Today’s sermon is based on Numbers 21:4-9. You can read it below with pictures or listen to it here.
In the words of Indiana Jones, “Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”
What an odd Old Testament lesson that we have for this coming Sunday, right? I sometimes cringe when this text comes up in our lectionary. I understand why we have it, that it’s linked to the main header of our lectionary–the John 3 text..
the grandaddy of all memorable texts!
But this first lesson is quite extraordinary by itself. First of all, it sets the scene of a couple of things. First, there’s this strange undertone that if you whine or complain, you best watch out because God is going to send creepy slithery poisonous things your way!
And secondly, you can worship bronze snake idols and be healed. What? There’s this little thing that our Sunday School kids can tell us about called the 10 commandments… “you shall make no other gods and worship no other idols” and today we’re reading about what seems to be an idol.
But at the very core of this passage is my thought, “Man…the Israelites are a bunch of losers. They get out of bondage and then quickly complain, they’re rescued again only to doubt God’s fidelity. They get free food from heaven only to want something else. And then it looks like they’re giving up all together and a bunch of them end up dying. It seems like this group is just a lost cause…they don’t have what it takes…they lack success.
And I think that’s the bigger question here. Everywhere you go there’s a question of success.I recently filled out a self evaluation of my work as the new pastor of Christian Formation here at St. Peter’s. First of all, it’s hard to review yourself…and secondly you kind of cringe at the idea of other reviewing you…and thirdly…how do you measure areas of success? I think we all struggle with that word “success,”…I think we would all like to have it. I believe that we would all like to be described as “successful.” But what does that really mean?
I’ve been really intrigued by this question and the other week I was watching a TED talk about success. TED isn’t a guy talking, it’s an organization where technology, education and design converged to spread ideas, to have folks from all areas of life come and imagine how life can be better, how we can dream or include or find justice.I listened to a TED talk on the area of success. It ranged from predictable speakers like motivational speaker Tony Robbins to “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe to psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania and beyond. And they all spoke about what it means to do well or be excellent at something…to be successful. And yet we kind of cringe at this word because it doesn’t cover every aspect of our life, right?
Few if anyone can be successful at everything…with each point in our life we have a choice. We can choose to devote a lot of time to one area of our life…a great musician who plays the piano may be awful at reading…and you’ll never find them picking up a book to learn. A student who is naturally gifted at history and global studies may really struggle with algebra. An athlete who is a star on the track could never swim a lap to save their life!
And there’s a lot of anxiety that goes with being successful isn’t there?
It’s this culture that we’ve built up that all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average…except…that’s not how we work. And the pressure and fear of failure…man..if everyone wants to have success..who’s in line to sign up for failure?
In my field we call this “growing areas.” The areas of life, or classes you take, or training that you have where there’s this struggle. Struggle can include growing pains, complaining, gritting your teeth (sometimes gnashing your teeth), and falling down…a lot. The growing areas are often things that we’re bad at! And it’s really easy to kind of get lost. It’s tempting to think “If I’m not successful right away, then that’s it…I’m a lost cause.” That sentiment can so easily drive us to just give up…to see our work as failing…to see relationships as lost causes…to see ourselves as losers.
From a brief glance at the Numbers passage it looks as though the Israelites are a lost cause, unsuccessful whiners who God gives up on. And yet there’s something more here. There is this idea that hope is at battle with hopelessness and faith seems to have a magnet’s head for its opposite, sheer unbelief.We are constantly in tension with these dueling forces…be it in our own walks between the mountain top moments of success and certainty and our low points where we feel lost. At the very core we may ask on an individual or corporate level “Am I a lost cause? Am I just unsuccessful?”
How do you measure success? A lot of folks in the world have asked that question. And I’m taking a lesson from one of the contributors of a Ted Talk. Her name is Dr. Angela Duckworth and she’s a psychologist out of University of Pennsylvania. She says that a predictor of one’s success is their “grit.” Funny word I know, but grit is the disposition to pursue very long term goals with passion and perseverance. Grit is sticking with things…it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
So were the Israelites winners or losers? Succesful or unsuccesful? This strange story from the book of Numbers. It is a low point for the Israelites, but it’s not the end of the story…in fact the whole book of Numbers seem to be one challenge, one “growing area” after another…and yet it prepares the people to enter the Promised Land…which with God’s leadership they do. God doesn’t abandon them. They don’t give up. They end up having the grit to pursue that very long term dream that was promised so many years before.
Or think about the music that we’re celebrating today. The Blues is all about the struggle of success and failure, faith and unbelief, hope and hopelessness. It was born in the midst of African American communities in the “Deep South” and in the midst of Jim Crow laws and racism. This genre fused the longing and poetry of spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants and ballads. It comes out of a long and deep history of hurt and healing through singing, expression of failure and disenchantment, celebrates the voices of dissent that arise out of the ashes, the refusal to keep silent and persistence to keep on singing…the grit of this genre can teach us a thing or two of God’s story in us all.
And it’s in this same long-term story where God’s grit is measured…where God does not give up on the long term goal to reconcile the cosmos. Shrouded in what looks like loss and failure, God’s Christ is victorious. So what can we take away from this? Well, what looks like lost causes can often be quite the opposite. What seems to be a set-back or failure in the short-term, may be but a moment in the larger story. What may feel like shame, is actually God’s work of victory. It’s the God that I know through Jesus Christ who does not give up, who does not punish when we doubt, or whine, or question…it is the God we know who enters into the world not to condemn but rather enters into the world to offer light, to shed light in the darkness…a darkness where condemnation, shame and feelings of failure live. The light that shines in areas where we feel unsuccessful and shines a light on areas that feel like lost causes and it’s through Christ that we understand this God who never gives up. This God who is in it for the long haul who has grit and calls us to be reunited and reconciled. We’re called to work together for the same God, for the same Christ, for the same good news.
And so I hope and I pray that we can measure our levels of success not by numbers…or test scores…or how much money we made last year…or how many activities our kids are in… but that we can perhaps measure our success through light… how are we able to shine light on the darkness of doubt, how are we able to open avenues of faith in a world of unbelief, and how are we able to share stories of hope to combat the hopelessness that so often fills this world. Friends I pray that we may have the same grit that is of God, that our journeys of faith may be life-long, that we may have the same type of tenacity to reconcile, reconnect and raise up others as God has first done for us. And that we may measure our success, not by what we do, but by what God has done and is doing through you and through me.