Fourth Sunday of Lent

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good,
  for God’s mercy endures forever.
2Let the redeemed of the Lord proclaim
  that God redeemed them from the hand of the foe,
3gathering them in from the lands;
  from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
17Some were fools and took rebellious paths;
  through their sins they were afflicted.
18They loathed all manner of food
  and drew near to death’s door.
19Then in their trouble they cried to the Lord
  and you delivered them from their distress. 
20You sent forth your word and healed them
  and rescued them from the grave.
21Let them give thanks to you, Lord, for your steadfast love
  and your wonderful works for all people.
22Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving
  and tell of your deeds with shouts of joy.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Gospel: John 3:14-21

 [Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
  16“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.
  17“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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


My daughter wrote this poem in 2009 for her class of four year olds.  It is a rework of a Veggie Tales song but it works as a poem too.

God wants us to have some patience, please,
When we’re standing in a line
Or are sitting down to dine.
God wants us to have some patience, please
And we get it starting on our knees.

When we’re standing in the hall waiting for our turn to drink
The person in the front takes so long we start to think
That when finally it’s our turn there will be no water there
So we use our hands to shove and we roar like a big bear.
But to shove and roar’s not nice, and it doesn’t help at all.
A better thing to do is count to 10 and stand up tall.
You will get your turn to drink and when you do you’ll take some time.
And you don’t want those behind you to keep shoving out of line.
So remember to have patience when you have to sit and wait
‘Cuz it’s what God says to do even when it’s not so great

When you figure out this patience, you’ll be thrilled to find out, too,
That there’s time when you are slow and when others wait for you
So when all is said and done patience grows in you and me
Sometimes I wait for you, and sometimes you wait for me.
Try to test this patience out…you’ll see…

That God wants us to have some patience, please,
When we’re standing in a line
Or are sitting down to dine.
God wants us to have some patience, please
And we get it starting on our knees.


Today’s readings are so full of classic favorite Bible quotes that it is hard to see the forest because of the trees.  The temptation is to sit back and think, “We’ve got this one.”  John 3:16 “For God so loved….” We all know. It has been called “the Gospel in a nutshell.”  Ephesians 2:8,9 “By grace we are saved….” is foundational to our belief in salvation by grace and not by works.  The familiar is so comfortable that often we loose the depth and intensity of its meaning.  As a youth I warbled the favorite love ballads and looked forward to that magical moment when Prince Charming would propose.  He did.  I agreed.  And I discovered I was still me and life still had to be lived.  “Been there and done that!” clouds the magic of someone claiming, “I love you.”  For the abused person, I suspect God’s promise of love is met with some of the same cynicism.  For the abused, “grace” is a difficult concept.  So today I want to look at our texts through the eyes of the Old Testament reading.

         As I look at Numbers, the people of Israel have left Egypt, received the Ten Commandments, and sent spies into the Promised Land who came back with scary reports.  The people panic and see themselves as grasshoppers in their own eyes.  They are now wandering for 40 years while a generation dies off and there is a transition in leadership.  Only Joshua and Caleb will survive to lead the people.  Aaron, their first priest, has died.  Miriam, the song leader, has passed.  The chapter starts with victory and the defeat of a Canaanite king.  We read in v. 4 that following that victory,  “the people became impatient on the way.  The people spoke against God and Moses.”

         “Impatience” leads to their sin of murmuring.  Their wants are not in line with their haves.  The Promised Land has not been reached … yet!  Their eyes have shifted from the God who gave them victory just a verse before, just a year before, perhaps minutes before; their eyes have shifted from God and thankfulness to self and want.

         Paul in our Ephesians reading phrases it, “3All of us once lived among them (the people of this world) in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”  The pleasures of Egypt are remembered and the memories of slavery have faded. Those of us who have been baptized as infants, raised in a Christian home, and have sought to follow, sometimes dismiss the “testimonies” of the dramatic conversions to Christianity but that does not mean that we, in our own way, have not become impatient with God and had those times when our eyes shift to our wants and our desires.  When life takes a turn to the left and not the right, I am prone to mutter, “Now, God, what was that about!”?  I do not want illness, poverty, riots and arguments and perhaps for a second I wonder what God is up to.  We are all guilty of impatience.  We are all sinners.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Did I hear an “AMEN!” to that — or perhaps we hung our head in acknowledgment. 

          When we are impatient, our focus shifts from God’s wants to our wants.  But also our focus shifts from the big picture to the “now.”  Impatience is not thinking long term but is very present focused and has lost sight of the victories of the past and the promises for the future. The people whine, “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.”  They have forgotten the slavery of Egypt.  They have forgotten the ten plagues, the sea of reeds, standing at Mt. Sinai.  How easily we forget and become numb to the big picture.  We want to charge forward before we are ready.  I cannot help but wonder if our present cultural outburst of demonstration to demand rights, of partnering and being impatient with commitments, or reports of mass slayings – all points to an impatience with life.  Our wants in the now govern our behavior.

         Impatience seems to me to also show a problem with tunnel vision.  We are so focused on the now and ourselves that we forget the context we are living in.  Poverty, justice, discrimination become centered on my life, here in the present and we lose track of the progress of history and our global context.  That does not make poverty right, it only means we are not looking in context and forgetting our resources.  I worked on a suicide prevention phone service out of Hollywood Presbyterian Church in my young adult years.  People called all night in despair.  As we listened, talked and became a caring presence – and evaluated really how serious the person was about suicide – we tried to help the person identify resources available to them.  The people of Israel were tired of free food provided daily, were tired of being led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  They were tired of having clothes and shoes that did not wear out.  They wanted to go shopping.  They were tired and impatient.  When we become tired and impatient with our plight in life, we are probably looking at our wants that have become needs, we are thinking in the present and we have lost sight of our resources.  We have become impatient and self-centered – we are sinners.

Enter poisonous snakes!

         “6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Do you notice that God is credited with sending trials that catch the Israelites attention and drive them to God?  We all have those “snakes” that kill our joy for life.  Perhaps it is guilt over a wrong we did and we cannot forgive ourselves.  Perhaps it is hate for someone who abused us.  Perhaps it is gossip that cut deep.  So often these snakes sneak up on us and kill life.  Dr. Dirk Lange, my worship professor at Luther wrote a book the Deaconesses are reading for Lent, Today Everything is Different.

          “The book is centered on the experience and witness of clandestine          prayer groups in East Germany that, throughout the 1980s, continued   to grow, becoming more public and occasioning massive demonstrations that finally resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall       (November 1989). (introduction)” 

         “Prayer takes the faith community out into the street,” not in massive resistance and protest marches but seeking space to breath in daily life.  The word resistance was never used!  Poisonous snakes were killing the Israelites even as Communism was suffocating East Germany.  Even so shame, guilt and regret kill us and steal joy.  What do the people do? The people repent, go to Moses and ask him to pray for them.

         The Israelites believe God sent the snakes that cause them to evaluate their priorities, their coping strategy, that face them with their own helplessness and the futility of their grumbling.  How sad that often prayer is our last resort when we are at the end of our rope rather than our first response to center ourselves, remind us of our resources and remind us who is in control!  I find it fascinating that caught in a national pandemic where people are dying, we turn to masks and vaccines and I hear very little about a call for a national day of prayer.  I am not saying that masks and vaccines are wrong but as I watch movies of former days of crisis like the Bay of Pigs and the crisis in Cuba, I see pictures of people flocking to churches, not closing them.  The poisonous snakes face the Israelites with the reality that their lives are in God’s hands and they run to Moses to pray for them.


         God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze, nail it to a pole, lift it up and the people who are bitten should look to it and be healed.  This symbol became known as Nehustan and became part of the Jewish religious practice. Eventually it is worshipped itself, perhaps not similar to the magic we give to wearing a cross.  Nailing our snakes to the pole, possibly a cross image, and honestly naming it, opens the door of God’s grace. Grace:  God’s riches at Christ’s expense.  God answered the cries of the people and the prayers of Moses, not with formulas for penance but with grace, salvation that gave the people advocacy (they had to turn to look) and acknowledged God’s power over the dilemma, imminent death.  “8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Grace is a gift given, not a present earned.

         We Lutherans camp on this verse.  I am not saved because of my great faith, not because I turn to look at the pole.  It is Christ’s work of nailing the snake to the cross that saves me.  Because God loves the world, God reaches out and gives us Jesus.  Being in relationship to Jesus saves, not the cross he was nailed to.  Salvation is not our doing but Christ’s.  It is a gift.

         Lent 1 reminded us of God’s grace in saving Noah and his family in the Ark and then setting a rainbow in the sky to remind him and us that God will not destroy us by water.  Lent 2 reminded us that Abraham was chosen by God, to be the patriarch of a stiff-necked people, God’s people whom he would work with so that all nations would be blessed through them.  Lent 3 we were reminded of the Ten Commandments that govern these chosen people and distinguish them.  Obedience blesses and disobedience brings problems.  Lent 4, today, we hear of how people, impatient with God’s ways are saved by turning to the cross symbol. 

         John 3:16, from our Gospel text, is embedded in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus who came at night asking how to be saved. What could he do to become one of those blessed people?  Jesus responds, nothing!  Birth in God’s kingdom is not a physical act a person can perform but a birth of faith in a gift of grace.  Nicodemus must be born again into relationship with God.

         It is easy to become impatient with God as we look around our world with all its problems.  Perhaps a change in government will help.  Perhaps a vaccine will add years to our life, but will it add life to our years? We read John 3:16,  “For God so loved the world  (you and me)  (even when we are impatient with him) that he gave his only begotten son (Jesus) so that who ever (regardless of language, intelligence, or age) believes will not perish but have eternal life.  Whether we turn to a pole with a snake or turn to an empty cross, we are reminded of God’s love and grace.  We lift our eyes and bow our hearts in thanksgiving.  Let us recite John 3:16 together,

16“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.

Lord, guard us from impatience and may our salvation never become a routine truth but ever be received as grace.  AMEN.

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