10 March 2024

It’s a week of looking up. For the Israelites in the wilderness, it was looking up at a bronze snake that would open them to God’s healing from the poisonous snakes in their camp. For Nicodemus it was looking up at the Christ who promised that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to himself. And now for us, we are called to look up, both as an act of repentance, turning away from what poisons us, and as an act of faith, trusting in God’s grace and salvation.

May our worship lift our eyes to the Crucified One and give us the courage to do the tough but healing work of repentance.

Numbers 21:4-9: The people of Israel complain about being in the desert because there is no food or water and they don’t like the food God has provided. Then a plague of snakes attacks them and they ask for forgiveness and salvation. God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so that anyone who is bitten by a snake can look at the bronze snake and be healed.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22: A song of praise for God who punished those who, in their foolishness disobeyed and rebelled, but who forgave and saved them when they called out to God.

Ephesians 2:1-10: Though we once followed the ways of the world and were dead in our sins, deserving judgement like anyone else, God saved us through Christ, as an act of grace that we did not earn. But God has created us to do good works in Christ.

John 3:14-21: As the snake was lifted up on a pole in the desert, so Christ is to be lifted up so that all who seek to be saved may look to him. God sent him into the world to save, not condemn, but those who love darkness rather than light are already condemned, because they want to keep their actions hidden and not have them exposed.

On the borders of the Promised Land a generation who had never lived in Egypt (or, at least were too young to remember living there if they had) complained about the hardship of the wilderness and longed to “return” to Egypt. Hundreds of years later, Jesus uses the story of the plague of snakes that attacked these rebellious Israelites, and the bronze snake that God instructed Moses to erect for their healing, to describe the healing work he had come to do. A key to both stories is the willingness to admit what plagues us. To find healing the Israelites had to “look up” to the bronze snake. This was an act of repentance, turning their eyes from the fiery snakes, to the God who had cared for them for decades and now offered them healing. Those who love darkness, says Jesus, will not look up to him when he is lifted up, because to do so would take repentance and an admission of their need. Those who are unashamed and willing to come to the light will look up and find life. In the same way the Psalmist tells that those who rebelled but then repented (the song seems to reference the Old Testament story) found healing and were forgiven and saved. Finally, in Ephesians we are reminded that it is God’s grace in Christ that saves us, which we appropriate simply by faith – which means that we recognise our need, and turn to God to meet it. The invitation of this week’s Lectionary, then, is that God graciously and freely saves us, but, to live as “saved” people, we need to recognise our need, repent and look up to Jesus. The result of this, as Ephesians tells us, is a life of good works. We are saved by grace, changed by repentance and called to a life of meaning and abundance in the good works God has prepared for us. All of this means we face a decision today: Where do we need to repent, and how can this change our lives so that we become followers of Christ who bring grace to others through our good works?

Global Application:
The big question for the world this week is whether we will admit our need – the poison that is destroying us, our communities, our economies and our planet? Like the Israelites, it’s easy to look at the hardships of the world and long for the “good old days”, forgetting that those are the very days that brought us to this place. It’s easy to hanker for what we don’t have and to complain that God isn’t “fixing” everything the way we want God to. What is much harder is to acknowledge our culpability in the break down of our world’s systems. It’s hard to face the way our greed and consumerism has brought suffering to others, and has put strain on our economic systems and on our planet. It’s hard to recognise that our addiction to credit, to fossil fuels, and to immediate gratification has had destructive consequences. It’s hard to release our sense of entitlement, of exceptionalism, and to stop justifying our narcissism. But, until we are willing to do this, we will not find the healing we seek. As long as we force our leaders to put expediency first, in order to retain our votes, we will find no solutions. As long as we keep rewarding unjust employment conditions, and seek financial benefits over the humanity of abused workers in other countries, we will never find global peace or personal security. As long as we keep choosing immediate satisfaction over healthy eating and exercise, our economies will pay the price in health care costs for avoidable heart disease and diabetes. As long as we deny our tendency to judge and exclude others on the basis of prejudice and stereotyping, we will never find true community and belonging. However, in a world where denial has become a global pre-occupation, such true repentance requires great courage and great humility. It may be naive to believe that widespread repentance can happen in our world, but as small groups of people begin to take responsibility for their part in their struggles, begin to dream of a different world, honestly repent and commit to the “good works” of justice, simplicity, generosity, inclusivity and love, even in small ways, some measure of healing will be found. The choice is ours.

Local Application:
Denial is a destructive thing. When we fail to acknowledge our brokenness and apologise for hurting others, relationships break down. When we refuse to take responsibility for our own health, our own habits of eating and exercise, our bodies break down. When we refuse to look at our finances honestly, and admit our tendency to spend what we don’t have, our peace of mind and our economic wellbeing breaks down. When we refuse to look at our beliefs and recognise when they fall into self-righteousness, exclusivity, legalism, and judgmentalism our witness to Christ breaks down. In every family and community the pain of denial can be easily recognised. But, so can the healing and freedom that comes from honest repentance, true taking of responsibility, and committed work to change and do “good works”. Every follower of Christ has a daily choice to live in the darkness of denial or the light of repentance. We can choose to know the salvation of God’s healing and restoration, or stay in the poisoned wilderness of our own fear, pride, and selfishness. This may sound harsh, but, it is only those who acknowledge their sickness who can find healing – as even Jesus taught. In this way, the call to repentance is not a “hellfire and damnation” message, but is an invitation to grace, to discover that there is nothing that can keep us from God’s restoring mercy, or from God’s liberating forgiveness. If we will just open ourselves to this truth, we will find the abundant life we seek by turning from our darkness, and moving into the light of truth and of God’s love. Once again, the choice is ours.

Looking Up
In The Face Of It All
Darkness And Light

Hymn Suggestions:
Beneath The Cross Of Jesus
My Faith Looks Up To Thee
Giver Of Gifts
Jesus Messiah (Link to YouTube video)
The Wonder Of The Cross (Link to YouTube video)
Clinging To The Cross (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy for the Lord’s Supper
A Liturgy for the Agape

Video Suggestions:
Come Awake
Leaving Ourselves At The Altar