The Pas Lent 4
11 March 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 pg 852
Steadfast God, you reach out to us in mercy. When we rebel against your holy call and walk in disobedience, soften our hearts with the warmth of your love, so that we may know your Son alive within us, redeeming us, and raising us up into your eternal presence. Amen.
How are we saved? What does it mean to be free?
Today’s reading, from Numbers, point to how the Hebrew people, in the midst of their footsore, heat stroke induced complaining, learn what it means to be free, to be saved.
After all, the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for generations. It’s all they know, as they cross the Red Sea, as they begin a forty-year trek across the wilderness, as they learn what it means to be the people of God, as they learn what it means to be free.
And we know that this is something that we, too, need to remember as we follow the tale of the Hebrew people from bondage to freedom. As we learn from their experiences, and from our own experiences, what it means to be free.
At the same time, I wonder, what was, what is so alluring about slavery in Egypt that their complaint is “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Num 21:5b)
I mean they’re not complaining about the long miles, or the lack of shelter. They’re not complaining about sore feet, or a lower back that would benefit from some excellent chiropractic care and stretching exercises.
Instead, they’re complaining about the lack of variety of food and the availability of water. They’re complaining about the catering, and about the lack of availability to grocery stores, and fresh produce.
So, really, what does it mean to be free? How are we saved?
When we look back at the book of Exodus, we see that the Hebrew people prayed to God for freedom from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. (Ex 3:7-9)
Could it be that at the root of their prayers to God, that they objected to the lack of unionized conditions that existed as they slaved away for the Egyptians? Perhaps, it was the lack of paid holiday’s down the Nile?
Was it the Egyptians insistence on the Hebrew people participating in worship patterns that were not their own?
Or, maybe it was it the lack of privacy caused by the interference of Egyptian soldiers? Perhaps unacknowledged sexual complaints against such interferences by the Egyptian soldiers?
But nowhere on this list do we see complaints against the availability of food and water, grocery supplies, spices, etc.
What we know is that the Hebrew people cried out to God, in the midst of their slavery, in the midst of their agony, and God sent Moses to free them, and this brings us to where we find them, today.
So, what does it mean to be free? How are we saved?
In the midst of their complaining, “6 the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Num 21:6-9)
How do we even interpret this from our modern context? In each of our lives, how are we freed? What does it mean to be saved?
These freed people dream of the conditions of slavery. They dream of not having to think of anything, just to do as they’re told, when they’re told by those who considered themselves to be superior to the Hebrew people.
But they weren’t free.
They didn’t know how to think for themselves. They didn’t know what it meant to be free from the lash of the Egyptians, from the long working hours, from being treated as less than the average citizen.
And today, we see that freedom isn’t like Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving her magic wand and turning her from a scullery maid to a princess. The wave of a wand that turned a pumpkin into a coach, and the family dog into the coachman.
Even she had to grow into the role that she was called to fill by the love that existed between her and her Prince Charming. One modern theory is that Cinderella drove the prince crazy with her need to clean the castle!
So, what we see, in today’s passage from Numbers, are the Hebrew people learning what it means to be the people of God.
They’re learning what it means to be free, what it means to be saved, and along the way they’re complaining at the lack of catering, the lack of personalized services, the lack of variety in food provided along the road, and what this means in the definitions of being the people of God, of being free to worship God, to live as God’s people and how that all works together in the definition of being saved.
It’s like a young person moving out on their own for the first time. They’ve got all the freedom in the world, but then they discover that they need to do their own grocery shopping. They need to do their own laundry, and their own housekeeping. They need to pay rent, or a mortgage and utilities. They have the freedom, but what does it mean to be free?
It’s a learning curve, for them, for us, for Nicodemus as he meets with Jesus in the darkness on the rooftop.
We can look at Nicodemus as the end result of what the Hebrew people learned in the desert – to trust God in all things, to live lives rooted in faith, instead of in their grocery list.
But instead, we see that the Hebrew people have managed, over the intervening generations, to enslave themselves to their rules, to their hierarchy of how things are done, and perceived to be done, according a learned set of proscribed patterns, as opposed to following a life of faith rooted in the love of God.
Jesus brings this back to the incident in the desert, when the people complained. He brings this back to the journey of what it means to learn to be free, to be saved.
He tells Nicodemus, he tells each one of us that “14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (Jn 3:14-15)
In the desert, the Hebrew people learned what it means to be free of the overseer’s lash, to be free of being at someone else’s beck and call. But in their hearts, there is still a barrier between them and God, between us and God.
Our hearts are still not God’s because, in so many little ways, we have doubts, we complain, we physically do what we should do, but our heart isn’t in our actions, and God sees this, Jesus talks about this, on the rooftop, in the night.
“19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (Jn 3:19-21)
And what it comes down to is belief; and living into that belief in a sense of freedom, and of salvation.
Do we believe we are free? Do we believe that we are saved?
I’ve watched, and enjoyed, those travel shows on tv, on Netflix. It doesn’t matter which one, each one shows us beautiful people living in the lap of luxury, enjoying sun and surf without a care in the world. We see them indulging in pampering and food that makes a Michelin Chef ask for the recipe.
At the same time, I’ve travelled on a dime and wondered how I can stretch nine more cents out of it, and along the way, sometimes, dreaming of those lavish sun-drenched experiences.
What I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t matter who you travel with, or where you go as long as you go with the love of God in your heart, and a trust that you are going to enjoy your destination whether you’re being pampered and massaged, or whether you’re dining at a local fast food joint.
To be saved, to be free is not a physical destination.
To walk in the light of God is not a constant halo of light physically showing us which step to take. Rather the light of God shines from within our hearts, within our actions, when we act from the assurance that we are free, that we are saved.
The Hebrew people are physically freed. They’re physically saved from a life of slavery in Egypt. Yet in their hearts, they’d prefer the assurance of a hovel in which to sleep and food at their fingertips than to walk toward an unknown destination, an unknown future, an unknown deity.
We often find ourselves in the same boat as we see the Hebrews today, as we see Nicodemus.
We have the same choices to make – will we willingly let go of our sense of fear, and embrace the love that God so longs to lavish upon each one of us, or will we cling to that nebulous list of demands and build walls barriers between us and the love of God?
It all comes down to faith, and to belief. Jesus tells us, he tells Nicodemus: “18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (Jn 3:18)
This is how we are freed. This is how we are saved, not just today, but every day.