March 14, 2021
Our nostalgia for the past is a powerful force, but let’s be honest. That nostalgia can be both selective and a little fuzzy around the edges.
I remember my college years fondly. I remember staying up late talking with new friends and debating everything under the sun. I remember going to concerts and performing in concerts. I remember tossing snowballs on those perfect winter days and tossing the frisbee on those perfect spring days. I remember parties and dances and picnics. I remember giving tours to prospective students and tutoring adorable kids in local elementary schools. I remember learning how to think and to read and to write in deeper and more complex ways.
I have conveniently forgotten other things, things that don’t really show up in the scrapbooks. I’ve forgotten the intense homesickness of those first few weeks. I’ve forgotten the misery of that semester I got mono. I’ve forgotten the stress of exams and final papers.
Memory can be selective. Perhaps even more so when it comes to our relationship with God.
The Israelites survive Pharaoh’s oppression (whom God defeats with a series of plagues) They are freed by God from lives of slavery in Egypt. They cross the Red Sea, which God makes possible by parting the waters and then drowning the Egyptian army that comes after them. But the sounds of Miriam’s celebratory tambourine have barely faded before the Israelites enter the wilderness and start complaining. At first they can’t find any water. Then they find some water at Marah, but they decide it’s too bitter, so they complain to Moses that they can’t drink the bitter water.
What does God do? God provides a piece of wood for Moses to throw into the water, and the water then becomes sweet. Not long after that, they come to Elim, where there is water in abundance. They set up camp there for a while.
Then the Israelites start to complain about the food. “If only we had died in Egypt…” they say. “There we ate our fill of bread.” Never mind the slavery in Egypt. Never mind the brutality. They accuse Moses of bringing them out to the wilderness to kill them with hunger.
What does God do? God rains bread from heaven. There is always enough bread for each day. Every morning bread – manna – literally covers the ground. And every evening there are quails all over camp. So there is plenty of both bread and meat for them to eat (Exodus 16).
They keep going. The Israelites make it to Rephidim, where once again the problem is thirst. They demand that Moses provide some water: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children with thirst?”
What does God do? God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and lo and behold, water comes out of that rock.
I share these details because I think they’re an important backdrop to what happens in today’s first reading from the book of Numbers. The complaining begins again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
The story reports that the Lord sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of those people die. And at that point the people realize that they’ve been sinful and ungrateful.
I don’t think we know for sure whether God sent those snakes. What we do know for sure is that the person who recorded the story believes that God sent the snakes.
What feels most true is that God’s people are unfailingly human. We can idealize the past. We can be unsatisfied with the present. It’s true of the Israelites, and it’s true of us, and it breaks God’s heart.
Those of you who are parents know this breaking point all too well. You understand what it means for God to be fed up with another round of complaining. Imagine your teenager complaining that you won’t buy them the latest whatever it is that everyone else supposedly has – clothes, video games, gadgets. And you’re thinking: I love you. I feed you. I make sure you have a place to live. I changed your diapers all those years. And this is the thanks I get? I’m accused of being a terrible parent?
On this, the one-year anniversary of the beginning of our pandemic lockdown, I wonder if we have a fuzzy kind of nostalgia for the way things were before the pandemic. It has been a difficult year in countless ways – our own version of wilderness – but the pre-pandemic time is probably a little like our Egypt. We forget that we were often held captive to frantic schedules, family members running in all kinds of directions with no time to be together, much less to talk and connect. We sometimes spent more time with our commutes than with our children. Even school schedules were packed from dawn to dusk.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe God sent this pandemic to punish us. The pandemic is the result of a virus that is very good at doing what viruses do and a whole lot of human error that allowed it to flourish and spread.
And I don’t at all mean to downplay the sacrifices and griefs of the last year. It has been unimaginably hard.
In our first reading, healing comes when the Israelites look at the bronze serpent that Moses makes. In other words, when they look directly at what had been killing them, they are able to live and to keep going.
I wonder if that’s what we can do this morning on this difficult anniversary. Look directly at what has been killing us long before the virus – the stress, the broken relationships, the disconnectedness, the many ways that we dismiss and diminish human dignity.
In today’s gospel we hear those familiar words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.”
We look to the cross the way the Israelites looked at the serpent on that pole. An instrument of death transformed into a promise of life. We look not just to the cross, but to the empty tomb, to Jesus’ own ascension to the right hand of God.
We keep breaking the world. We let sin run rampant. We divide people into categories and make sure people in some of those categories have more power, more resources, more belonging, more everything than other people. That’s why people of color have died at much higher rates from COVID.
But Jesus shows up to expose that sin in all its forms, to reveal it all with his penetrating, searching light. And then to redeem us with his love, to show us another way. A way of hope.
Jesus comes to embody a love that we cannot comprehend and do not deserve. Jesus embodies a love that will be lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world – to challenge the power of empires and to show us that forces of death and destruction will not ultimately win.
I recently read the notes from a sermon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on this text. (They’re archived online by Stanford University.) In September of 1954 Dr. King had moved to Montgomery to serve as the full-time pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. For his first sermon he preached on John 3:16.
God is love. God’s love is not a single act, but is the abiding state of God’s heart…God’s love [has] no beginning and will have no ending. God always has loved and always will love. Civilizations might rise and fall, but God[‘s] love will be here. Empires might crumble and perish, but God’s love will be here…Man’s love might waver and even dry up, but God’s love will be here. God’s love is eternal.
Dr. King goes on to say:
God’s love is [too] broad to be limited to a particular race…It is [too] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.
That’s the gift that we remember and celebrate this morning. A divine love that has no beginning and no end. A love that has no limits. A love we can trust and share without holding back. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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