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Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Lent can be seen as a time of wandering in the wilderness, experiencing troubles, getting discouraged, and, one hopes, finding a way to keep on going in the midst of it all.  It is a time for facing our fears and doubts and hesitancies, our woundedness, and finding healing—perhaps in another who “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Perhaps we can let Henri Nouwen’s concept of “The Wounded Healer” serve as a backdrop for looking at this week’s lectionary texts.  This statement is perhaps about as good a summary as one can find:  “Jesus is God's wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus' suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.”

Actually this week’s readings are full of troublesome, sometimes seemingly difficult to interpret, images.  As our Tuesday morning group found in discussion this morning, they can take us down many different avenues and leave us with a lot of unresolved questions.  But that’s life, isn’t it?  All of them seem, however, to involve the troubles we face in life, including the ones we bring upon ourselves, the ones sometimes called “sin,” and how we keep on going, even find healing.  Healing may even come through facing the wounds themselves, by seeing and sharing in the woundedness around us, by realizing that there are those (and One?) who are wounded by us, even suffer for us, giving their all.

We begin with oses and the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness, complaining as they have done before.  (Numbers 21:4-5—See also Numbers 11:5-6)  Then the story takes a strange turn.  God sends poisonous snakes among them, until they cry out to Moses, “ . . . pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”  (Numbers 21:7)   Now if one gets into the spirit of this strange story at all, one might expect God to miraculously make the snakes go away.  After all, isn’t that what we want?  A life with no troubles.  Here we are out in the wilderness where we shouldn’t be anyway; we’re hungry.  Shouldn’t God treat us better than that?  If you can’t do better than this, God, maybe we should just go back to Egypt.  And now these snakes are striking out at us everywhere we turn.  Make them go away!  Do we get that way at times when we feel like we are abandoned, in the wilderness, people and circumstances snapping at us around every corner?

Instead, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole.  When people get bitten they should look at the pole and they will survive the bite.  Now what are we to make of that?  I suppose one of the first and most obvious things is that the bites, the wounds, we suffer along life’s journey need not destroy us, but what is this about a serpent on a pole?  Is it some sort of homeopathic healing?

We could explore the significance of the serpent in the Old Testament as a symbol of the demonic.  We could look at the actual practice of worshiping serpent idols.  Is this story part of a transition in human understandings of appropriate ways to worship God?  Does it show God’s power to take even the demons and transform/overcome them, to turn them from wounding people to healing people?  Is it a call for the people to face their fears and thereby find healing?  Healing seems to be found in facing their woundedness and the cause of their wounds.

Here are thoughts from The Interpreter’s Bible that are worth including in our reflection and discussion.  We are told “that the worship of the brazen serpent was extant in the days of Hezekiah.  This story is probably told in order to reinforce the prophetic teaching that wanted to get rid of such objects of superstition, and to convince the people that it is Yahweh himself, not a magical object, that cures.”  We also read, “The fiery, red-inflamed wound, inflicted by the bite of the serpent, was healed by a look of faith to the bronze serpent which Moses had set up.  Here is an intimation at least of spiritual homeopathy . . .,” ending with the observation that “wounds heal wounds.”

From that it is not a big leap to the opening words of this week’s Gospel lesson—“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  (John 3:14-15)  It is now to the wounded healer on a cross that we look to find healing love while we wander through the corridors of time and space.  The very next verse is the familiar John 3:16—“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.”

Throughout the readings there is an emphasis upon how we wander in ways that get us into trouble, wound us, ways often spoken of as “sin.”  In the Psalm, we find that “some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.”  (Psalm 107:17-18)  In the reading from Ephesians, the readers are described as those who “were dead through the trespasses and sins . . . following the course of the world, following the rule of the power of the air . . . All of us once lived . . . in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath . . .”  (Ephesians 2:1-3)   In the Gospel lesson, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  (John 3:19)

We could get bogged down, wallowing in the “sin” question, trying to define what sins are being talked about here, debating what is the basic nature of humankind.  If one wants to see our nature as basically “sinful,” one needs to factor in the final verse of the epistle reading which says, “For we are what he had made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  (Ephesians 2:10)

Taking a little side trip, I need to follow-up on a discussion that brought everything to a halt at the breakfast table this morning.  We tried to come up with “The Seven Deadly Sins,” without success.  We were two short.  Here they are: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony.  Do with them what you will.

The important thing in all the discussion of sin and redemption, darkness and light, is to see that we are not without hope as we wander wounded in the wilderness.  The Psalm begins, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1—the same words are repeated in verse 21)  The people cried out and “he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them . . .”   (vss. 19-20, see also vs. 2)   In Ephesians hope is found in God’s mercy “out of the great love with which he loved us . . . the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  (Ephesians 2:4 & 7)   We’ve already seen that the center of the passage from the Gospel According to John is the love seen in Jesus on the cross.

This hope is not a “cheap” thing.  It is the power of persistent love which keeps coming back for more.  We keep going because, even in the wilderness, we believe, sometimes against all odds, that love is still at work.  “Bleeding heart” has come, for some, to have negative connotations, but it is hearts which are open, full of compassion, like the heart of God, which bring healing—healing flowing from woundedness to those who are wounded.

And such love calls us to be “wounded healers.”  Life itself is a gift of grace, but the living of life once it has been given, is to persist in fulfilling what we have been created for.  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  (Ephesians 2:10)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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