Here we are again. This week we find ourselves in the wild yet again. We are in the wilderness as God sets challenges upon the God’s people and saves them by having Moses set one upon a staff. And then we have the conclusion of Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus that happens in the wilderness of the night, where it is made known to us who Jesus is, and what radical love God has for all God’s creation.
So what is the wilderness of the night? It is the darkness that God set light into in Genesis. The darkness that was before God's creating activity. The darkness that God becomes a pillar of light for Israel as they are led through the wilderness in Exodus. It is the same darkness that is discussed in the beginning of the Gospel of John, where a light is shone into the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. This is a primeval darkness. This is a darkness that seems to be before God came into and ordered the world. This wilderness is the wilderness where we stop and ask God what the heck is up because God does not appear to be present there.
This wilderness, unlike the others we have explored this Lenten season, was not made by God. This wilderness was what the world was before God began creating. God pushed this wild-ness aside to bring light to the world. We do not have witness of God doing much work in this wilderness. Or God being present in this wilderness. This is not the desert that the Israelites wander through in the Exodus. This is not the wilderness of the forest, where wild beasts wander. Bears, wolves, and tigers ready to ravage unsuspecting prey at a moment’s notice, typically young people in tales such as the Brothers Grimm collected. God shows awesome power when God blows this wilderness away in the first verses of John. In Genesis chapter one this is the darkness that was extant when God said, ‘let there be light.’ And then darkness and light were seperated, ordered by God. And it is this darkness that we so very often find ourselves in.
We recall that God led the people through the wilderness of Sinai in the Exodus as a column of fire at night. God was the light that lead the Israelites, that is those who struggled with God and survived. God led the Israelites through the darkness, God was there in the darkness with the people of God. The Israelites followed the light of God to their salvation from the Egyptians. Then, at some point, while in the wilderness, the people stopped relying upon God for salvation and instead looked other places for salvation. At times they even looked to Moses as their savior, and Moses got a big head about it, you have God do great works through your hands and see if you don’t get a big head. They were soon wandering and not following the light of God. But God was still there, still in the wilderness of Sinai with the people.
Today's scripture tells of such a moment. The people began to complain that indeed life was better back in Egypt. They were lost and scared. Imagine a time in your own life when you were leaving something bad for something good. Perhaps it was when you left middleschool and entered highschool. Perhaps it was getting clean from an additiction, or leaving an abusive relationship. Maybe you are fortunate and have never had a bad situation to leave, I ask you now, for a moment, for your empathy.
You leave those situations because of a hope you have for something new. You know that there is something better and you leave the darkness of the past, hoping to get away from where there was pain and fear. You know that there is something inside of you that calls you out of that situation, tells you life will be better if this change happens. Perahps a friend tells you what they are seeing in your life. An intervention is staged. And you know you have the support of your friends. Together you and your friends venture forth into this new life together, confident that you will be better off in a new life.
How often then did you want, even do you want, to return to those hard places because they were familiar? Your hope in the future, in the choices you had made in the past. But sometimes in reaching for that future we think that the past was indeed better, even with all it's pain. Even with being enslaved, there was certianty. We knew that even if we did not have enough to eat, there was still food to eat. We knew that there would be a warm house, or perhaps even something akin to friends who were there with us.
Serpents came upon the Israelites when they were in such a moment. And these serpents injured them. But God gave Moses a way for the people of Israel to heal. That is, a lifted up bronze serpent upon a rod.
Today's scripture tells of such a moment. The John reading today includes, what I like to call, the football verse. How many times when watching football in the eighties did we see someone holding up a sign that read '3:16'? I don't know that this pattern ever stopped, just less visible on TV now. This reading, God is again giving us something to follow. We are surrounded by people calling us, begging us even, to belive in other Gods. And it is easy for us to get sucked in, after all, we are in control of our own destinies. And when we are free of those enslaving voices we are often in the dissonance of peace. A peace that we know not what to do with. This peace again is frightening. We become scared and begin to long for the certianty of the past when we were hurting.
Nicodemus recognized that perhaps things were not as they seemed, and in the wilderness of the night came to Jesus. In the dark of night, the wilderness that is beyond all understanding of wilderness, Nicodemus realizes that indeed something is not right. What specifically Nicodemus is running from we do not know. But we do know from clues in the Gospel of John that there is something awry in the leadership of the people of God at this time. They have stopped listening to God, and are surrounding themselves with beliefs that are put above God. They are finding other gods and putting their trust in them. Nicodemus has perhaps had enough of this and inquires to this new leader, Jesus, what his thoughts are on the subject.
Just prior to the reading in John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the Kingdom one must be born from above, and that no one has ascended into Heaven except the one who descended from Heaven. That is to say, Jesus, the Son of Man, the Human one, the Christ, has to be lifted up. Has to be the saving thing that people look to when they have been attacked by serpents in the wilderness. Even attacked by things that go bump in the night. When we are fretting from attacks that come from the wilderness of the darkest, soupiest night we are not to count upon ourselves to fix things. We are not to curl up into little mimics of Rodin’s thinker and create our own gods. We are to look up to the serpent, to the Human One, The Christ, The Son of Man, and remember what it is that saves.
This rod that the serpent was lifted upon then, what is it? Is it the cross that Christ was on? The reading from John today may make you think that. These two readings are together intentionally. But I am not so sure that we should make such a quick leap to the Gospel of John from this story in Numbers. Perhaps though this rod, with serpent upon it, is a reminder of the column of smoke and flame that initially led the Israelites out Egypt and through the desert? Here is a reminder that indeed God is present, still leading the people through the work of Moses, even though God may not be as visible.
And then in Christ being lifted up, what of that? Lifted up on the cross right? No. That is not the conclusion to be made here. Here Christ is lifted up as God incarnate, the real presence of God among us, who we look to when we are scared, when we are in pain, when we want to return to where we have been freed from. This is not a Christ of agony, but a Christ of love. The World is at stake here. God has come to Earth in order to save it. Not just the people Israel. Not just the Christians, not just humanity, but the whole wide world, everything that God created in the beginning is saved by Christ, who loves the whole world.
Jesus is lifted up in a few short weeks, but not by God, by human hands. Humans who have made their own gods, who are very scared of losing the power they have built up for themselves. Humans want to lift up Christ because we are afraid of life on God's terms. We are comfortable in hardship, where we know what is going on, where we have built up our own little gods that give us life. Today's scripture tells of such a moment, where we are given a chance to look upon the work of God elevated above us, to be freed from our inward focused selves and instead focused toward God's work in our lives. In this wilderness of the night do you look down at your feet for guidance? Do you look around you for the next quick fix that will give you security? Or are you looking up at the saving power of God, shining into the murky darkness so brightly that in order not to see this light, you must be hiding in shadow?
Look up, be blinded. It is scary. It is different. It will tear you away from your old self. Do it alone, do it with a group, just do it.