We are now halfway through the season of Lent. For 20 days we have been observing this liturgical season of penance and preparation for Holy Week and Easter. We began this journey on Ash Wednesday, which was also Valentine’s Day and tragically the day of a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL. Throughout these 20 days, we have been praying the Stations of the Cross in the chapel on Friday mornings, followed by beautiful meditative organ music here in the church and a ringing of the church bell 17 times in memory of the Parkland shooting victims. On Tuesday nights, we have been gathering in the Parish Hall for soup and deep exploration into the Gospel of John and the question of suffering, followed by Compline prayer in the chapel. This Lent has been a rich season of introspection, lamentation, repentance and prayer; and I look forward to delving even deeper into these practices with you in the remaining 20 days of Lent.
But today is actually a little break from Lent. Although all of the Sundays in the season of Lent are feast days, times when we can break our Lenten fast, this Sunday is a special time of respite from repentance. This Sunday is known as “Laetare Sunday” and “Laetare” is Latin for “rejoice.” It’s a day we take a break from repenting to rejoice and relax. This Sunday is also known as “Refreshment Sunday” or “Rose Sunday” because many churches use rose-colored vestments on this day. The readings for this Sunday also offer a break from this series of readings we’ve had on the covenants which God makes with his people: the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant. Today, no covenant; instead we get snakes.
Now I imagine that subject might not initially sound very refreshing or relaxing to many of you, but if you bear with me, I believe we can experience some profoundly refreshing insights from today’s readings.
In the reading from the book of Numbers, the Israelites are frustrated and impatient, hungry and thirsty and fed up with their “miserable food.” On top of this, poisonous snakes show up and poison many Israelites to death with their fatal venom. So the Israelites ask their leader Moses for help. They say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; please pray to God so that God will send the snakes away.” But God does not send the snakes away. Instead, God uses this as an opportunity not only to heal but also to reveal something profound about Himself to His people.
According to the text, the LORD is the one responsible for sending the poisonous snakes. The Israelites blame God (and Moses) for the miserable food, the lack of water and their apparent circumambulations through the desert. When poisonous snakes arrive on the scene, God is blamed for these as well, as the text declares: “The LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people.” So for the Israelites, the serpent has become a symbol of God’s violent punishment and wrath against his people for their complaining. However, God responds to their prayer by turning that symbol on its head; by making the symbol of the serpent into a sign of God’s healing and new life. By lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, God is saying to God’s people, “I am not a God of wrath. I am not a God who will poison you to death because of your complaining. I am a God of love and forgiveness and healing. I want you to stop projecting your violence and wrath onto me. I will teach you this by taking the symbol that you see as representative of my wrath and I will transform it into a symbol of healing and new life. By looking at this life-giving serpent, may your understanding of me be transformed from a God of violent wrath to a God of healing and life.”
Now it seems that this profound insight about God was lost hundreds of years later when King Hezekiah, the King of Judah, broke this bronze serpent down into pieces. However, Jesus sought to reclaim and embody this insight. Jesus says in our Gospel this morning, “Just as the serpent revealed God as a source of healing and love, not violence and wrath, so will I reveal God to you as a God of love and eternal life not condemnation and death.” Jesus makes that very clear. We all know the famous verse John 3:16 which beautifully sums up the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” And the following verse is just as important: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus revealed God as a God of healing and salvation, not condemnation.
There is indeed a time for judgment when the Light of God shines upon us and exposes the many ways that we are caught up and complicit in systems of violence and oppression against vulnerable people. But that judgment always includes an invitation to be healed and transformed by the life-giving and liberating love of God.
Throughout church history, many theologians have understood the cross of Christ primarily as a symbol of God’s wrathful punishment of sin, which Jesus bore on our behalf. However, by understanding the cross primarily in this way, we end up making the same mistake that the Israelites did: we project our own violence onto God. At the cross, God reveals his love and forgiveness in response to human violence. At the cross, God transforms a symbol of human violence into a symbol of healing and new life.
By turning this symbol of healing and new life back into a symbol of God’s bloodthirsty wrath, we miss the point. God wants to bring us out of our systems of oppression by inviting us to stop projecting our violence onto God but rather to bring our honest frustration and inner violence to God in prayer and experience healing and forgiveness as a result. This is how we “behold” the serpent in the wilderness who is revealed to us in the Eucharist, healing our diseases of sin and violence and giving us new life.
May we each find deep rest on this Laetare Sunday and be refreshed by the Gospel truth of God’s healing and liberating love, which transforms symbols of suffering and wrath into symbols of new and abundant life. Amen.