I was more than a little surprised when Bishop Robinson said yesterday, speaking at the annual diocesan stewardship institute, that the Old Testament reading for today was exactly meant for us, at this moment of economic crisis in the world. The bronze serpent, I thought to myself? I’d been wondering how I was going to explain this bit of weirdness to my congregation.
Gene went on to call attention to the context of this passage in the Book of Numbers. Israel is wandering in the desert, the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. The Hebrews have been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but now they are nowhere. It is like us at this moment in our history. Where are we? What is waiting for us in the future? Is this the beginning of a second Great Depression? Will we lose our jobs, those of us who still have them? Will we face further cutbacks in compensation, further losses in our retirement funds? The fears are very real. Everything is uncertain, more uncertain than at any time in my life. Those who speak truthfully—even those in high places, those who are “experts”—would have to say they do not know. This is our wilderness.
But then the bishop went on to say something even more surprising: this wilderness is a gift of God, this crisis; this is our moment—ours, the people of God. He reminded us of the story of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. Why did the Lord not arrange for his people to go straight across the Sinai and enter the Promised Land in, say, six months—a more than doable journey, even on foot? Why does the Lord not arrange for us to go straight through our current wilderness and enter the Promised Land of our dreams?
Because, Bishop Robinson said, Israel had to learn to trust in the Lord and in him only. And we need to learn that trust too. Israel was not ready for the Promised Land. We are not ready either. This is our testing time; this is our proving ground. We have had it so easy, you and I and all of us in America. The bishop didn’t go this far, but I will: in a way we ourselves have been slaves, slaves to an empire built on false promises and unreality. Too-easy credit, no-tomorrow borrowing, consumerism gone crazy, an arrogant foreign policy, prosperity on the backs of the billions of poor in the world (Bishop Robinson did say that).We have been slaves to a system that, like ancient Egypt, made a few people rich beyond imagination but left most middle and working class Americans worse off than they have been since the early 1970s.
Now this empire has crashed. We have been delivered by a series of plagues. But like the Hebrews in the wilderness, we are afraid of our freedom. Some of the Hebrews, back then, longed to return to slavery; for at least they were fed, at least they knew what life held for them. Some of us—honestly most of us—would like to go back to the glory days of a year or two ago, phony as we know they were.
Then, for the Hebrews, there were those poisonous snakes. People dying of snake bites. Some of us are being bitten too: job losses, salary cuts, portfolios crashing, mortgages upside down. In the Numbers reading, the people come to Moses their leader and beg him to ask the Lord to take away the serpents from them. If we had a Moses, we would certainly be begging the same from him; I suppose President Obama will have to do as a substitute (and remember that there were plenty who questioned Moses’ leadership, as there are those who question the President’s).
And now the astonishing thing in this reading: the Lord tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and whenever someone is bitten by a poisonous snake, if they look at the serpent of bronze they will live. What is this about? Well, at one level we remember that we are back 3,500 years or so ago, in a culture that was just sorting itself out from magic and idolatry, from this kind of witchcraft healing fetish. So this is not about making a bronze replica of Bernie Madoff or the Citibank logo and putting it on a pole. As Bishop Robinson said, what this is really about is another incident of Israel learning to trust in the Lord, and in the Lord only.
The call to us, here in our wilderness, bitten by our poisonous serpents, is to stop yearning for a return to the unrealities of the past; instead, to lift up our eyes and trust in the Lord and in him only, and to live. Not only will we live, but we will learn to live differently. We will learn to live again responsibly, to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, building for God’s future, loving our neighbors—not as slaves of the empire of money and power. Then will we be ready to enter the Promised Land.
And to what are we to lift up our eyes? The gospel gives us the answer: “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.” On my desk, in my study, is a small crucifix, a bronze Christ on a battered cross of wood. It’s old, from Europe. Probably it stood on some priest’s desk there, or before his eyes on the Altar as he celebrated the Mass. And it reminds me, when I feel like turning back from the challenges of life, when I feel sorry for myself or doubt the promises of God—it reminds me that believing in Christ is not just a matter of thoughts in the head or words on the lips; it is a matter of feet on the ground, hands to work, hearts to love, moving forward into the wilderness, trusting in God.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.