Episode 12

February 29, 2024


B212 Lent 4

B212 Lent 4
By the Well
B212 Lent 4

Feb 29 2024 | 00:32:21


Show Notes

Monica and Fran discuss Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107 and John 3:14-21


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Episode Transcript

[00:00:05] Speaker A: You're listening to by the well electionary based podcast, preachers recorded on the land of the Warunderi people. Greetings, everyone. It's Fran here, and it's Monica. And it is the fourth week in Lent, and Monica and I are going to be exploring numbers, 21 verses for four to nine, psalm 107 verses one to three, and 17 to 22, although naturally, probably the whole psalm and the Gospel, which is John 314 to 21. So we're well on our journey through Lent, and this reading from the Book of Numbers, well known and with imagery that we find in the John reading with the Serpent, but the Book of Numbers, fourth book in the Bible. Do you want to give us some, Monica? Sure. [00:01:06] Speaker B: Sure. So the Book of Numbers records for us the journey of the people from Egypt towards Canaan. And the Book of Numbers is known for the fact that there are two Census that are taken, one in chapter one and the other one in 26. And we are informed by virtue of the mindset and the rebellion or resistance of the people of Israel. During this journey, the generation that left Egypt were not going to be entering the land of Canaan, but a new generation is being formed. So, in a way, the Book of Numbers is stories of coming from this wandering in the wilderness, but it is also the ground upon which Israel is now being prepared to invade the land of Canaan. And along the way, they meet communities or peoples living in the wilderness. The wilderness is not as barren as we thought it would be. They encounter peoples, many of whom they don't know. There are altercations, there is violence, there's killing, and so on and so forth. So here we find that just before the story that we have here in the lectionary today, the people have won a battle, and they are happy, and they continue on their journey and going around Edom towards the Reed Sea, and they are discouraged. We don't know what caused the discouragement. Maybe they were just tired. We don't know how much of time had lapsed between their previous encounter with people and now. So the discouragement results in expression of some disappointment, discontent. [00:03:00] Speaker A: I mean, I was really struck reading the verses immediately prior to this, where, as you say, they have had an encounter, but it's also a vicious battle where the Israelites have killed many Canaanites. And so there must have been a sense of triumph in the community, perhaps, that they had achieved this. And as you say, we don't know the amount of time between that event and where we find them. [00:03:23] Speaker B: Yeah. So they give expression to their discontent and complaining against Moses and against God. And the narrator then tells us that God was obviously displeased, and therefore the camp is plagued by some poisonous serpents, which results in the death of many, many people. And then they go to Moses and they say, please intercede for us. We are sorry for what we have said and save us from these serpents. And so Moses intercedes, obviously, and God instructs him to cast a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a Pole, and anyone who is bitten by the serpent will see this bronze serpent and be healed. [00:04:15] Speaker A: It's a peculiar story, we have to admit, don't we? [00:04:18] Speaker B: Yeah, it is. And I think one needs to have some understanding of serpents and what they represent during, in those cultures. Of course, you have serpents also within the Hebrew Bible, starting with Genesis, the creation story. [00:04:36] Speaker A: And there are fiery serpents mentioned in EXodus as well. [00:04:40] Speaker B: Yes, within the Hebrew Bible, you have Leviathan and Rehab mentioned in Isaiah 27. In IsaiaH 51, they recall serpents from ancient near eastern mythology, particularly mesopotamian mythology in the New Testament writings. You have also a very negative attitude against serpents. Religious leaders all take note. Religious leaders were called a brood of wipers by John the Baptist in Matthew, chapter three and by Jesus in Matthew, chapter 23. So what are they saying when they use this metaphor? Cunning as a serpent? Sly? [00:05:28] Speaker A: Well, they are deadly. If you get bitten by the right one or the wrong one, the case may be. I mean, I'm put in mind, I had the privilege of going to Ephesus in Turkey last year and saw on one of the carvings on what was the hospital in Ephesus was a snake on the stick, that classic symbol we are familiar with for the medical establishment and for doctors. And it's a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, presumably because snakes shed their skins. [00:05:57] Speaker B: Yes. [00:05:58] Speaker A: So that's another. [00:06:01] Speaker B: Yeah. I think the bronze serpent in the numbers text, in a way, showcases the serpent as one that causes death, but it is also a means for survival. And this, in a way, overshadows a greek legend of. I can't pronounce the name very well. Pardon me, but Asclepius means hospital, I think. Yeah. The greek God of healing who gave the medical profession its emblem. And that's the emblem you're describing. So I can think of the fact that in India, the snake is worshipped and revered. And so there are people, of course, who kill snakes, but there are others who will respect them and feed them certain kinds of snakes. So therefore, snakes have a lot of meaning for people, either as symbols of fear or symbols of healing. And that is what you see in this one. Yeah. [00:07:11] Speaker A: I mean, the paradox seems to be that where the people must look is the form that they're looking at is actually where their distress came from, sort of. So there's something about the paradox of the salvation in the pain or something, or that the hope arises, for God delivers hope, but doesn't remove you from the disaster. [00:07:40] Speaker B: You would assume that once they cried out to God and on account of Moses's intercession, the snakes would disappear and people would stop dying. But no, what happens is a bronze serpent is erected, and people are having to look at this in order to, if you're bitten, go and look at. [00:08:00] Speaker A: The snakes slithering around their. [00:08:02] Speaker B: Right, right. Yeah. And so again, I call attention to a paper presented by Sione Javea, where he says that these snakes are still there, and one needs to think about where was this bronze serpent erected? The camp was huge. Was there enough time for someone bitten at the outer edge of the camp to get to the bronze serpent to be healed? How soon would you have to look at it? And how poisonous were these things? So there are all these practical things that your imagination might recall or contribute to. You question some practical details. But anyway, we don't have answers to those questions. [00:08:45] Speaker A: What's going through my mind is the Lord's prayer, lead us in the time of trial. That is, lead us in the time of trial, not lead us from that is. We know that times of trial are part and parcel of being human. Please be with us amongst that. Not lead us from which. Okay, now, there are other key of lots of key motifs in this passage. Hunger and complaint. [00:09:11] Speaker B: Yeah, I find that a little disturbing. A text like this and other stories where the people complain about food is significant in the sense that this is a basic need for people. And people complain when food is not good. [00:09:36] Speaker A: Yeah, if you're running an event and everything's great about the content, but the food's not good. But also perhaps if the event's average but the food's fantastic, you'll still have happy. [00:09:48] Speaker B: So these people complain, and I just wonder why that might have roused God's anger or Moses's anger. Because complaint is a tradition that's quite common within the Hebrew Bible. You see that all over the psalms, where people are complaining to God about all kinds of things. So complaint in and of itself or resistance to something that seems unfair is, in and of itself, not bad, legitimate. [00:10:18] Speaker A: And in the past, when they've complained in this pentateuch here, the Israelites have been given what they asked for like manner. But here, not so much. [00:10:28] Speaker B: Not so much. Yes. I'm just wondering, therefore, if it was not the complaint against the food that Moses and God were reacting to, but maybe it's a questioning of Moses'leadership, perhaps, or even God's leadership, or just people's inability to acknowledge the good that is being done for them by Moses and by God. It could be any number of other reasons. Unfortunately, the text doesn't give us the verbatim complaint of the. [00:11:06] Speaker A: Well, I'm trying not to psychologize all of this too much, but it is also true that when you are in a leadership position over a group of people in particular, where you're leading them through a transition or a change or an upheaval in the community, complaint is part and parcel of what you're going to get. [00:11:22] Speaker B: Yes. [00:11:23] Speaker A: So there's, at some level, that's what we do. And as we know, the Israelites want to hark back to the oppression under Egypt, because at least that was familiar. [00:11:35] Speaker B: It's a democratic way of functioning. [00:11:38] Speaker A: Yeah. [00:11:39] Speaker B: And a human response to something that is not good or comfortable. But last night, as I was reflecting on this text, I was also thinking about how important nourishment and sustenance of the body is in the struggle for liberation or in the struggle for freedom and for community. If your body is not satisfied, there is a way in which people complain. Yeah. [00:12:13] Speaker A: You just look at an infant who has the least development to be able to articulate anything. [00:12:18] Speaker B: It's awful. [00:12:20] Speaker A: A screaming, hungry baby, baby. So distressing to anyone listening. [00:12:24] Speaker B: Right. I digress a little bit, but it brought back images for me of people in Gaza at the moment and the starvation that they are experiencing and how they are having to make do with animal feed or fodder and weeds and to create something that's edible for their crying children. And just the search for food is resulting in death as what happened yesterday. [00:13:01] Speaker A: Now I think we might be time to move on to psalm 107. Monica, do you agree? [00:13:07] Speaker B: Yes. Just one more thought. I think it's important also to see that, to mention the fact that the people were to look at the serpent, the bronze serpent, for them to. To be healed. And what does this looking entail? Is it just looking or is it more than just visual interaction with the bronze serpent? Just a question out there. [00:13:37] Speaker A: I mean, people sometimes do talk about sort of making an idol here, and that's what the decalogue says. You're not meant to do that. But actually it's not symbol of God. [00:13:47] Speaker B: Well, it was made a symbol of God. And so later on in the history of Israel, we hear about this serpent being demolished or broken into pieces. So therefore it led to the idolization of the serpent. But what does this looking entail? And I think we need to think about that. Yeah. [00:14:13] Speaker A: For me, then, that sentence, the whoever is the most important thing. There's something very universal about that. Whoever looks upon this will live to that extent. Looking is not a hard thing. Like, that's pretty. Anyone can, I mean, look up. And so there's something about the universal invitation to look. To look. [00:14:35] Speaker B: Okay. I could say more, but maybe another time. [00:14:40] Speaker A: Next time. [00:14:40] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:14:41] Speaker A: Okay. Psalm 107, one to three and then 17 to 22. So this psalmonica is the beginning of book five. [00:14:57] Speaker B: Yes, it is. And it is the beginning of the largest section of the. Of the. Of the psalter, as you say, book five. And one can see connections if one reads carefully between psalm 106 and 107. But the psalm is, as an opener to book five is an invitation to Thanksgiving. And it lists the various kinds of experiences that people go through and how they have been rescued from those moments of danger and why they should be thankful to God. So it's an invitation to be thankful. And there's an emphasis here on the steadfast love of God. Why do we need to be thankful? Because God has been steadfast in God's love and God has rescued you from all these various kinds of dangers. So in the first three verses, the invitation is there. Let all who have experienced the steadfast love of God, let all those who have been redeemed be thankful and be thankful to God. [00:16:11] Speaker A: We can see then, already in that summary alone, why the lectionary might have paired this psalm then with the numbers passage. People in a predicament of great hunger. We'd said, some sort of distress or disgruntlement, and they have been led, in a manner of speaking, they have been delivered. Delivered from it. [00:16:32] Speaker B: Yeah. They have experienced some sort of deliverance. And so the psalm gives, you know, in those sections of the psalm that have been left out, there are examples which narrate. Sorry. The psalm gives us examples of the kinds of deliverance that people have experienced. [00:16:54] Speaker A: It's quite visceral description, too, of human suffering and ordeals in this psalm, not unusually for a psalm. [00:17:03] Speaker B: Yeah. So the first one is a reference to people who have been lost in the desert, are hungry and thirsty. Let them give thanks to the Lord, because God has found them and has fed them. [00:17:18] Speaker A: Who might they be? [00:17:22] Speaker B: And this is followed by prisoners who have been forgiven and rescued or saved, and so on. And then we come to this second part of the lectionary reading, which is verses 17 to 22, which calls attention to the sick who have become ill because of their sins. So what these sins are, of course, the psalm doesn't tell us, but obviously a connection is being made, or a correlation is being made between sin and suffering, which is also the conclusion that the wandering Israelites came to, that because of their sin, of disobedience or questioning or rebellion, that they were being punished by the serpents. Here, those who have become ill because of their sin are near death, and they have prayed to the Lord and have found healing. And so they are all asked to thank God as well. But what is really significant in those three few verses between 17 and 22, that there is a call for a verbal utterance of thankfulness to God. But there's something else, and that is offering of sacrifices. A thank offering. Make a thank offering and to sing stories of what the Lord has done. It is interesting because it alludes to Leviticus, chapter seven, verses 15 to 18, which also reiterates this notion of offerings. Thank offerings, what it involves, what is required. I don't know. What are the varied ways in which one could give thanks to God? [00:19:21] Speaker A: Well, I was immediately thinking liturgically when you were speaking, obviously, there's use of this psalm in the liturgy in that way. But our giving of an offering weekly in the liturgy, and that offering is, if it's done correctly, in my view, it's not just monetary. It's the gift of oneself and one's skills, or one's time and so on. Is that the sacrifice you think you're talking about? Is that okay to talk that way? [00:19:52] Speaker B: No. Yes, it is okay. I think I agree with you. We do not live in the age of animal or other kinds of sacrifices anymore. Of course, there are some cultures or some religions where that might be called for, but we don't do that anymore. But I'm thinking of experiences of people who have experienced God's deliverance in India, and they will put up a note in the newspaper in thanksgiving, usually Christians, meaning Catholics, and they are honoring either infant Jesus or Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Jesus himself, crucified and resurrected for mercies and for God's compassion. And it could be healing from illness. It could be even as simple thing as getting a job. But they will publicly proclaim their thankfulness to God for this experience of deliverance. [00:21:00] Speaker A: Which I've seen people do on social media as well. I have to confess a sense of discomfort because I'm not used to that. Yeah, but you're right. There's an exuberance called for. We're in the season of Lent. So for me, when I was reading this psalm, I was really struck particularly by that lenten theme in particular around sin, obviously, but also the relationship with sin and suffering and how lent we're called to look upon oneself, we look upon ourselves and to recognize ways in which we fall short. And there is that bind about how much we might contribute to our own predicaments and all of that. So for me that was what stood out in this passage. Not so much the thankfulness, if that's not being okay. [00:21:57] Speaker B: No, I agree with you. I guess in the season of Lent we need to call attention to that as well. But we don't live in the season of Lent. We anticipate the resurrection and the time. [00:22:14] Speaker A: Of thanksgiving, which we're doing on a Sunday anyway. Yeah, so you're right. Yeah, we do it. We're post christian, we're post resurrection. [00:22:22] Speaker B: I think in a way the psalm is saying that both repentance and thanksgiving are two sides of the same coin. Of the same coin. [00:22:38] Speaker A: And this is getting a bit poor line, perhaps, but it's the experience of blessing and grace that makes one realize where one might have gone wrong or where one has been, not where might have gone wrong. And then there's recognition and then there's repentance and then there's forgiveness and then you get the joy and the thanksgiving. [00:22:59] Speaker B: And the grace again. Right. I think our 21st century minds always think rationally and there's always a cause and there's an effect. I think what the psalm is calling for is this awareness that sometimes we can contribute to our own discomfort or illness by virtue of something that we have done and just to be aware of that. [00:23:30] Speaker A: Yeah. I mean, pastorally, obviously, there's some really dreadful connections that can be made there that are deeply painful and wrong. Basically wrong. Yes. Now we're running out of time, so I think we'll need to leave the psalm at that point and we'll move on to John, chapter three, verses 14 to 21. Very familiar verse. Well, passage in general, but John 316 is one of those ones that we know so well and perhaps gloss over a bit. But this lectionary passage has us landing in the middle, really, of the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus, a rabbi who takes Jesus to be just another rabbi and trying to understand what on earth being born from above is and what eternal life is. And we can see clearly why the lectionaries put this one in, because there's a reference to the Moses lifting up the serpent from numbers. And in a sense, as christians, we can't read numbers without knowing this John passage and dealing with both of them together. I think it would be, yeah. If you're having both of them read, you'll need to preach referring to both of. [00:24:48] Speaker B: Because, you know, otherwise the reference to the serpent in the John text will make no sense. So you have to know a little bit about what happened in the book of numbers to understand this passage. But what kind of correlations do people usually make between these two texts other than the fact that the serpent is. [00:25:06] Speaker A: Mentioned in sort of simplistic one? I mean, I would hope that a preacher would look at that phrase lifted up as is used by the writer of John here. Now, for John, the resurrection, I mean, the crucifixion and the resurrection and the ascension are all one thing. And the exaltation is the glorification of the son of man in all those events. So it's both crucifixion and resurrection. So already there's something deeply paradoxical going on about lifted up onto the cross but also lifted up as God's son, redeeming all and bringing light and life. So that's what I would hope. [00:25:55] Speaker B: Yeah. I think for me, what is important also is this famous verse that basically every Christian will know. What is the one verse that you know in the Bible then, maybe apart. [00:26:10] Speaker A: From the Lord is my shepherd? [00:26:12] Speaker B: Yes, of course. They would perhaps recite John 316. I, in fact, know a man in Bangalore whose father named him John 316. Poor guy. [00:26:24] Speaker A: Wow. [00:26:25] Speaker B: Yes. I may have mentioned this before. [00:26:29] Speaker A: Not to me, you haven't. [00:26:30] Speaker B: That's incredible. Okay, so this verse, of course, is very significant for a lot of people and. And well known. And its translation has created some ambiguity, concerns about who is it that is deserving of God's salvation. Is it who will, for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life, shall have eternal life, may have eternal life. [00:27:10] Speaker A: Just what the NRSV has. [00:27:13] Speaker B: Yeah. So just compare translations and see how that last part of the verse is translated. And what word do you think is the most suitable? May. Shall. Will? [00:27:24] Speaker A: Well, verse 415, it's a repetition of verse 15. So the man, son of man's lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. That's repeated. I'm struck there by the verb, action. Like, I'm always wanting to look at the verbs in these passages, what is God doing? And so on. But not whoever has belief, but whoever is dynamically engaged with this living God, open to new possibilities, questioning. That's quite an inviting, dynamic thing, rather than whoever has belief or whoever has signed on this dotted line. Yeah, so I see a universalism here. [00:28:06] Speaker B: Okay. Actually, yeah, you see universalism. I have read some commentaries that say that this is about personal salvation, that every individual has to believe, and so therefore, the salvation is only given to the individual and not to the. So whoever believes me, again, it's individuals. [00:28:29] Speaker A: Right? Well, I would vehemently disagree with that commentary, if I may. [00:28:33] Speaker B: No, that's fine. [00:28:35] Speaker A: You're entitled to that by reflecting on the wider gospel and letting that interpret this passage as well. But then I wouldn't mean it's that thing. It can be both and can't it? Like we are called to respond. I mean, all of John's gospel is you've got the world who won't accept Jesus and loves darkness and so on. And the purpose of the gospel in chapter 20 is I'm writing all this so that you will come to believe that this will be the light. So of course it's seeking our response. But I also really am wired to be a bit suspicious of the western individualism that has formed me and letting that lens read this text like that. [00:29:19] Speaker B: My heart warms to what you're saying, fran, but I think for the preacher needs to wrestle with this, with the passage, because I have had sometimes preached a sermon that emphasizes this universal salvation or corporate salvation, and I've had people come up to me and challenge me on that notion. [00:29:47] Speaker A: Tell us what happens, everyone. And also, we're not looking at Ephesians, Ephesians chapter in this episode because we are rapidly running out of time. But if you're wanting to look at what is salvation like, how you talk about that, what on earth is it from? Or for the Ephesians passage has a wealth of input to put into that question. The other one I would highlight here is eternal life. And that that is a qualitative thing now, in time, in everyday life, and not that thing that happens after death. [00:30:18] Speaker B: No. [00:30:18] Speaker A: And John is very clear about that. [00:30:21] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:30:24] Speaker A: There'S so much here we haven't touched on it. Nearly all of them, I suppose. I want to finish at the 30 minutes mark by just mentioning the role of the light and darkness dynamic and how light is this paradoxical thing that both reveals, casts shadows and blinds, and that we have the light of the burning bush, but you can't look at it, but then God's revealed through it. And that that dynamic is playing in John's gospel generally in regards to Jesus. And in that sense, the dark things that are exposed and the cross is that dark, dark thing that the world has done. [00:31:07] Speaker B: Yeah, I mean, when we look at the cross, we often, in a way, it's become a fetish for a lot of Christians and the cross is uplifted as a symbol of God's salvation and God's sacrifice. But I think the cross in and of itself is also a very violent symbol. And besides Jesus, there were lots of people who were crucified during those times. And so the cross is also a symbol of death. And again, that paradox about light and darkness, death and healing, death and salvation, I think is something that can be expanded or looked know in relation to. [00:31:51] Speaker A: The cross, because the empty cross is, is it not light shining from darkness in the resurrection for us, yeah. Thank you, Monica. We've more than done enough. Thanks for listening, everyone. [00:32:08] Speaker B: By the well is brought to you. [00:32:10] Speaker A: By pilgrim Theological College and the Uniting church in Australia. It's produced by Adrian Jackson. [00:32:16] Speaker B: Thanks for listening.

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