Lent 4 B: Poisonous Prevention

These are the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Old Testament      Numbers 21:4–9

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22

New Testament     Ephesians 2:1–10

Gospel                   John 3:14–21

The Old Testament and Gospel readings both refer to famous cases of the counter-intuitive. In Numbers we have the Israelites voicing their lack of confidence both to Moses and to God: “You have taken us from the frying pan to the fire—out of our slavery in Egypt to die here in the wilderness! We are sick of you both!”

God then teaches a lesson. But, as Psalm 107 says, they have brought on their own affliction. God sends poisonous serpents to bite at them, killing many. The people then turn back to the Lord and Moses, asking to be saved; at which point the Lord commands the counter-intuitive requirement. “Instead of acting out of fear, and looking down to guide some fancy footwork, have a bit of trust and look at this bronze poisonous snake!”

The Gospel of John takes up this same incident and image, to give us a foretaste of what is to come in his Christ-story. The execution of Jesus, by all that is reasonable, should be a thing of revulsion. Instead it is what we must look to appreciate the radicality of God’s love for us, and to awaken our trusting response.

Ironically the whole idea of vaccination is to administer a poisonous prevention. The vaccines now being delivered don’t contain “killed” germs, but they do awaken the proper immune response by delivering “bits of RNA that code for coronovirus proteins” to awaken our body’s reaction. They are poisonous prevention. They mirror the virus the way the bronze image mirrored the serpent, and the way Jesus’ death on a cross mirrors the death that plagues the whole sinful world.

These readings call upon us to distinguish credulity with Christian faith. Those estranged from religion sometimes cast shade on believers as being naive and credulous. In their mind we are too ready to believe things without good evidence, or indeed, without any evidence at all. Worst still, we may easily become dangerous fanatics who insist we cannot be wrong—not because we have examined any evidence at all, but simply because of assumed authority: “The Bible says so, that settles it.” Our arguments aren’t arguments at all, but circular reasoning, much as an old cartoon I remember:

That guy is Robin Hood.

How do you know he’s Robin Hood?

Because he says he’s Robin Hood, and Robin Hood wouldn’t lie.

But looking to the bronze serpent wasn’t an act of credulity as much as desperation, tinged with awakening. All the fancy footwork in the world can’t get you though if the snakes are wall to wall. And, besides, the Israelites just had to wake up from their pity party, and call to mind the long track record God and Moses had built up with them.

And, when it comes to Christ on the cross, the very pangs of death form a measure for “God so loved the world.”  In the better translation of the Jerusalem Bible: “This is how God loved the world…”

I see myself as anything but credulous. My wife will tell you I’m a very skeptical person. And I read the Bible skeptically, knowing that it is my source of wisdom and guidance, but it also contains some not so edifying material in places. It is, indeed, a millennia old conversation around the dinner table with God.

But when I look to the Jesus on the cross I see much that is both true and revealing about myself, the world, and God. I see myself and the world are driven to death by our fear. Indeed, I am driven too by a bit of desperation: “Where else can I look for the answers? Most importantly, I see God loving me in a way so strong that it overcomes all the fear and death that comes my way.

Christian faith is not vain credulity, but a vaccination against fear and death. We need that kind of vaccination to change us now, so that we can think of others and not of ourselves when we consider whether to eat in that restaurant, drink in that bar, open that school, or wear that mask. Will we choose to die in our pity-party, full of fear and mistrust—or will we look up and live?

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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