This past week, Rev. Kendra Van Houten and I were trying to plan a combined Maundy Thursday service. She serves the Reformed Church just a long stone’s throw away from the Reformed Church I serve.
The congregations split in 1832, ostensibly over the drinking of alcohol. They didn’t. We did. Now we all do. But our two congregations are still separated. The Body of Christ still is visibly torn. We collaborate on things, but still maintain our own historic, costly buildings, pay our own staffs, run our own programs…
Not long into our conversation about this shared Holy Week service, trying to decide whether to do the whole thing on Zoom or do a hybrid livestream, and whether we should sing or celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I blurted, “Aren’t you just sick of it? I want to smell the Tenebrae candles burning, and take in the fragrance of a plate full of communion bread, and pass the peace skin to skin. I am exhausted by constantly having to figure out how we’ll do this and that. I want the ease and the sensuality of worshipping and being together in our bodies.”
Kendra had just come out of a long meeting of her “Safe Church Committee” which had juggled questions about re-opening, when the truth is, even though things are looking up as more shots get into people’s arms, we still don’t know for sure what may come. She responded to my griping and grumbling saying, “I just told my folks that if I had been with the Israelites on their forty-year trek through the wilderness, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it much past year one.”
During this Covid year I have gained great sympathy for our ancestors’ arduous wilderness journey, awakened to my own white, middle class privilege and ease, and become keenly aware of the long, slow (impossible) work of trusting our whole lives to God.
In this week’s text from the book Numbers we read, “the people became impatient on the way” and began to gripe and grumble directly against God and Moses. And suddenly the camp is slithering with poisonous snakes. Family members lie dead on the ground. Children are screaming. It is a chaotic, gruesome, disturbing scene.
Did God really send the snakes, or was it a coincidence to which they assigned cause and effect? Either way, the people experience what happens as a divine judgement and it drives them to repent. They recognize their failure to trust this God who delivered them from their slavery, freed them from the practices of empire, and provided for them as they journeyed toward God’s promised future. They beg Moses to beg God to take the venomous snakes away. God doesn’t do it. Instead, God instructs Moses to make a “poisonous serpent” and lift it up on a pole. When those who are bitten look at the bronze snake, God promises they will live.
I’m pretty sure they would have preferred the annihilation of the snakes, the removal of the threat and the pain of being bitten. God could have done this. But maybe there is something telling in the fact that God doesn’t do it. The effects of our sin, the consequences of our resisting God’s love, promises, and purposes persist. We live with the poisonous, life-threatening realities of racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, heterosexism, and our unexamined participation in consumer capitalism, to name just a few. If there were vicious snakes slithering around our feet, hanging from the trees, hiding in the tool shed, forcing us to pay attention to where we walk and how we walk, maybe we would be more alert to how our resistance to God and God’s desires lead to death.
The writer of Ephesians says it plainly: You were already dead through your sins and trespasses. But God in mercy and great love made us alive together with Christ, raised us up with him, thereby freeing us from the powers of sin and death. Done and done.
And not done. There are a lot of times I do not feel free from the powers of sin and death. I catch myself again and again, caught. Complicit. Anxious. Scrambling to get control over circumstances beyond my control. Petty. Complaining. Competitive. Ungrateful. Unconscious. This Lent I have been reciting an abridged version of Heidelberg Q & A 42: “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?” The answer: “…it puts an end to our sinning.” Done and done.
The Reformed tradition is unequivocally clear. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot heal ourselves. We cannot put our dead, sinning selves to death. We cannot raise ourselves from the dead.
In the wilderness, snake-bitten into repentance, our ancestors looked to God, who reveals that the judgment IS the life-giving grace that heals and saves. The venomous serpent is bronzed and lifted up, like a trophy on a pole. Look and live.
In mercy and great love for the cosmos, God gives God’s only begotten Son, and the Son agrees to be given. To be lifted up on the cross. Where sorrow and love flow mingled down. Where our sin, our venom, our resistance, our already dead selves are put to death in Jesus. The sensual light of the last Tenebrae candle is extinguished. The smoke curls heavenward in the dark. Done and done. And not yet done.