Hope must be seen
Numbers 21: 4-9. John 3: 1-21
People grumble about God so God sends poisonous snakes to kill them off, then God works out a way to save them by making a metal snake that if they can run to the metal snake then they will be cured.
And why should Jesus mention that to Nicodemus? We presume that Jesus is talking about the cross. That when people see that Jesus is willing to die on a cross for them that they will understand. But how would Nicodemus be able to understand something that hadn’t happened yet?
It’s too cryptic, too vague.
That’s not the way that God works with me.
When God wants to get a message to me then usually I get a kick up the backside. But that might be because something vague or mysterious would just go right by me.
If God wants to give me a message I need that message, and I presume that God uses the best methods he can to get that message through to me. And vague and mysterious doesn't work. I’m too thick for that.
So let me give you two versions of what has happened today.
The first is an extension of last week. Jesus cleared the temple of those changing money and supplying sacrifices. And people asked, ‘Why are you doing this? By what authority do you do this?’
Which is a fair enough question, you don’t just give up thousands of years of tradition, and especially tradition that you think God has given you to help you, on the whims of some stranger. If God is giving a new message then how are the people to know if it is really a new message and not some scheme of the devil to undermine them and move them further from God? That is what Nicodemus, a leader for the people, who cares for the people, is trying to find out....is this Jesus an agent for good or for evil?
And the answer is dependent on that weird first reading from the book of Numbers.
Where, and think about this, God saved the people from poisonous snakes in the desert, poisonous snakes which he put there because of the people’s grumbling. So essentially God was saving them from the punishment that he had created.
Ready for this?
Now stay with me.
I believe really deeply that God speaks to us at our own level.
God doesn’t care about whether we are deep theologians or not. God doesn't care if we have fully grasped a situation or not. God just cares. So he will communicate in such a way that we will do the right thing to make our life better.
So, as an example...when Shrek first came out my then 7 year old daughter had nightmares for days. She had nightmares because the end of the film has the princess turning into an ogre. I tried to explain to her that it was a happy ending, that it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside, it is the inside that counts. But to a seven year old that doesn't work. The princess turned into an ogre, so she might wake up one day and turn into an ogre. She got this into her head and it was stuck there. And the nightmares didn’t stop.
So one day we are up the glen, the glen that we had always called the magic forest because halfway up there is the place where you can drink the water and make a wish. And I said, ‘Do you know why we call this the magic forest?’
And my daughter said, ‘No.’
And I said, ’Well you see these leaves, if you put those leaves under your pillow, well they will soak up all the badness in you and make you well.’ She looked at me very sceptically. So I said, ’Try it out. If it works then in the morning the leaves will all be shrivelled up and you will have all the badness sucked out of you and into the leaves.’
Now I knew that the leaves of that bush were full of water, and without the tree to keep on giving them water the leaves would shrivel up. But my daughter didn't know that. So she goes to bed, wakes up the next morning see the shrivelled leaves, and believes. And the nightmares stop.
Did I lie to her?
Technically no. She believed that the leaves would make her better, and the leaves gave her what she needed to make her better. I worked at a level that she would understand. Because no amount of accurate psycho-drivel would have worked on a seven year old.
I think God cares enough about us that he cares more about us than about being correct.
So let’s see how this might work.
We have slaves in the desert. Walking day in and day out. Every day the same. And they get fed up with the same people grumbling all the time and they don't trust that women, she is looking at her husband funny, so she wants to be apart from them a bit. So the people start to spread out. Because everyone needs their space. Now Moses needs them all together because he has lived in the desert for 40 years and knows it is a dangerous place. It has snakes and scorpions and marauders who would pick off the stragglers. And Moses tells them this but they don’t believe it will happen to them.
And then comes the food problem. Same old food day in and day out. And it hardly sustains them. God may give them what they need but if all we had was just exactly what we need that is a precarious way to live life. They always feel as if they are on the edge of starving. What was the point of leaving Egypt if they were just going to starve in the desert?
And maybe someone sees a birds egg and tries it and it is good. But they don't know the difference between a bird’s nest and a snake’s nest because they have been slaves in Egypt.
So people die because they are bitten by snakes and by the time someone gets to Moses at the other end of the camp it is too late.
It is a punishment from God; it must be a punishment from God.
So they plead for Moses to do something.
And Moses goes to God and asks what he can do.
And God tells him to create a metal snake that hangs in the middle of the camp. And if people can get to the metal snake they will be cured.
Here’s the thing. If you think that metal snake will cure you, if you really believe that metal snake is the difference between life and death, maybe the life and death of your child...how close to that metal snake are you going to be?
AS CLOSE AS IS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE.
So the whole camp moves closer together. The vibrations of all those people together chase off all the snakes and scorpions.
And everyone is safe.
Now what has that to do with Nicodemus?
Because that is the illustration that Jesus gives to Nicodemus.
When Nicodemus is asking, ‘How can we trust you to be the messenger of God?’
The illustration Nicodemus gets is the metals snake.
And I don’t think Jesus is alluding to the cross because Nicodemus wouldn't understand that.
Here’s what I think.
When the Israelites saw the metal snake they saw hope.
I think what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus was this, ‘The Israelites knew that God was with them because they had hope, they could see hope. When they saw that snake it reminded them that God was with them.’
‘Now you Nicodemus want to know if I am from God or not. Well here's the test. When people see me, do they see hope. Are they reminded that God is with them?’ When the blind see do they have hope that God is with them? When the people feel that they are forgiven do they have hope that God is with them? When the cripples walk again do they feel close to God? When I chased out the stalls and gave people space and quiet to pray did they feel that God was with them?’
Why is this important?
Because we are the church.
And many would say that the national church is struggling, even dying.
And maybe the reason we are dying is that we are not being what we were meant to be.
If we are meant to be the messengers of Jesus on earth, then people should see us and see hope. People should see us and feel that God is closer to them.
And I wonder if that has been people’s experience.
How many times did people come to churches just to be attacked for they lifestyle, or their sexuality, or their race, or their beliefs? They weren't told that God was closer to them; they didn't feel that God was closer to them. They didn't feel that God cared at all. They felt that God was punishing them, that God was condemning them and that God wanted to dam them to hell unless they jumped through thousands of hoops.
We are meant to be the hope of the world.
No offence to the politicians within our congregation. But when people turn up to all the meetings to discuss the cuts in the budget no one is feeling any great hope.
When people watch Prime Ministers Questions from Westminster, or First Ministers Questions from the Scottish Parliament, people don’t feel hope.
They hear politicians tell us how much more money has been spent on something, or they hear the opposition tell us that our life has never been as bad as it is now. But they don't feel hope.
Strange as it may seem, put someone desolate in front of some wee old granny at a food bank who is asking him how he and his family are is getting on, and people, families feel hope.
We have a world of Nicodemus’ out there.
A world that is asking us what our authority is, why are we in existence, what are we doing here?
And we need to be giving hope.
People need to see us like the Israelites saw the metal snake.
People need to see us like the people saw Jesus.
When they see us they need to see hope.
But how do we do that?
I think that comes with our beliefs.
I was listening to Bill Hybels, minister of one of those mega churches in America talking about outreach.
And he was stating that it starts with people we love, people we work with, people we care about, people who are our neighbours.
And it was this simple statement that we either believed or we didn’t.
Those people that I know and care about, would their lives be better off if Christ was at the centre of it?
Those people that I know and care about, would their lives be better off if Christ was at the centre of it?
If they had an ear that was willing to listen to God’s guidance,
if they had a deep moral centre that inspired their actions,
if they had a greater capacity of love, inspired by the Holy Spirit to help those near to them,
if they had a hope that no matter what they faced in life that they were never alone,
if they had a belief that relationships were so much more valuable that material possessions,
if they judged the wealth of their lives more on how much they laughed with others and cried with others than how much they had in the bank?
Do we honestly believe that their lives would be better with those things of God at the centre of their being?
I look at my children, I look at my grandchildren, I look at my sisters and their families, I look at my wife...and I know that their lives would always be better with God at the centre of their life. And that inspires me to be the example they need.
To share, to forgive, to seek forgiveness when I have done things wrong, to help, to love unconditionally, to be there for them...if they can see that Christ is the centre of my life and that influences all I do for them, then maybe, maybe that will give them hope...that God is with them, that they can be with God.
If the world, if this community of Alva, if our workplaces, where we shop, can see that God is the centre of our lives, and that presence inspires us to share, to forgive, to seek forgiveness when we have done things wrong, to help, to love unconditionally, to be there for them...if they can see that we do this because of Christ, for them, then maybe, maybe that will give them hope.
And in the desert that is this world, in the uncertainty that is this world, maybe hope is the beginning that they need.