Focal Point March 14 2021 Elim LC
text: Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
The story is told of a young man who entered a very strict monastic order. It was so strict that members were permitted to speak only two words per year to the abbot. At the end of year one the young man appeared before the abbot and spoke his two words, “bad food.” At the end of the second year the young man appeared before the abbot and spoke two more words, “hard bed.” At the end of year three he came to the abbot and spoke his last two words, “I quit.” The abbot responded, “Well it is about time. Complain, complain, complain — that’s all you’ve done since you came here.”
Complaining. Grumbling. Discontentment. What have you, what have we complained about today? This past week? This past month? This past year? COVID-19 was declared a pandemic one year ago. We have gone through physical distancing, face masks, shut downs, job losses, isolation, loneliness, sickness, stress, and on and on. Many of us have what I term “the COVID affect,” a low level of anxiety and depression that has masked and colored how we view ourselves, our relationships and our world.
This past year has tried and tested us.
This story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, learning to trust God’s leading, care and provision is good for us to review. They struggled to trust and follow God. All their grumbling and complaining is not just about them. It is a human story. Our story.
< Count your troubles, you’ll be sad. Count your blessings you’ll be glad. >
I find it fascinating that God gives Moses a cure that is emblematic of the curse. God’s punishment of the Israelite children for their grumbling and complaining was fiery serpents. Many died from the poisonous bites. The cure God gave was a brass serpent on a pole that has become medical symbol of healing for us today.
I wonder, was God teaching the Israelites that they had to look at the consequence of their negative attitudes and grumbling ways—their inability to trust God love and care, always seeing the glass half empty—as destroying their relationship with Him and each other? Like poison in our souls and communities? Fear and distrust, and conspiracy theories are destructive! We do not always see a direct connection to our choices—what we say, think and do—with the outcome, the consequences of our choices.
Where is our focus today? What do we see individually and collectively? When we see only what we don’t have or are afraid of losing then our lives are miserable. We need God’s intervention and help to refocus. God, through the Bible seems to be saying, I will give you the gift of evil consequences that bite and kill to help you seek and seethe cure. Looking at the symbol of the consequence is what healed the people of God in our Old Testament story. “Look and live.” Check your focal point. Learn how to see differently. Learn to be grateful. Learn to give thanks. Learn to trust and follow our God who created and sustains us in all of life. That, in turn will shape and change your thinking and redirect your lives. It is not naivety or empty positive thinking, but rather seeing God in the midst of all of life and knowing we are not alone.
It is amazing the difference this can make. It is also significant that Jesus would help us to see that wilderness experience pointing to His reason and purpose for coming into our world.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
“And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32).
Why did Jesus come into our world? Why did He have to suffer and die a gruesome, painful death on the cross? The brass serpent reminded the Israelites of their brokenness and constant negative attitude, their failure to trust God and God’s provision of love, care and protection. It also helped them to see that God was the source for their healing and hope. And all that points to the reality of the cross—Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—for us.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that who soever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Note also verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
God created us for life. We in so many ways chose death. Yet, God is not willing to give up on us, nor does God force His way upon us. Just like in Moses’ day the command is “look and live.” Even so for us today, it is “look and live.” Jesus came to give us life.
Fred Craddock tells the story of his father, who spent years of his life hiding from the God who was seeking him out:
“When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, ‘You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church? Get another name, another pledge.’
My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. When we had an evangelistic campaign the pastor would bring the evangelist, introduce him to my father and then say, ‘Sic him, get him! Sic him, get him!’ My father would always say the same thing. ‘You don’t care about me! Another name, another pledge. Another name, another pledge! I know about churches.’
I guess I heard it a thousand times. One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and said, ‘Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.’
I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed. And I want to tell you, every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, were from my mother’s church—every one of them. My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . . He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”
It is not until you know God is seeking you in love, not in condemnation; it is not until that moment that the gospel becomes Good News for you. (Fred Craddock, adapted by James Fitzgerald, Serpents, Penguins, and Crosses)
One more story that comes out of the Bedouin culture. “Bedouin” is the Aramaic name for “desert dwellers.” These people live much as the characters of the Old Testament did. During a heated argument, according to this story, a young Bedouin struck and killed a friend of his. Knowing the ancient, inflexible customs of his people, the young man fled, running across the desert under the cover of darkness, seeking safety.
He went to the black tent of the tribal chief in order to seek his protection. The old chief took the young Arab in. The chief assured him that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally.
The next day, the young man’s pursuers arrived, demanding the murderer be turned over to them. They would see that justice would prevail in their own way. “But I have given my word,” protested the chief.
“But you don’t know whom he killed!” they countered.
“I have given my word,” the chief repeated.
“He killed your son!” one of them blurted out. The chief was deeply and visibly shaken with his news. He stood speechless with his head bowed for a long time. The accused and the accusers as well as curious onlookers waited breathless silence. What would happen to the young man? Finally the old man raised his head. “Then he shall become my son,” he informed them, “and everything I have will one day be his.”
The young man certainly didn’t deserve such generosity. And that, of course, is the point. Love in its purest form is beyond comprehension. No one can merit it. It is freely given. It is agape, the love of God. Look to the cross. At the cross we encounter love in its purest form.
God’s love is tangible and real. Jesus is living proof. We become living proof when we receive that love and live it out loud in gratitude and faith. Shout His fame for all the world to see and hear!
In Jesus’ name. Amen.