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14th Sunday after Pentecost / Holy Cross Day, 09/14/2014

Sermon on Numbers 21:4b-9, John 3:1-17, by David H. Brooks


Several weeks ago, the dog and I discovered a snake in the backyard. And not just any snake, mind you, but a copperhead, some 20 inches or so. Now, I don't know what standard protocol your family has in place for dealing with the sudden discovery of poisonous snakes, but I can well imagine that it isn't written down neat and orderly. In my experience, neat and orderly are not words that get used often after the word snake. Truth be told, there was a lot of running around, a lot of hollering, and although I had in the back of my head the notion that I should dispatch said snake, I wasn't interested in hunting down a snake that didn't want to be found after the sun had gone down. Neat and orderly might not be words to describe what went on, but chaotic would certainly fit.

It would also fit the scene described in this story from Numbers. We're talking poisonous snakes all over the camp of the Israelites-serious chaos. And out of this chaos comes the cry of the Israelites-save us from this! Their cry might well be-save us from ourselves. For the coming of the poisonous snakes, the coming of chaos, starts when the people sin. They complain-literally, become "short of soul" and voice their doubts directly at God. "You are not the source of life," they cry; rather "you have brought us out here to kill us."

The story-short that it is-doesn't bother to unpack this sin that Israel commits. But sin at its heart is the declaration that God is untrustworthy, that God is not at work to redeem and save. This story does not unpack all of that theological talk-but it does show what comes on the heels of sin-chaos.

For all of us, sin is what ushers in chaos in life. Sometimes the connection is quite obvious, as when a spouse commits adultery and a family disintegrates, or when an executive cooks the books and a company falls into ruin. Other times the connection is subtle, where lives lived faithlessly reveal hearts poisoned with struggle and bitterness. But the chaos is the same, whether it comes suddenly, or over long years, and we are caught crying out save us!

But God is against chaos. John writes that God so loved the world, which is a word that we tend to think means "the people who inhabit the Earth," but the word John uses is kosmos-a word whose first meaning is "orderly arrangement." A possible reason that John used kosmos instead of oikoumene - a word that does refer to people--is that John actually meant that God wants harmony and order and not chaos. 

It's worth remembering that in the beginning, when God created the earth, the first thing he did was to impose order on the formless, dark void that was there (Genesis 1:2), which is one definition of chaos. Likewise, God's new creation at the end of time, so the Bible tells us, will be free of suffering, pain and death (Revelation 21:4) - all marks of chaos (21:1). Notice that the "sea [is] no more," the sea being a popular biblical metaphor for chaos. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to save us from the chaos of sin, the chaos that ultimately causes us to perish. God sends his Son to restore the righteous, orderly arrangement of life for us, the way that leads to eternal life.

And where do we find the sign of this desire from God, this loving purpose that sweeps us up and gives us life, peace, purpose, hope? It is found in the cross of Christ-a sign of chaos. You can well imagine how chaotic that twenty-four hours were, how things began to unravel from the start of the Passover feast until Jesus' final words. Who would look to the cross as the sign that all will be well, that God is at work, that the starting place for God's ongoing work against the forces that would unmake, undo his creation start there? But that is precisely where we are to go. Just as the ancient Israelites were to look upon that which meant death to them in order that they might live, so we are called to look upon that which means our death to sin will be caught up in his endless life. Everything about this Christian existence is a cruciform life-I, you, we hand over the chaos of our sin and Christ takes it upon himself, and in return we are given life and order. We are made new; we are set in the new creation, to the glory of God. Because of the cross, we can stop chasing into the darkness those poisonous snakes of pride and envy, of greed and anger, of spiritual laziness, of over-consumption, of lust. Instead, because of the cross of Christ, we too can say, we have a testimony-we speak of what we know, and we know that God is love. Amen.


The Rev. Dr. David H. Brooks
Columbia, SC, USA
E-Mail: Pr.Dave.Brooks@zoho.com