Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2021 – “Strange Remedies”

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

When I was a kid, my mom had some strange home remedies. Anytime I’d come in itching with mosquito bites, she’d bring out the toothpaste and smear it all over my arms. I got a big ugly wart once and she applied duct tape. Before long car trips, she’d have me drink lemon juice to prevent motion sickness.

I was quite suspicious of these remedies. I wanted to go to the store and buy the stuff that said “results guaranteed” right there on the box. “Can’t I just take Dramamine like Stephanie does?” I’d whine. “Why can’t you keep calamine lotion around like every other mom?” I’d complain.  “I am your mom. Trust me,” was her only response. I now use all of her strange remedies myself.

Our Old Testament reading today has two very strange remedies in the midst of a very disturbing story. What’s most strange, and very troubling, is that God sends a plague of poisonous serpents upon the people.

Up to this point in their story, God has been incredibly generous to the people: claiming them as God’s own, bringing them out of slavery, committing to them with a covenant, leading them in the wilderness towards the promised land, providing food in the desert. God tells them again and again, “Do not be afraid. I am your God, trust me, listen to me.” But the people just can’t get past their fear and anxiety.

Instead of trusting, they hoard the food God provides and it rots. They worship idols. They get impatient and irritable, demanding a quick fix with “results guaranteed”. They grumble and whine with complaints like we heard today, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Which one is it: no food or gross food? Can’t be both.)

So instead of moving forward into the promised land, God’s people get stuck – stuck in a seething pit of anxiety, fear, bitterness, whining. All of this stuff poisons them, draining their life away.

Ever felt like that?

God doesn’t just watch from afar as they dig deeper and deeper into a toxic hole. God sends poisonous serpents that bite them and many die. Actually, the Hebrew here doesn’t mean poisonous. It means fiery.

It is the word seraph, as in seraphim and cherubim – God’s messengers in the Bible. God sends fiery messenger serpents to bite the people. Fiery seraphs also appear to Isaiah when God calls him to be a prophet. Seraphs get his attention. They do the same thing for the people here. You thought your life was bad. No, this is bad. Nothing like the possibility of your death to awaken you to the beauty of your life.

Perhaps the fiery messenger serpents that God sends aren’t so much a punishment as they are a wake-up call to the people – a strange remedy to startle them out of their anxiety and bitterness. Except, did God really send the serpents, or is that what the people thought in hindsight? Maybe serpents got their attention and they interpreted that as a message from God? I don’t know. And even if serpents were God’s do- ing back then, does God still send things that hurt us? I really don’t think so; I just don’t think God is the cause of suffering.

What I do know is that in my own life, there have been some painful wake-up calls that have broken through my grumbling and self-pity, that have helped me to notice God’s presence and God’s care. Did God orchestrate those moments to open my eyes? I don’t think so. Yet I do believe God used those difficult times for good, that God didn’t cause them but was at work in them.

This past year, our country has experienced painful wake-up calls around issues of race, public health, climate change, political polarization. I do not believe God is the cause of these challenges – not at all. Yet I do believe God can use them for good, to get our attention and turn us around. We do need to listen to fiery messengers who make us confront the consequences of our destructive ways of being. Their messages may cause pain and discomfort, but we need to pay attention. Painful things can be strange remedies.

The serpents in the wilderness definitely get the peoples’ attention. They recognize how toxic their lives have become, how much they need God. They confess their sin and ask God to remove the serpents. But God doesn’t remove them. Instead, God makes a way through the situation, healing in the midst of it. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole. Then the people who are bitten can look upon the serpent and live. This sounds like hocus-pocus stuff; it sounds like worshipping an idol. Yet the people aren’t told to worship the bronze serpent, just to look upon it. And God promises to work through that physical object to bring healing.

Still the healing is not a painless, quick fix. The people are asked to take a hard look at the very thing that is poisoning them, to face the consequences of their noxious way of being. They’re also asked to change their perspective – to not fixate on the serpent bites, but rather to gaze upon what God is doing to bring healing. As they do this, they find that the serpent bites no longer kill them. The terrifying serpents no longer have power to destroy them. Another strange remedy that works.

We have been given a similar strange remedy. As our Gospel reading today says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus is lifted up on the cross. This calls us to face all the sin, fear, pain and suffering of this world, and to take a hard look at everything that poisons us. Just as the people had to look upon a serpent, we have to face the consequences of our sinful ways of being.

Yet as we gaze upon the cross, we also see that these things no longer have the power to destroy us. For Jesus is not only lifted up on the cross, Jesus is also raised to new life in the resurrection and lifted up into a restored relationship within the Triune God. By the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we, too, are raised to new life and a new relationship with God. This gives us a new perspective on all the sin, suffering and death we face. It helps us to not fixate upon it but to see what God is doing in the midst of it. God is work- ing healing and life. God is drawing us into deeper communion with the triune God.

The strange remedy of Jesus lifted up means that, personally and collectively:

We can face all our fears, prejudice, violence.
We can examine the white supremacy that infects us all.
We can face the ways we are poisoning God’s creation.
We can address our failures as a nation and as the church.

We can do this trusting that God is present in the midst of all of this, working healing. We can do this trusting that all these toxic things do not have ultimate power over us, that God brings new life from it all. It is not a quick fix; it will not be easy and pain free. Yet God is present for you working healing and new life. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Let’s take a moment for prayer and reflection.