Salvific Promise, Pastor Fred
The covenant promise this week, is a bit more difficult to pick out – “those who look upon the bronze serpent will live.”
The specter across the sky of the colorful promise of the rainbow, was much clearer! – God covenants with humanity, to never again destroy the earth by flood, and in the beautiful sign of the rainbow, whenever God sees it, God will remember this agreement, God made. At the same time, God also initiates the peace we so deeply desire, by setting the example of restraining God’s Self from retribution, from what we might call, a first-strike capability. God models how we can live with each other, in trust and peace, beyond the cycles of violence we’re currently victim to.
The second covenant was the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that God would make of them a great nation, if they would go to the new place God led them to, and for their trusting faith in God, God would finally give them a son, in their old age, and Isaac, would be the sign that they would have many ancestors, as numerous as the sands in the desert. Therefore, we call Abraham and Sarah the father and mother of our faith, for us as Christians, as well as the Jews. St. Paul specifically names, this story, when talking about how we, as Gentiles, are grafted on to the tree of believers, a branch of our Abrahamic God, and that we are saved by God’s grace through the same faith.
Today’s covenant story is less well known, and doubly hard to understand! As the people of God wander in the wilderness, in our First Reading, no closer to the Promised Land, they grumble and complain, and finally are besieged by snakes. And only in the face of death, do they acknowledge their impatient ways to Moses, and ask for a remedy. “8And 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,’” says our Reading from Numbers. “9So 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.”
We might wonder, how does that covenant even work? Looking at a bronze snake, lifted up on top of a pole, protects you from an actual poisonous snake bite? Wouldn’t it be smarter to carry the antidote in your pocket? Or just call 911?
Across the Near East, serpents, were believed to be both good and bad. And just like the flu vaccine, the antidote was made from the poison itself. So, the theological point still holds: The God of the wandering Israelites is stronger than the gods of the snakes. The God of the chosen people is ‘God of all creation,’ and if God says I’ll take care of you and save you from dying, whether it’s with a doctors vaccine, or with Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole – believe me, it doesn’t matter much, how!
So, the covenant we read about this week, is a salvific promise, it’s life giving! Like all covenants with God, it is not the kind of agreement made between two equals, like you and I, or like we might make in buying or selling a home. Our God is a jealous God, as the 10 Commands say, and God is the one initiating the covenant and drawing up the terms. We can of course, reject God’s covenants. But, if we accept the terms, we find that, God is a God of life and light, and can only do good.
Still, living within God’s covenants is not easy – and it can be confusing, because we are also bound by our life in the world right now. And so, we live in this, so-called, ‘in-between time.’
For example, God does not even take away the snakes, you might notice, in our First Reading. God doesn’t stop the snakes from biting. In the same way, we are still in the thick of this limited and corruptible world. We’re part of the world that has over-used fossil fuels, pushing our fragile eco-system past the ability to sustain life of all kinds, in the way it was created to.
And we’re part of the world too, of human desires, of coveting our neighbors stuff – money, jobs, pensions, schools, homes, trees, and water – which are also, all part of such fragile, social and political systems, which cannot survive outside of the covenant gift, of God’s forgiveness.
This is the world we live in, far from perfect, and able to inflict the bite of pain and death. But at the same time we live in the world of the New Covenant, which the Son of Man came to ‘live and die for.’ “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have life in God’s new age.”
And so we live in an overlapping of ages. This Christian way, does not undo the Jewish belief in the Messiah, who brings in the new age. But because we believe the Messiah has already come in Jesus, we see the new age beginning with the Passion of Christ. And that’s where the overlap comes in, and why we say we have a foot in two worlds, two aeons. We still live in this fragile, fallible age – but we also, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, live preliminarily, in the life in God’s new age.
So this covenant agreement today, is not only to look on ‘the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up.’ But to look to Christ who was ‘lifted up’ on the pole of the cross, and see that his death was for the sake of God’s whole world. It’s a renewal of the covenants of Jesus’ ancestors, the Hebrews, but also a New Covenant, a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – that when we look up and see that his killing by the authorities didn’t bring victory, but we realize that it was Jesus’ life of service and self-giving sacrifice, which God choose to lift up in his resurrection, that brings redemption. We should be, appalled and horrified, at the blood Jesus shed, and the violence of the crucifixion, so that we are moved to never again participate in the cycles of blood-violence that can only, in the end, hurt everyone.
So on this 4th Sunday in Lent, the covenant of the one lifted up is really a mini-story within the larger gospel story, of a good news for us. The gospel message is that Jesus died for the sake of the world, and was raised by God on the third day, to inaugurate ‘life in the new age.’ And that, as we believe and become followers of Christ Jesus, we have that life already, even in this ‘veil of tears.’
Our Lenten journey, these 40 days, is really our walk, and our calling, every day! As we walk to the cross with Jesus, being renewed by the promises of God, we still will have our struggles and endure back-biting, but we also have the community of faith, to remind us of God’s covenant promises. In the promise of forgiveness, like when we gather around the font and are able to look one another in the eye – we know we are strengthened for the journey by God’s love, and we are able then to forgive one another. And when we do that, more and more, wherever we are, with our family, our friends, and our neighbors, we begin to make the world that God desires, and keep a foot in God’s life in the new age.
The original journey that Moses and the Israelites took was 40 years – not just 40 days. Many of the Hebrews that were liberated from Egypt would never see the Promised Land. Maybe that’s why they grumbled about the terrible food in the desert, and remembered the meals they had in captivity, as delicious!
For us too, our journey is a life-long walk. Each of us is called to follow Jesus in our own shoes, on the way. But, all of us, look to the one who was ‘lifted up’ on the cross, that we might live, and share in the promised new age.
Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are saved already, and we have nothing to fear. Let us continue our journey as faithful followers, strengthened in the covenant of Water and the Word.