There Are No Words (Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21)
I want to begin today by explaining the sermon title, which is a line from the 19th Psalm with which we began today’s worship. The Psalm sings about God’s communication with humankind. In the last part of the Psalm, God speaks through the Torah, which is not just a written word, but the teaching that accompanies it from God through faithful people. I hope we participate in being a channel of God’s speech each Sunday. At the beginning of the Psalm, however, God communicates by the wonder of the creation, which shares its wonder and intricacy without words. There are no words. There is no speech, yet the silent sound of the sunrise or sunset or mountain meadow or mighty tides of the sea communicate to us about God without them, “through all the world.”
But what if, “there are no words,” for another reason? Sometimes, there are experiences that are negative and destructive, that communicate their chaos, as it were, silently. There are no words, just uproar and disruption. Furthermore, this chaos strips the words from us, through our grief, our stubbornness, or our anger. It is really irrelevant which, the bottom line is the same. Maxine and I have just been in such a situation in the loss of her sister. For many reasons there are times when there are no words, or we cannot or will not hear them. One of the problems with such times of wordless chaos, is that in their midst, it’s easy to lose sight of what is truly important in life. We can’t see the bigger picture because the details of the moment block a global view.
Now, let me admit that the Old Testament Book of Numbers is not high on most people’s “must-read list.” Never has been. It’s a story equally fascinating to the story of the exodus from Egypt, but very much less happy because it’s a story of what happens to God’s people when they do not to hear the words of the cosmos or the community or of God and finds that “there are no words.” The story begins at Mt. Sinai where Israel learned to be a people at the Mountain of God, with God available, so to speak, next door, dare I say it, as Pharaoh and the taskmasters had always been available. In the first third of the Book of Numbers there are plenty of words, all preparing Israel to move from being a people of the mountain to being a people of the tent, on the move, a people in whose midst God promised to dwell. Exact preparations of arrangement and timing were set out, down to the special trumpets that were to be blown at the time of departure to the land of promise.
When the trumpets blew, and Israel went into the wilderness, there was an almost immediate questioning of the leadership from all kinds of folks. There was a call to change leadership, to change direction and go back to Egypt, and such words caused incredible violence, death and confusion. When they sent out spies into Canaan where they were going, most of them reported it was a fool’s errand to try to move into that place. The inhabitants were too strong. Some said they were giants, godlike in their stature. Only Joshua and Caleb said, it would be tough, but it was possible with God’s help. And there was further violence and confusion. When one won’t listen to the words, or listen to the wrong ones, there are no words, and so Israel would wander for an entire generation in the wilderness with no words, until all of those who rebelled died there. To a Hebrew, the wilderness was a place to pass through not to live. No one lived there. To die in the wilderness meant to be unremembered. The Hebrews had very little life after death idea. Being remembered by their offspring through the generations was as close as they got. To die in the wilderness was to die forgotten.
On they wandered. Moses tried to lead them with Joshua’s help, but it was like herding cats. And they whined. The special word is “murmured.” They murmured about food, leadership, danger. Most often and right from the beginning they murmured that they wanted to go back to Egypt. In the wilderness, life was precarious and depended upon being resourceful to figure out where they were. A huge problem, however, was that, with no words to which they listened, they allowed their memory of Egypt to make it into a place of freedom, although it had been a place of slavery. The wilderness, which was freedom, was twisted into the place of slavery.
In our lesson it happened yet again. They accused God (and Moses) of bringing them into the wilderness, not to pass through it, with the plan of letting them die in it. You’ve brought us to this horrid place of no food and water except this wretched manna, and we’re dying out here. And they were. The next thing they knew they were infested with many snakes whose bite was poisonous and caused a fiery sting. Many died. Like so many of us, when we’re in deep trouble, they got godly right away, and said that they were sorry to God and asked Moses to pray for them. “We’ll do anything, just take the snakes away.” God didn’t, but did have Moses make a bronze (or copper) serpent that looked pretty much like the offending ones that were wreaking havoc in the community. Moses was to put it high up on a pole. If repentant people actually looked at the symbol of death, they were healed. The snakes weren’t gone, but the Israelites didn’t die. They actually had to do something, but what they had to do was to look at what had been provided by God through their leader Moses. The Book of Numbers finally talks about the end of that wilderness generation and how the new generation turned life around and came to the doorstep of Canaan, though not without difficulties and plot-twists, and leaves Israel on the doorstep of Canaan, on the Plains of Moab across from Jericho.
I don’t want us to think about this story primarily as something that happened once long ago to people who are all dead. So many people leave the Bible, especially the Old Testament there, and end up with the conclusion that God was just awful in the Old Testament. Aren’t we lucky to have Jesus? This story was told and heard through the millennia by wanderers in wilderness places of the spirit (and sometimes the body) who had become aware that “there are no words,” and don’t know where to turn. They have put themselves in the place of these folk the story and understood that they are alike in many ways. Some of these put the Book of Numbers in its final form in the Old Testament. We may follow in their train today. Have you been in a place where life was short on meaning, and because of that you began listening to the voice of those who said, “Wasn’t ‘Egypt’ a place of security”? “Never mind the slavery.” “It wasn’t so bad.” “You knew where dinner was coming from, and it wouldn’t be manna.” It’s easy to listen to those words. Recently I learned that it takes six times longer for something that’s true to be retweeted and followed on Twitter than something false. Sometimes there are no words, not even if we have 180 characters. And all of a sudden, “ouch!” a snake bites us, and we’re dying.” Not physically, but spiritually, and we aren’t sure what you did (people tell us it’s our fault, but we’re still just as snake bit.) Have you ever been there in your life?
It’s not accidental, that the Lectionary conversation partners with this story from Numbers 21 are two passages from the New Testament that talk about God’s love and grace. The Gospel contains part of a wonderful story of an encounter between Jesus and a distinguished Jewish teacher named Nicodemus who thinks he’s too old to change. One key reason that this Gospel is joined to this Old Testament Lesson is that the Gospel quotes it, and makes a personal application of the passage to Jesus’ life and ministry: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life” (verses 14-15).
What Jesus suggests to Nicodemus here is that, just as healing from snakebite in the old story required the act of looking on that snake, so looking to Jesus in a spiritual sense as a source of values and teaching leads to the healing of incorporation into a brand new community: the community of Jesus that is still the age old community of God. Now, it’s important to see that although it takes a commitment to the values of Jesus to be in his community, the impetus, and offer of community rests with God. It’s not so much that we find Jesus as he finds us.
The reason for this is found in the most famous verse in the New Testament, put back in its context. The reason God invites people is because (or for) God loved the world in this way: God gave the only Son so that whoever commits life to him and his values and teachings, might not die of snakebite, but share in the very life of God even in wilderness times. God’s love is love that gives, and gives, and gives again. And that reminds me of the Epistle Lesson in Ephesians 2:8 that says, “By grace you are saved.” Let me tell you what I think the Bible means by that word. It is not a magic word that’s a code word for jumping through a set of religious hoops, no matter how venerated. It does not mean saying the same words, praying the same prayer, walking down the aisle in church and being baptized (probably in a certain way). In John’s Gospel being saved is equivalent to “eternal life,” which in turn means sharing the very life of God in our own. And that means sharing God’s care and concern with others whether they’re like us or not, taking responsibility to put others’ good ahead of ours.
Coming back to Ephesians 2, it points to the same reality. Verses 1-10 are really one long sentence in Greek that resists anything but paraphrase into English. We don’t even get to the subject and main verb of this super-sentence until verses 4-7: “God…made us alive…and raised us up.” God made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him…” God did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.
That’s the focus of verses 8-9. This act of God was not because of what we had done, good or bad, but because of what John 3:16 said: “God loved the world in this way…by giving…” Ephesians 2:8 says, God simply chose to do this because God loves us as our creator (“by grace we are saved”), by simply putting active trust in God. It’s not that Christian living is unimportant – no, it’s crucial as I’ve said all along, but Christian living is the fruit of what God has done not the reason God did it. God did this so we might live lives that look like Jesus as their natural outgrowths, as an outworking of gratitude. And the goal of it all is that we all share abundant life together. Indeed the wilderness is still there, not “out there” so much as “in here,” and it’s still full of snakes that can bite us still, but we have God in Christ with us, and we have partners with us to share the road, to tend to our hurts, and share our joys.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.