Taking Up Truth
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We don’t know.

We have phones that can access libraries around the world, we have computers that can store more information on something the size of a thumbnail than most universities had access to last century. We are global citizens who need to know how to advocate for health care, for economics, for governmental policies.

But we do not know.

I offer this to you as a grace, as a blessing, as an opportunity for some mental sabbath.

We do not know why God told Moses to raise up a bronze serpent on a pole, or how when people who had been bitten by a poisonous snake and they looked at this bronze snake, they were healed.

The book of Numbers does not explain it. The Gospel according to John, who uses this image, does not explain it. John just assumes people know the story that he is talking about.

We can speculate. We can infer. We can get creative.

But we don’t know.

Rabbinic commentaries are leery about this story, because it sounds too much like magic. And if rabbis, who are willing to interpret pert near everything, are leery, maybe we should be, too.

We know about poisonous snakes. Growing up in Appalachia, I learned early on that a rattle snake offers you a warning. If you mess with snakes, they will defend themselves. But if we leave them alone, they tend to leave us alone.

So maybe looking at the bronze snake was about remembering the rule that if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone. But that’s not the way the story is told.

We know that God had told the people not to make images of things. And yet here God tells Moses to make something in the likeness of a snake. This is not the first time God has given someone instructions that go against laws God has given. And it won’t be the last.

Let’s look at it from the other side. When Jesus says

[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

We might think that this is the form of “lifted up” that we heard in the story of Simon’s mother-in-law.

Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law when she had a fever,
and took her by the hand and lifted her up.
Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. (Mark 1:31)

That word for lifted up is the same as being raised, being woken up, experiencing resurrection. This is a different word. When Jesus talks about being lifted up here, being exalted, this is not the resurrection. It is Jesus on the cross he is talking about.

Here are some other things that we do not know how they work, we just know that they do:

When we are honest about our problems, healing has already begun. So maybe looking at the snake is a way of breaking through our denial and getting at some truth.

When we put our trust in God’s foolishness and weakness, for that is what Paul calls the whole idea of the crucifixion, when we put our trust in God’s foolishness and weakness, rather than in the wisdom and strength of the world, we start to discover new life.

When we are willing to admit that we do not know, we are on our way to learning the truth.

The other day I went to Evelyn Bay for some community office hours. And I took one of the empty tables, and there were not that many that day. And two gentlemen were speaking loudly at a table not far from me. Well, one was speaking, the other could hardly get a word in edgewise.

And the speaker was talking about versions of the Bible. How this version uses this word and that versions uses that word, and trying to explain how if we are talking about THE TRUTH, about what God has preserved in the Bible, then how can it be different in that one from this one. If God preserved this one, why does that one have different words; if God preserved that one, how did this one get changed? And he never seemed to stop for a breath. He was all about “How can you witness against this church or that church, if you Bible has the same errors that theirs does?”

He was selling something. In this case, a particular translation. And he truly believed in his product.

This man did not seem to have any room in his theology for “we don’t know.” He seemed certain of everything he said and believed, and he seemed willing to argue it against anyone.

To be honest, I do not want that kind of faith. I want to trust and love God so much that I can be honest about my faults, my failings, my partial understandings. I want to love God so much that my faith has the flexibility to love and serve others who do not fit what I believe. I want to trust God so much that I can accept that right now I see as though through a dusty, smudged mirror.

We live in an age when we are not allowed to say we don’t know. We are not only supposed to know where we stand of any number of issues, but also be willing to fight to the death on Facebook defending our position and attacking others.

Here is what I trust:

The truth of Jesus Christ as the revelation of the love of God, crucified by a world that requires violence, raised in the resurrection by a God who is showing us a new way, that we might not fear death, and we might learn to love one another, even as Jesus loves us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.