Friday, March 9, 2018

Don't Blame the Mirror: Reflections on Numbers 21.4-9 (RCL Lent 4B, 11 March 2018)

Don’t Blame the Mirror
Reflections on Numbers 21.4-9

RCL Lent 4B
11 March 2018

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            21.4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.  5 The 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.”  6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.  7 The 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.  8 And 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.”  9 So 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.

         Like many other people I know I am guilty of indulging in some ‘binge-watching’ from time to time.  My latest indulgence is the Canadian-French co-production of ‘Versailles’.  The series takes place during the reign of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, and his grand project to build the palace of Versailles as part of his grand plan to establish the supremacy of the monarch over the nobility.

         Recently, at the beginning of one episode, Louis is gazing at himself in a mirror.  It must be said that the quality of the mirror is not very good and Louis sees a distorted image of himself.  ‘I don’t like this mirror,’ he grandly states and then walks away.  As the episode progresses, Louis sets about ruining his opponents and alienating his brother step by deliberate step, by hook and by crook.  By the end of the episode a new, higher quality mirror arrives from Venice.  As the episode fades into the closing credits, we see Louis admiring himself in the mirror and clearly showing his pleasure at what he sees.  We, the audience, are left in no doubt as to the Machiavellian image that Louis presents to us.

         I want you to look at today’s seemingly odd story from Numbers as a kind of mirror in which the people of Israel find themselves gazing after some time on their journey from oppression in Egypt to the promised land of freedom.  Let’s begin by re-capping the story so far.

         After a miraculous delivery from the army of Pharaoh at the Reed Sea, the people have been travelling towards the land God promised to their ancestors.  The people have encountered resistance from the peoples living in the region and have had to take a few detours.  They’ve grown hungry and God has provided them with bread from heaven, manna, and with quail raining down from the skies.  They’ve grown thirsty and God has shown Moses where to strike his staff to find springs of living water.

         God has not hidden anything from them.  God has promised them a land and named the risk of claiming the promise.  God has entered into a covenant with them, sealing it with the Ten Commandments, words which make clear the commitments of being God’s chosen people.  But on more than one occasion the people rebel despite all that God has done for them and all that they know God has promised to them.  Even miraculous food from heaven that never fails to appear cannot keep them happy.

         Their ingratitude tests even the patience of God.  In today’s text we are told that God is so fed up that the divine anger causes venomous serpents to swarm the camp.  It is as if the people’s own sins have taken on physical form.  After all the sin of ingratitude does poison the one who suffers from it, making it almost impossible for that person to see any good in the world, to experience any joy in the gifts he or she receives, to find any satisfaction in the opportunities that come to work with God in the renewal of the creation.

         This is how I would like us to hear today’s story.  I know that the writer of Numbers tells us that the serpents were sent by God, but my reading of the text tells me that these serpents are the sins of the people coming back to bite them --- literally!  As I just mentioned, the sin that is most prevalent is the sin of ingratitude.  Rescue from the region’s most powerful army, food in a desert, water from the rock, protection from the powerful tribes around them, a promised land before them, what more could God do?  But the poison grips their souls and some begin to perish.

         Many generations later when the rabbis began to shape the liturgy for the celebration of Passover, they recognized the poison of ingratitude.  They incorporated into the liturgy a song called ‘Dayeinu’, a word that means ‘it would have been enough’.  As Jews celebrate their liberation from Egypt, they sing their gratitude for the five acts of liberation, the five miracles in the desert and the five gifts of being chosen.  After each one is named, they sing, ‘Dayeinu’.  Even if God had only done one of these fifteen things, it would have been enough for us to be grateful to the Holy One and to keep faith with the One who keeps faith with us.

         When Moses lifts the bronze serpent up, he lifts up a mirror image of the sin of ingratitude poisoning God’s people on their way into God’s future.  The image that it offers them is not one that they probably liked, but it was an image that they needed to see in order to turn away from ingratitude and to embrace thanksgiving for all that God had done for them.  Splitting the sea --- Dayeinu!  Leading the people to dry land --- Dayeinu!  Providing food and water in the wilderness --- Dayeinu!  Giving the people Sabbath --- Dayeinu!  Giving the people the Torah --- Dayeinu!

         From time to time God holds up a mirror to each one of us and invites us to gaze into the reflection of our souls.  Lent is such a time, isn’t it?  We even call this a time for ‘self-reflection’ on who we are, who we would like to become and what are the obstacles that are preventing us from becoming more truly ourselves as God means us to be.  Sometimes the mirror takes the form of the readings we hear proclaimed in this place of worship.  Sometimes the mirror is our own sense of dissatisfaction with how we are living our lives.  Sometimes a friend or family member or colleague will confront us with an image of ourselves we would rather not see.

         As painful and as difficult as these moments of seeing ourselves in a mirror may be, they are moments meant to prevent us from being poisoned by sin when we oppose God’s will in our lives and when we deny God’s goodness in each other, in ourselves and in the world God created.  These moments are invitations to remember all that God has done for us and join our Jewish sisters and brothers in singing ‘Dayeinu’.  And then, with God’s people of every age, we continue our journey towards the promise, braving the risks and honouring our commitments in thankfulness
  • for tasks which demand our best efforts --- Dayeinu;
  • for accomplishments that satisfy and delight us --- Dayeinu;
  • and for disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God --- Dayeinu.

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