(Revised Common Lectionary)
Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21
Having received the astonishing gift of the Law through Moses on Mt. Sinai, God's people return to the mundane reality of trying to survive while wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. They are tired and hungry. They complain about the food and lack of water. According to the narrative, God sent serpents among them that bit some who died. Frightened, they ask Moses to intercede. Moses follows God's directions, forms a serpent out of bronze and instructs those who are bitten to "look at the serpent and live." (According to II Kings and the Wisdom of Solomon, the bronze serpent remained with the chosen for the rest of their time in the wilderness and was eventually placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.)
The psalmist describes the common human experience of "rebellion" against God's ways. He also remembers that when that rebellion gets us in trouble, God hears our distress, delivers and saves. This repeated generosity by God should inspire us to "Tell of God's acts with shouts of joy."
In this brief excerpt from Ephesians, the unknown writer expands on some important themes in Paul's letters. Before God's intervention, he says, our lives were ruled by demonic powers that led to passion and wrath. But God, "who is rich in mercy," through Christ "made us alive together with Christ," and "seated us with him in heavenly places." All of this is "the gift of God." Now we are capable of "good works."
In his long conversation with the distinguished Jewish leader, Nicodemus, Jesus alludes to the well-known story of Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness as an analogy for his own fate. John also return to his fundamental comparison of Jesus as "the Light" that came into the world. God so loved the world God gave the Son to save the world. But "people loved darkness rather than light, because all "who love evil hate the light" that exposes their deeds. This is the background for the significant saying: "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."
Those forty years in the wilderness included the highs and lows of the relationship between God and God's people. Including their miraculous deliverance from slavery, the gift of the Law and repeatedly throughout their journey God gave gifts that were extravagant in their generosity and goodness and vital for the survival of God's people. But their very human response vacillates between occasional thanksgiving but more routinely "rebellion." And when trouble comes from that rebellion, incredibly, God acts to save from the consequences of rebellion! This is the rhythm that persists throughout their history and is the dominant theme of the entire Hebrew scriptures. It continues into the new testimony of those who saw this same rhythm in the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. And it even persists to today in the lives of those who read these narratives and discover that they describe their own journey, too.
For reasons know to God alone, God chooses to engage in relationship with God's creatures, us. And relationship that endures always includes stretches of starry-eyed love, disappointment, forgiveness and a new level of caring and intimacy made stronger from that history of highs and lows.
Strongly influenced by Husserl and Heidegger but also the Hebrew scriptures, as well as by Pascal and Proust, Emmanuel Levinas' life's work developed its own singular, clear voice. Another influence was Franz Rosenzweig to whom he responded in this insight. Levinas writes that at some point in our lives we come to realize that life does not fit into our "totalizing" understanding. The "elements" of life "overflow their essence, forming time. Life, miracle of miracles," he writes " [is] "the original fact of religion! God enters into relation with the world and man--man with the world. Religion is not a 'confession,' but the texture or drama of being...." "But this relationship accompanied by life is not a formal bond or abstract synthesis. It is in each case specific and concrete. God and the world-- the conjunction is precisely creation. God and Man, the bond is precisely Revelation. Man the the World (but man already illuminated by the revelation and the world already marked by the creation) is precisely Redemption." "As the movement of God toward man and human singularity-- that is, ipseity-- revelation is immediately recognized as love: love opens up that singularity. Not that their is love first and revelation next: revelation is love from the start. But at this point it is possible to say more: the love of God for human uniqueness is commandment to love." "Only love can command love." (Outside the Subject, pp 56-57)
As we travel our forty days in the wilderness toward this Triduum, may we see our lives in that holy pattern of gift/rebellion/renewal, that never ending, never-failing pattern that is the essence of creation, made clear by revelation (to those who chose to see) and understood as redemption.
John Updike died at the end of January 2009. Some might be surprised to learn that the same person who described American life and mores for the second half of the Twentieth century so bluntly requested that the Biblical readings at his burial be taken from the King James translation. And that his rector would describe his liturgical choices as "conservative." For Updike, all of life-- from the grandest we know to the rawest we observe-- everything we experience is worthy of description and reflection and somehow fits together, if we let it.
In 1961 his short about a seminarian who took a summer job as a lifeguard was published in The New Yorker. In his honor and apropos of this Sunday's readings, here is an excerpt--
On the back seat of my lifeguard's chair is a painted cross-- true, a red cross, signifying bandages, splints, spirits of ammonia, and sunburn unguents. Nevertheless, it comforts me. Each morning, mounting into my chair, my athletic and youthfully fuzzy toes expertly gripping the slats that make a ladder, it is as if I am climbing into an immense, rigid, loosely fitting vestment.
Again, in each of my roles, I sit attentively perched on the edge of an immensity. The sea, with its multiform and mysterious hosts, its savage and senseless rages, no longer comfortably serves as a divine metaphor indicates how severely humanism has corrupted the apples of our creed. We seek God now in flowers and good deeds, and the immensities of blue that surround the little scabs of land upon which we draw our lives to their unsatisfactory conclusions are suffused by science with vacuous horror. I myself can hardly bear the thought of stars, or begin to count the moralities of coral. But from my chair the sea, slightly distended by my higher perspective, seems a misty old gentleman stretched at his ease in an immense armchair which has for arms the arms of the bay and for an antimacassar the freshly laundered sky. Sailboats float on his surface like idle and unrelated but benevolent thoughts. The soughing of the surf is the rhythmic lifting of his ripple-stitched vest as he breathes. Consider. We enter the sea with a shock; our skin and blood shout in protest. But, that instant, that leap, what do we find? Ecstasy and buoyance. Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float and are saved.