Monday, March 23, 2009
The Language of Longing
Story of the brazen serpent in the desert
Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
******** United Church of Christ
March 22, 2009
Earlier this week, as I was about to start writing my sermon, the doorbell rang. It was the FedEx guy with an envelope for my husband. As I opened the door and signed the electronic pad, I asked him, “How’s it going?” He replied, “I’m hanging in there.” I said, “I guess that’s what we’re all doing these days.” He shot back, “Yeah, it’s about all you can do in this freakin’ world.”
In his voice of complaint I could hear the longing: longing for better days ahead, for a time perhaps in the past when things didn’t seem so complicated, longing for change right now, this minute. And these days, there is much to complain about.
We’ve all heard the news about the incredible amounts of bonus payments given to AIG executives, money that was supposed to be used to bail out the ailing corporation. Edward Liddy, AIG’s CEO, was asked two and three times to release the names of these executives to the House Financial Services Committee. In an effort to protect his employees, Liddy cited that death threats had been received regarding his executives and their families, and he pleaded for confidentiality.
The atmosphere of complaint in this nation has turned vicious and violent for some, harkening back to the days of revolution: not freedom from tyranny, but the poor and middle classes raging against the rich, when a dictator’s empty promises were preferred over a messy, sometimes ill-conceived government of the people.
Our deep longing, our rising complaint reveals our desire for rescue, for someone, anyone to take us out of our painful circumstances and set us down gently in that bright land of plenty, health, and wholeness.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this land of woe
But there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go.
The Israelites wandering in the desert thought that their rescue from Egypt would be better than their life of slavery. But appearances can be deceiving. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” We can hear it in their voices: they would almost rather go back to Egypt, back to the Pharaoh/dictator who ruled their existence than trust this Moses, an Egyptian-raised Hebraic stuttering sheep-herder, who looked both ways before he killed an Egyptian, whose life was now sought by Pharaoh. Yet Moses was also the designated mouthpiece of God.
This rescue doesn’t seem to be going very well. It’s hardly a magic carpet ride through the desert: there is no food, no water, and the miserable food—the manna from God—is unacceptable. The people have been complaining continually, and then it gets worse. Poisonous, or fiery, serpents are sent amongst them; they bite the people and some of them die. Their complaint bites them back.
God sends snakes to bite people just because they don’t like his food? Sounds a bit ludicrous to me. My kids sometimes complain about what I cook for dinner but snake bites? Jesus said “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11) God gives good things, not snakes, right?
But if you look in the notes of this Bible passage, another word for fiery serpent is seraph, as in the seraphim, celestial beings in the court of heaven. In early Judaism these were six-winged flying snakes, demonic creatures really, but who also sang the praises of heaven. Literally, seraph means ‘burning one’. These were the angels who touched Isaiah’s lips with burning coals in order to purify his speech. Those who looked upon the seraphim directly would be incinerated due to their intense brightness and heat.
God sent these fiery serpents to remind these poor wayfaring Israelites that what they longed for was not what satisfies the stomach but what satisfies the soul—God. Sometimes what we long for the most, we also avoid the most. We long for closeness with God but we also fear that intense brightness and heat that cuts through our despair. Like Dante, many of us only seem able to find heaven by traveling straight through hell.
I know dark clouds will hover o’er me
I know my pathway’s rough and steep
But golden fields lay just before me
Where weary eyes no more shall weep.
So what’s the cure for complaint, the cure for our circuitous route through sickness, toil and danger, the wilderness of life, the cure for sin? God has Moses construct a serpent made of bronze, to resemble those fiery ones, and set it on a pole, that those who have been bitten will look upon it and live. They will look upon the instrument of death and they will live.
Brazen serpent sculpture, Jerusalem
Worship is a cure for the sickness of sin. And we have our own pole to look upon, this brazen cross of death and resurrection, that we might remember the burning heat of Jesus, how he came to bring not peace but a sword; remember his intense brightness, making blind those who claim to see and freeing those who live in darkness.
Worship, like complaint, is another language of longing. In worship we give voice to our desire for wholeness, our longing for healing, our hunger for justice and peace. We listen to the old, old salvation story told again and again as we make our circuitous way through our own wilderness. God’s rescue, even that one offered to us in Jesus Christ, does not lift us out of our painful circumstances but gives us a way through them. That brazen cross looms not only over our individual lives but over every person, every community who dares to love.
But worship does not take place solely within these walls. Worship is anything that pulls the focus off of us and onto God and our neighbor. We worship when we serve others, when we give our offering, when we teach Sunday school, when shelter meals are dished up, when youth are greeted with smiles and open arms at True Colors, when jr. high kids gather and talk and have fun together, when we wait with a friend for test results to come back, when a “Thank you, God” escapes our lips.
In these moments the old, old salvation story is told through our story and through the story of this congregation, that story of not of rescue but of a way through. We remember, in the words of the psalmist, God’s steadfast love and God’s wonderful works to humankind, even to us, offering thanks and singing songs of joy. We remember that God seeks not to gratify our immediate wishes but to satisfy the longing of our hearts.
I want to wear a crown of glory
When I get home to that bright land
I want to shout the salvation story
In concert with that angel band.
Ultimately what we, and those Israelites, long for is home, that promised land where all God’s children are beloved and live in peace, where weary eyes no more shall weep. Death and resurrection are not the only absolutes of the Christian life. They point to the highest truth which is love. And love is home; God is home. We long for those many rooms, those many mansions Jesus prepares for us, those places of acceptance, trust, forgiveness, mercy, healing, compassion, justice and peace.
We are always living in an in-between time, between what was and what will be, a time that will never come again. And like the Israelites it seems we must take the long route through the desert to find our way to that promised bright land.
Today we begin an interim time, a time of transition, a time when we wish for what was known in the past, when we desire the resolution of our future, when we long for anything but the present unknown. We will wrestle, we will struggle, and yes, we will complain. Whenever we go through a time of uncertainty, little things that bother us will seem like big things and big things will seem overwhelming. And that’s okay. It will feel like we are wandering through the desert, but at least in this church, we won’t complain about the food!
The desert has a purpose. In the desert God made a community, one that would listen to God, no matter who God spoke through. Everyone leaves—everyone, one way or another. Moses was an interim minister himself: he never got to the promised land—he only saw it from a distance. Jesus, too, was a transition man, between this world and the next. But God’s love is steadfast.
What we need to remember in this interim time is that we’re all longing for the same thing, and our complaining, our worship, and this house of love will remind us of that. We’re all longing for home.
I’m going home to see my Savior
I’m going home no more to roam
I am just going over Jordan
I am just going over home.
"Wayfaring Stranger", words and music traditional
(My first Sunday went very well. I was welcomed with roses and a well-chosen greeting card. When I whispered to the deacon seated next to me how touched I was, she replied, "Get used to it." )