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s101o03 Lockleys Lent 4 30/3/03

"Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live" Numbers 21.8

This passage has a number of curiosities.

It is odd to me that the God who spoke the 10 commandments, with the second about not making carved images, should, so soon afterwards, command Moses to make such a likeness.

Nehushtan - the serpent on the pole which Moses made, has come down to us in the symbol of the medical profession. The bronze figure remained until the time of Hezekiah, perhaps a thousand years later. 2 Kings 18.4 reports that Hezekiah destroyed it because people were worshipping it as an idol. A Jewish Encyclopaedia suggests that the picture of Seraphim came from Babylonian sources and that these were related to the picture they had of Nehushtan.

But the second curiosity for me is that if the Lord sent these poisonous serpents to the Israelites, why could the Lord not take them away again, as indeed the Israelites beg Moses to pray to God to do? Indeed it would seem that Moses too had no difficulty asking God to do this - to take away these serpents God had sent in the first place.

So why did God not do what the people asked, or even what Moses asked? It could be argued that God did lead the Israelites into temptation by getting Moses to make the serpent in the first place!

For me the clue is that the people realised that they had sinned by complaining, they realised that the serpents were a result of their sin of complaining, yet they continue to complain about that which they bring on themselves. Even their perception of the problem doesn't stop them complaining, it makes them continue to complain!

So the real remedy was in their own hands - to stop complaining!

So the people are left with the results of their sin, the serpents, yet if they turned to God's symbol of wholeness the bites would not be fatal.

And for me this begins to answer the question why God was reluctant to do away with the serpents, for I suspect, though I could hardly prove it from the text, that these "serpents" were in fact the humans who spent their lives complaining - they bit others. We are well aware that St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians: "the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." But we are less familiar with the words that immediately follow them: "If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:14-15).

And this means that the words of John / Jesus about the Son of Man being lifted up - set on a Cross, have added significance, for the serpents probably took human rather than reptilian form.

And the people who complained in the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus were not those who didn't go to Church - the lepers and sinners who Jesus visited and with whom he sat down and ate. The people who complained were the religious authorities who were put out by the company Jesus' kept - these other people.

The references are: "The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"" (Luke 5:30)

"Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves." (John 6:41-43)

"And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, "He is a good man," others were saying, "No, he is deceiving the crowd."" (John 7:12) The latter were obviously the authorities who were concerned that the ordinary populace were not "deceived".

So the symbol of the serpent on the pole, and the Son of Man on the Cross is that ordinary people, even if bitten by those who complain at the wideness of God's mercy, will never find the bites they receive fatal.

No one else, and least of all God, can help someone who is determined to spend their life complaining. Everyone else who such people injure will not find their wounds fatal. But it requires real effort for someone who has lived their lives complaining to actually stop and count their blessings.

And turning to the Cross, what does God do here but show us all the result of human greed, self-centredness and exclusivity - the victim, God's child, is crucified. It is the eternal symbol of humanity's inhumanity to one another, and the grace of God which has overcome all this and welcomes in everyone who wants to be with others.

Some time ago, one of my clergy colleagues said to me that one day they will ask the question at the appropriate place in the service: "Who are we?" - to which the congregation will no doubt on cue take up the priest's statement "We are the body of Christ". Then the priest wanted to ask: "How do we know" - to which the congregation would again take up the cue: "His Spirit is with us". I don't know if he ever did do this. But it made me think ...

Are we really the body of Christ? Or perhaps less argumentatively, "Are we the complete body of Christ?" I think that the answer here is an emphatic No! The body of Christ is a far more numerous body than the congregation at St Richard's. Heavens we would be bored for all eternity if it were just us !!! :-) But perhaps not, perhaps we'll be like fish in tanks swimming in circles, blissfully unaware that we have swum the same path for our entire lives - blissfully unaware that we've had the same conversation with the same people again and again. Perhaps this is what eternal life is like? Shades of "Ground Hog Day" :-)

The proof that we are the Body of Christ, the body of ordinary people who would, by any other standards, never consider themselves worthy of inclusion, is that we are open to everyone else - with the emphasis on everyone. And it is here we know the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit of God is not the Spirit which is so special that ordinary people cannot share. The Holy Spirit of God is that Spirit which reaches out to others and says that all people are special. This is precisely why it is possible for each and every person to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

In parts of the Anglican Communion, today is called Mothering Sunday and Refreshment Sunday as we share the rich Simnal Cake, "breaking" our lenten fast. Actually every Sunday in Lent is a feast day, it is the week days when we fast. If you would like to count up the days between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Day, omitting the Sundays you will find that there are 40. (Actually it is even less because the feast of the Annunciation usually falls in this period too.) And on Sundays clergy wear purple robes - the colour of kings and victory - not penitence and fasting. I wonder if it is deliberate that our Old Testament reading is this from Numbers with its allusions to the traditional caring role of women as nurses? And it leads me to think that "care" is the opposite of "complaining".

But the picture of mothers - indeed of all parents - who ideally care for their offspring entirely unconditionally - is a good one for God also, for that is how God loves us and others too. All of us are special in God's eyes - not special above others - but special along with everyone else.


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