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Backbiting and Snakebiting: The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 14, 2021:
Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The special name for today is “Laetare Sunday,” meaning “rejoice,” which comes from a verse that was traditionally part of the liturgy’s introduction. We’re halfway through Lent, as well, so it’s seen as a time to take a bit of a breather from the seriousness of the season, which is why it’s also called Refreshment Sunday. And if this were a eucharistic service (i.e. with communion), it’s a day when clergy can bring out their rarely-worn rose vestments (“aggressive salmon” is how someone described it once). So on this day we hold together two contrasts: the discipline of the season with the joy of the particular day. And our rather curious readings today have contrasts and paradoxes, too: punishment and forgiveness, sin and repentance, death and healing. Isn’t it curious that a serpent — a dangerous animal, and a symbol of disobedience of death — becomes, paradoxically, a symbol, or ritual, of life? And of course, for us, this paradox and disturbing image of the raised up snake conjures up in our minds the great paradoxical sign of our faith: the Cross. True life, our strange Christian faith says, comes out of the ugliest death.

So what can we get from this disturbing story about the people complaining, and God sending attack animals as their just deserts? That, and the unsettling image of a metallic snake might seem at first to have little application and relatability for us.

Well, something that, unfortunately, we CAN relate to is that the context here is that people aren’t happy. They’re not happy with Moses, they’re not happy with God. They’re second guessing their decision to leave Egypt (“better the devil you know.”). They’d rather have unhappiness and injustice that is predictable rather than a future of freedom and self-determination that is hazy. And worst of all… they hate the food. “[T]here is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” they say. (Which makes no sense, when you think about it.) I recall a joke from a famous movie:

“The food here is terrible, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and such small portions.”

I think there’s something universal and relatable here. Something about negativity that we’re all susceptible to. And I’ll argue that the negativity need not be bad in itself. But it is very easy for it to slip into an aggressive cycle in which we lose perspective and reasonableness. (“There’s no food here, and it tastes terrible.”)

I’m indebted to a professor of mine, Walter Deller, who read the Book of Numbers as a case study in how a congregation or community experiences the ups and downs of life while wandering through the desert. (In our case the desert of the ‘post-Christian’ west.) So from that perspective, we might determine that this is a story about backbiting. And God’s intervention, which at first might seem to us to be a primitive image of God, and judgemental, and tyrannical… But it’s actually an act of grace, because God makes the backbiting — and its effects — visible. To use language we heard from the Gospel of John: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” God brings the toxic venom and the festering sores out and into the light.

In a family or church community setting this might be gossip, or tension, or outright conflict. Or if we’re talking about ourselves as individuals there could be a whole host of other things that are poisoning us from the inside: the inner voices, habits, or behaviours that keep us from flourishing, from experiencing joy, and reaching out and being vulnerable to others. We all have something; and our instinct is usually to ignore, suppress, or avoid it. What I’m saying is that the wandering Hebrews in the story are actually better off dealing with biting that they can see, than with biting that they can’t. As we heard in that gospel reading: “God did not send the Son [or the snakes] into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The solution to the problems infecting the community is, surprisingly, a snake: the bronze serpent on the pole. Which completes this movement I’ve been describing: A) the poison is at its worst when it’s below the surface. B) Resolution becomes a possibility when the snakes are made visible. And now C) actual healing can take place when, as a prayer or ritual action, the people look deeply and reflect upon the source, the root cause of their poison. Our temptation is to shrink away from our hurts, hide our pain, or deny our brokenness, but this story tells us that life restored and renewed comes through the honest, hard, and risky work of taking these snakes seriously; trusting that God will not abandon us, and taking to heart what Jesus said: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So on this Laetare — rejoicing, refreshing — Sunday, we recall the surprising, scandalous, and strange good news that makes no sense to our world: fullness of life is offered to us through the Cross. As we gaze on that Cross we see the most honest depiction of human inclination and depravity, but also the most radical symbol of love. As Paul would later write: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And it’s at the Cross where we can bring out into the light our inner hurts and poisons, because it’s there where they can be healed and transformed.

As the “comfortable words” from our Prayer Book remind us:

“Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” Amen.

© 2021: The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter