Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her!
The Mass for the Fourth Sunday in Lent begins with these words that we heard the cantor sing during the Introit. Rejoice in Latin is Laetare, hence the name Laetare Sunday. While last Thursday was technically the middle point in Lent, the Church gives us a bit of joy on Laetare Sunday, at least in comparison to the other Sundays in Lent. The clergy wear rose colored vestments, and the musicians have a bit of pep in their singing and playing, giving us some encouragement in our penitential journey through Lent.
The lessons for Laetare Sunday under our current lectionary begin with one of the most bizarre passages in all of Scripture. This is the last of the stories in the book of Numbers in which the Hebrews, wandering about in the wilderness, complain against their leaders Moses and Aaron. Up to this point, when they’ve complained, God punished them for their sedition, Moses interceded on their behalf, the people repented, and the Lord showed Moses how to make things right. But this time, they complain about God as well as Moses, and not only is their complaining seditious, but it’s also ridiculous. They say, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” What food? Are they hallucinating? Perhaps they think they’re hallucinating when they see poisonous snakes crawling around. But no, these snakes are real. When they bite people, the people die, which is a wakeup call to those around them. The Hebrews repent of their sin, pleading with Moses to intercede for them to God. Moses does, and then God tells him to make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.
Such a strange story, but it strikes me that it would not have been unusual for the Israelites to see snakes in the wilderness of Egypt. They know what these snakes are capable of, even before they start biting people. Humans are generally scared of snakes, so much so that St. Francis Day has become interesting around here since the addition of two pet snakes to the extended parish family.
Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni created a sculpture which you can see on the front of your service leaflet. The sculpture commemorates the bronze serpent from the Israelites’ time in the wilderness in Egypt, but the sculpture is not in Egypt, rather it’s on Mount Nebo in Jordan. From there, you can see the Promised Land – specifically Jerusalem! – on a clear day. It was from Mount Nebo that Moses later was given a glimpse of the Promised Land, though he was never allowed to enter. After he saw the Promised Land, Moses died. But the sight had given him hope, even as he faced death.
Seeing the Promised Land has become a metaphor for anticipating deliverance and arriving at salvation. For the Hebrews in the wilderness, the serpents represented death as many people were bitten and died, and this horrific scene changed their hearts. The text says,
“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.”
God took the instrument of fear and death– the serpent – and turned it into a symbol of their repentance and their deliverance to new life. When you look at the sculpture of the bronze serpent on Mount Nebo, it’s clear that the artist isn’t just memorializing the bronze serpent from this story. Notice how the body of the snake, looped around its own head, also looks like a human head, and the pieces sticking out resemble outstretched arms. The artist connects the ancient Hebrew story with Jesus’ words from the gospel reading: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” hinting at Jesus’s crucifixion on a cross. Just as snakes evoked fear in the hearts of the Hebrews, so did the cross evoke fear for those in Jesus’s time, for in first-century Palestine, anyone who dared challenge the Emperor would be executed on a wooden cross. In Christ, God took an instrument of fear and death – the cross – and turned it into a symbol of our repentance and our deliverance to new life.
The Lord promised Moses that everyone who looks upon the serpent will live; Jesus promises that those who believe in him will have eternal life. Looking isn’t enough. Believing is required. In John, “believe” is always an action verb. It’s something you do, and can’t be reduced to giving mental assent to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. The nature of “belief” becomes clear later in this chapter when Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Throughout John’s gospel, the opposite of belief is not unbelief but disobedience. To believe, therefore, is to obey! And not just one time and be done with it, but obey from now on. John uses “eternal life” in the same way the other gospel writers use the phrase “kingdom of God”: the coming of the kingdom of God isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven, but instead about heaven coming down to earth. God’s promise of eternal life to all those who believe in Christ begins in this life, here on earth, and with it comes an expectation that we actively choose to believe in Christ. Believing in Christ means committing ourselves to a new life of obedience to God’s will rather than our own. It means facing our deepest and darkest fears as the Hebrew people had to do when confronted with the serpent, and as the first century Jews did when confronted with their Messiah on the cross. Believing in Jesus means that when we sin, we repent and return to the Lord. Believing in Jesus means taking up our cross daily and following him.
In so doing, God invites us to live out the eternal life given to us right here, and right now. We are invited again and again to cooperate with God’s grace given to us in the Sacraments and serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, in both the large and small things in our daily lives. We are invited to make sacrifices and make choices that honor God and others rather than ourselves. We are invited to live our lives in such a way that God’s kingdom comes from heaven to earth through us.
That said, John said that those who believe in Christ will not perish. This passage, while being primarily about eternal life on earth, also points us to eternal life in heaven. It isn’t an either/or but is a both/and. The hymn we will sing after communion, “Jerusalem the golden,” reminds us of what we have to look forward to on the other side of the veil. A land flowing with milk and honey where joys await us! What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare! The halls of Zion will be jubilant with the songs of the angels and martyrs and those who feast…those who with their Leader have conquered in the fight, forever and forever clad in robes of white.
Friends, at this point in our Lenten journey in the wilderness, we find ourselves on Mount Nebo like Moses was with a glimpse of the Promised Land just visible on the horizon. When we fall into sin, we repent as the Hebrews did, and gaze upon that terrible instrument of death that God has transformed into a symbol of life and love. We gaze upon the One who is lifted up, and more than just look at him, we choose to believe in him. Unlike Moses, we get to enter into the Promised Land for all of eternity, partially now, and more fully at the Last Day. While we are still on this side of the veil, our viewpoint into heaven is clearest – like a clear, sunny day on Mount Nebo – when the Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist. At this altar, we are joined with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as heaven comes to earth, and earth is lifted to heaven, and the Son of Man is lifted up at the elevations. On this altar, God gives us the Bread that came down from heaven, that Christ may live in us, and we in him.
Let us rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her! Let us rejoice that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. And let us rejoice that Easter joy is just around the corner. Amen.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 101.
 Verses 7 and 8.
 Much of this paragraph comes from Fr. Stephen Holmgren’s sermon: https://tinyurl.com/6rd3km3e.
 John 3:36.
 Bartlett 119.
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 13.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!