Covenant Series: Week four
Numbers 21:1-17 (with reference to John 3: 14-21)
March 15, 2015
“A Timeless Symbol for All Generations”
We have three Zion weddings coming up in the next few months, so I’ve been busy with wedding planning for the young couples. As I typically require, they fill out a pre-wedding testing instrument designed to generate questions and discussion. In one of the questions the couple is asked to choose from a list of options something about which they have concerns in the coming marriage. The list of 6 items includes things like money, sex, in-laws, parenting– and then the one that they almost always check—“remaining happy.” I don’t think it’s something I would have checked on that list, and I’m quite sure it’s not what my parents’ generation would have indicated as a pressing concern. Without getting too far off on that track (which would be fascinating to pursue!) I would just say that things change over time. What is important for one generation may not be important to the next.
Symbols change over time, as well, in terms of their relevance. This week I read an op-ed column by Rex Smith of the Albany Times Union. It was titled “Young Generation, Fresh Terms.” He cites a recent report done by Goldman Sachs looking into research about the “millennials” or people born between 1980 and 2000. Apparently they are different from us baby boomers (1946 to 1960) or the Gen Xers (born between 1960 and 1980). So the people that are now between age 15 and age 35 are going to be making some changes in our cultural milieu. His premise is that this generation has a whole different set of assumptions about life.
For one thing, they are getting married later and are having children later; with the median age for marriage being 30. They are in no hurry to buy a home and one-third say that they don’t plan to own a car—ever. Many indicate their preference for living in urban settings with mass transit, watering holes to gather with friends, and cultural events. They are more realistic than their parents with 2/3 of them seeing evidence that the earth is getting warmer, and that it will get worse in their lifetime. They obviously embrace technology, but don’t believe that technology will solve all our problems. They do not buy into the notion that there are limitless resources to be exploited in the name of progress. Globalization and economic disruptions have given them a different set of behaviors and attitudes than that of their parents. The symbols that mark this generation will not be the large house in the suburbs with two SUVs in the garage. Things change over time.
As we’ve been learning in the OT passages throughout Lent, the Covenant is marked with symbols. We hear of yet another symbol in the today’s reading. In the Numbers passage we read this morning, the people of the covenant are wandering in the wilderness. Possibly the symbols of manna and water from the rock no longer work their magic with these people. We’ve forgotten the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and deliverance from cruel life under Pharoah. Now desert life is getting old, and the people are murmuring again. The old refrain “let’s go back to Egypt” starts up again. Memories are short, along with tempers. When the murmuring grows to the point that the people are speaking against God, the Lord sends among the people poisonous snakes, and many die.
The people are so stricken with fear that they repent, and ask Moses to pray to the Lord. Then, in an action that serves to remind us that we can never fully understand God’s ways, God steps in with a new symbol of the covenant. But this one is not like the others. This symbol would have reminded them of the old days in Egypt.
In any depiction of an Egyptian pharaoh, what comprises his headdress, or his crown? A spitting cobra. Maybe this mysterious bronze serpent on a pole was designed to remind them of that earlier time—a time of bondage. Now, in God’s hands (via God’s servant Moses), the statue becomes a symbol of healing as opposed to one of domination and fear. “The very thing that killed people was graciously ordered by God, in replicated form, to ward off death and bring healing to the victims.” A new symbol for a new generation brings renewal to the covenant people. At least for now. Eventually they begin to worship the bronze serpent–worshiping the symbol instead of worshiping the Lord! Let’s face it, we have a checkered history in our relationship with God. God has had to use a fresh symbol for each successive generation starting with the rainbow. I think that it must take great creativity for God to remain in this covenant! “All right, how do I get through to them now since they still don’t seem to get it?”
But God never gives up on the covenant. God continually fashions new symbols to help us understand what it means when God says I will be your God and you will be my people. And as the people sin and fall away from the relationship, an antidote is required. That antidote is repentance because once the people recognize their sin they ask Moses to intercede for them. He does, the Lord relents, and the people can gaze upon their salvation…the bronze serpent held high before them.
We sin because we are afraid. The Israelites were afraid of the future so they lashed out at their leaders in disloyal and uncivil ways. But the same fears operate in us and manifest in myriad ways. I’m afraid of never having the relationship I want so I covet another’s partner. I’m afraid of not having enough so I steal something that does not belong to me. I’m afraid of the truth about myself so I gossip and bear false witness about others. I’m afraid of intimacy so I become addicted to pornography. I’m afraid that deep down inside of me is something dark and unlovely so I do things to keep others away. I’m afraid that I am not and never will be loved by God, and that keeps me away from God.
Fear does terrible things to us as individuals and as a People of God. The bronze serpent was God’s way of letting the people fully gaze upon the thing of which they were afraid, and be healed. Of course, In II Kings 18:4 we learn that eventually the statue itself became an idol, an object of worship and had to be destroyed. Once again, fresh symbols of the covenant were needed.
Our gospel reading for today is an obvious pairing with the Old Testament lesson. So too the Son of Man must be lifted up so that those who believe may have eternal life. And the cross becomes the ultimate symbol of the covenant…the promise that death and fear have been defeated forever. But this is only the 4th Sunday of Lent and we’re not yet at the cross. Let’s look at another symbol, one depicted here in our sanctuary.
On our lectern is a beautiful symbol of the cup, under the sign “INRI”…or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Of course INRI is the sign the Romans nailed onto the cross above Jesus, to mock the King of Kings. The cup refers to the cup that Jesus poured for his disciples at the Last Supper. After taking the loaf of bread and saying “this is my body which is broken for you” Jesus did the same thing with the cup of wine. He held it up, so that all could see…he lifted it up just as he, the following day, would be lifted onto a pole. And then Jesus said “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
The new covenant, the new promise, is symbolized in that cup of blessing. It is poured out for us just as Jesus would pour himself out on the cross. The cup becomes a fresh symbol for a new generation of believers, and all generations following. Each time we come to the Table we participate in a renewal of the promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Yes, it is a cup of suffering as Jesus himself knew when he said to his Father in the Garden, Lord let this cup pass from me.” But as we gaze upon his suffering we gaze upon our own healing.
Lent is a time of repentance and decision. The decision is simple. Do you want to be healed? We can’t do it on our own. We need to choose life over death and fear. God has already chosen us, out of love. For God so loved the world God gave God’s only Son. That love is timeless, and for all generations.
 W. Sibley Towner, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 2, 101.