacks of our sinful nature.

Why does God allow us to suffer these things? Is it because he is cruel or vindictive? Is it because he has abandoned us?

Psalm 78—recounting the people’s rebellion in the wilderness—says,

Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.”

God disciplines us, he punishes us by handing us over to the consequences of our sin, not in order to be cruel, but in order to draw us back to himself. He lets us hit rock bottom because he knows that it is the only way that we will come to see the error of our ways. Only when we have come to the end ourselves are we truly prepared to look to God.

God does not allow us to be afflicted without also providing a solution to our affliction. He has not allowed us to fall under the power of sin without also providing a redeemer. He has not allowed us to suffer death without also breaking the power of death.

When the people of Israel were perishing from the bites of the poisonous serpents, God provided them an antidote. He instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. When ever someone was bitten, they could look up at the bronze serpent and he healed.

It seems an odd solution. Didn’t God punish the people of Israel for making a Golden Calf? Why is he here encouraging Moses to make a bronze snake? We know from later in the Biblical record that this Bronze serpent would later become a stumbling block for the people. They began burning incense to it and worshipping it almost as a God in itself. Under King Hezekiah’s reforms, the serpent was destroyed.

It was never the Bronze statue itself that was the source of the people’s deliverance, it was the thing that the image represented. In looking to the serpent the people were to look beyond the serpent to the one who himself bore their sickness, who died that they might live.

Jesus said, “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.

Jesus was the one who was promised even in the garden. He is the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The serpent would indeed strike his heel, Jesus would suffer the same death that all mortal men are bound to suffer, and yet by virtue of an indestructible life and the power of the spirit  would rise from the dead and trample death itself under his feet.

When we gaze by faith upon our crucified savior we see he who without sin become sin for our sake. We see the poisonous serpent defeated and nailed to the tree. We understand and receive the deliverance that was promised and we are healed. We perceive that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This one who is lifted high for our salvation is the light of the world. That light shows us the depth of our rebellion and sickness, but it also chases the darkness away and leads our feet into the way of righteousness.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


There is a disastrously erroneous message being preached in some of the largest churches in the world. On the surface it seems very positive and encouraging and indeed many have responded to it very enthusiastically for that very reason. It is often called, “the prosperity gospel.” The basic premise is that it is God’s will—as taught by the Holy Scriptures—that all God’s people should prosper in this life. In other words those who put their faith in God and his son Jesus Christ will enjoy material abundance, financial success, personal happiness, health, vitality, and everything else associated with worldly prosperity. Many of its proponents enjoy lavish lifestyles including multimillion-dollar homes and personal jets.

Although it is largely a homegrown American theology, it has spread all over the world and has particularly flourished in places of extreme poverty and hardship. It’s devotees believe that faith is the key that unlocks the promises of western affluence and abundance.

What can we say in response to this? First we should acknowledge that God does indeed want us to flourish. He intends our ultimate good not harm. Knowing God’s love for us will indeed create an abiding joy in our life. What it does not mean, however, is that our lives will be free of hardship or trouble.
Jesus never promised anything like that. In fact he said the opposite. He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”

In this morning’s gospel Jesus speaks of his own immanent rejection and suffering. Peter is disturbed by this idea and tells him, “that be far from you Lord!” Jesus in return offers him this sharp rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The blessings of the gospel are spiritual rather than material. If we only look to Jesus because we seek worldly comfort or gain than our minds are set not on the things of God but on human things. The Christian life is not about glorifying ourselves but glorifying God.

If we want to become Jesus’ followers, if we want to live as he lived, and to do the things that he did, he tells us we must take up our cross. This is what it means to be disciples of Christ rather than just consumers of a blessing we suppose him to offer. But what does taking up our cross mean?

For Jesus’ original hearers this expression had a very clear and startling message. The cross was a method of execution used by the Roman Empire against political dissidents. It was a humiliating, shameful, terrifying, and excruciating way to die. This is what it meant to them. Remember that at the time Jesus spoke these words he had not yet suffered on the cross. His disciples did not in any way connect the cross with Jesus or his victory over sin. Jesus was saying, if you want to follow me it means willingly accepting the rage, contempt, and aggression of the world. It means being willing to be stripped, tortured, and murdered. It means becoming an enemy to the empire and a byword to all respectable people.

Not exactly health, wealth, and prosperity! He couldn’t have made being his disciple seem less attractive. His point wasn’t of course that we some how earn our way to God’s favor through suffering, but he was warning us that following him would not always be easy.

In our own context, the prospect of painful execution for following Jesus is far less immediate. Taking up our cross has taken on a much broader meaning. It means self-denial something which is at the heart of this season of Lent. Now no one should think that giving up chocolate is even remotely similar to crucifixion, but for you it might be a small way in which you begin to put Jesus’ words into practice.
How so? It contradicts the attitude that says my feelings, my desires, my comfort, and personal happiness is my main goal in life. Self-denial means pushing the self off of the throne and inviting God to take its place.

Self  denial means putting others above my self. It means being willing to deny myself for a purpose beyond my self. It means sacrificing for a greater cause. It means recognizing that my life is not my own to do with whatever I want, but that I belong to God, created for his purpose, and bought with a price.

Self denial might mean putting aside my feelings to do something kind for someone I dislike. Self-denial might mean giving to the church or to the poor instead of buying myself a new pair of shoes. Self-denial might mean getting up early for church when I would rather sleep in. Self-denial might mean skipping lunch and spending that time in prayer instead.
We all know that sometimes in life we need to practice sacrifice, discipline, and self-denial if we want to be happy. It might seem in the short term that sitting at home all day watching Netflix and eating junk food will make me happier than going to work, but in the long term the effect that it has on my health and finances will not make me happy at all!

Jesus says that our efforts at securing our own well-being are misguided. If we try to save our own life, if we cling so tightly to this world, we will never find that happiness we seek. Ultimate fulfillment will slip through our fingers and the life we tried so hard to save will lie in ruins. If instead we lay down our lives, if we give ourselves for things that are greater than us, if we live for God above self, than, surprisingly, we will find true fulfillment and joy.

God does indeed want us to prosper, but the prosperity he wants to give us is so much more than the kind that we think we want. It is worth more than all the wealth, power, and accolades of the world.

This Lent I invite you to find abundance through self-denial, glory through the cross, and your life hidden with Christ in God.

Forty Days in the Wilderness

During the season of Lent we sojourn with Jesus in the Wilderness. Our Gospel lesson today tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing and temptation. In keeping with the Bible’s description, Lent is also forty days.

You might notice a parallel here between Jesus’ own experience and various stories in the Old Testament. Our Old Testament lesson today reminds us of the story of Noah and his Ark. It rained forty days and forty nights. The whole world was flooded and all the evil swept from the earth, but Noah and his family were kept safe in the Ark. In our Epistle Saint Peter makes a connection between the story of Noah and baptism. Just as God cleansed the world in the days of the flood, so he cleanses us through baptism. The forty days of lent are similarly meant to be a time of purification, and an appeal to God for a good conscience.  It represents to us the Christian life, life after baptism, in which God works in us to make us holy.

Do you recall the story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt? The people were enslaved and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh, but God sent them a savior. His name was Moses and he led the people out of Egypt into freedom by parting the red sea.
The people crossed through on dry ground but their enemies were swept away in the crashing waves. In some ways it is similar to the story of Noah isn’t it? Like the flood story, the parting of the Red Sea is a type of baptism. Just as God led his people out of slavery through the Red Sea, so he leads us out of bondage through baptism. He claims us as his own children and promises to bring us to the Promised Land.

After leading his people out of Egypt, however, God did not bring them immediately into the Promised Land. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During that time, God provided for them in miraculous way, but he also tested them with trials and tribulations. The people were tempted in the wilderness and often failed. Lent is meant to remind us of our own time of wilderness wandering. We have been purchased and redeemed by God in Baptism, but we are not yet in the Promised Land. We are in the in-between time, the wilderness time. During Lent we look to God to provide for us and give us strength to stand up against temptation.

Just as God lead the people through the Red Sea into the wilderness, so he led Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. His forty days in the wilderness parallels the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. Just as Israel was tried and tempted in the wilderness, so was Jesus. Our Gospel lesson tells us of how he was tempted by Satan but does not give us the details that some of the other gospels do.

Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness  should remind us of another well known Old Testament story, the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. God created Adam out of the dust of the ground, breathed the spirit into him, and placed him in the Garden. He gave him dominion over all living creatures. God brought each of the animals to Adam and Adam gave names to them all.

Jesus is sometimes called the New Adam and Baptism is sometimes called a new creation. When Jesus was baptized, God sent his Spirit in the form of a dove. Although Adam fell from God’s grace through sin, God speaks from Heaven to say that Jesus is his Son in whom he is well pleased. God, however, does not send Jesus to a Garden but to a wilderness.
The world that God made beautiful, good, and orderly had become dangerous, barren, and unpredictable.

Just as Adam was with the animals in the Garden, so is Jesus with the animals in the wilderness. There is two ways to read this. One would be to say that Jesus was surrounded by friendly woodland creatures like Snow White when she fled to the wilderness. I don’t think this is likely. The text says that they were wild beasts. It seems that just as the garden had become a wilderness, so the animals had changed from friendly companions to threatening predators. Jesus is stalked and tormented by the wild beasts, but just as God provided for the children of Israel in the wilderness, so he provides for Jesus. He sends his angels to minister to him.

Perhaps you have taken upon yourself some special fasts this season of Lent. Perhaps you set some goal for spiritual growth. During your Lenten journey you will no doubt struggle to maintain this commitment. You will be tempted to give up. Perhaps as you take a hard look at yourself through self-examination, the devil will accuse you and cause you to doubt God’s love for you.
 God may allow you to be tested in these ways, but he will also send you his help from heaven. He will minister to you through his angels just as he did for Jesus.

Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan in the Garden. They were tempted to eat from the tree that God told them not to eat from. They failed that test. Jesus too was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Unlike Adam and Eve who fell to temptation, Jesus proved victorious.  Likewise he will help us to stand also when we are tempted. When we are weak he is strong. Through his obedience, he undid the damage brought about by Adam’s disobedience. Because we are joined with him by faith and Holy Baptism, we share in his victory. We should hear Gods words as spoken to us, “This is my son—my child—in whom I am well pleased.”

These are the words, this is the promise, that will sustain us through our wilderness wanderings. Take courage. Christ cleanses us from sin, he delivers us from bondage, and he helps us to stand under temptation.