Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon, Lent 4B, Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

Faith. I've recently preached on this topic, but today's lessons seem to be all about faith, so I wanted to revisit it. Faith, remember, has two applications or definitions.

The first is its objective use. The faith of the Church as found in and defined by the Creeds, Councils, teachings and biblical revelation.

The second is its subjective use. This could be defined as part of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; otherwise known as our human response to Divine truth, and that faith leads to belief. The scriptures talk about this subjective faith as a trusting acceptance of the kingdom, its demands and its mystery.

Our faith, then, is based on trust. How much do we trust God? How much do we trust God to lead us through the wilderness -- whether that is our own spiritual wilderness, or the financial wilderness we now find ourselves in. Do we trust that God will deliver us from death into life eternal?

Lots of people believe in God, or believe there is a God. The Israelites certainly believed God was there, but they had trust issues as they wandered through the desert. Belief in God, though, isn't the issue, and it never has been; the issue is whether or not we trust God. And if we trust God, then we can live into the demands and mystery that is his kingdom without having to control it.

Does this mean that we don't question or debate or argue with or even doubt God? Of course not. Those things are all part of a relationship from time to time, and as I've said before, Christianity is based on relationships. If you question or doubt God, does that show a lack of faith? Not at all. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the opposite of faith isn't doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.

It is our certainty that can lead us into idolization. We can become so certain of a thing that we become obsessed with it, and we can convince ourselves that it is this thing which saves. And when we do that, we have created for ourselves an idol, an image that replaces God. That idol removes us from the mystery of God into a mystery-less place of certainty that is our own making. It is a place not where we trust God, but a place where we trust ourselves, our own interpretations, our idols.

The people of Israel had been wandering in the desert for a long time, and they finally had had enough. So they cried out against Moses and God, "There is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food."

First of all, what's wrong with that statement? They had food, just not the food they wanted. They didn't trust that God's food was good enough. They wanted to control God, and isn't that how we see an idol -- as something we can control?

But God is uncontrollable; after all, he's not a tame lion. So God sent poisonous serpents to harass and kill the people. Older translations use the term "fiery serpents." Here's something interesting: "fiery" is the same word used for seraphim, those six-winged beings that attend to the Lord God in heaven. If we are tied up in our certainty, it might just be that we will be overcome by the awe and mysterious majesty that is God, and we run the risk of dying without hope.

But God is also compassionate. Not wanting to see his children die unnecessarily, he tells Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who looked on it would live. There's a bit of foolishness and irony for you. Look upon a bronze serpent after you've been bitten by a serpent and live.

But we want certainty. We want to be in control of things. And this desire, this obsession to have things all neat and tidy and under control leads to idolization. Eventually the people forgot to trust the mystery of God and began worshiping the pole itself. And this worship of the serpent pole lasted all the way into King Hezekiah's reign as recorded in 2 Kings.

People do the same thing today, I think. You dont' see it so much anymore, but there was a time when you couldn't turn on a sporting event without seeing some dude with a big sign that read, "JOHN 3:16."

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Have we gotten to the point where we idolize scripture passages? Do we see certain verses as neat and tidy because we've managed to control them with our correct interpretation? I worry that our mentality of certainty has allowed us to idolize the Bible. I worry that we have become so certain of ourselves that we are willing to condemn those who are different from us.

Lest we forget, the Bible is not a static document, sealed up for us to venerate and worship. The Bible is a reflection of the Living Word of God -- Jesus. It is our conversation partner. Instead of controlling it and idolizing it, we need to be in conversation with it, trusting that God will lead us where we need to go.

It's not a matter of believing in God, or even of believing in Jesus; it's a matter of trust. Do you trust God enough to allow him to lead you through the wilderness? Do you trust God enough to protect you from the fiery serpents and seraphim of his making? Do you trust God enough to participate in the mystery without having to have all the answers and without having to control it? And ultimately, do you trust God enough to lead you from death into life?

For God so loved the world that whosoever trusts him . . .


Robert Dene | 1:40 AM, March 23, 2009  

all assurance leads to certainty. I sense a little condemnatory tone in this piece that passes off certainty(let's just call them the "very" confident)
as idolatry... somewhere in fact in many places in that great book it cautions against throwing away "your confidence" don't get too caught up in things unseen and mysterious as a priest you ought to know that confidence is always a positive step and doesn't close you down but opens you up that is if it is true certainty and confidence!!!

Reverend Ref + | 10:24 AM, March 23, 2009  

Robert: I don't know about condemnatory as much as I was shooting for ... watchfulness, maybe.

Are there things I'm certain of? Of course. "In the sure and certain hope ..." I could run off a whole list.

And there are things of which I am confident.

Am I certain that Jesus will lead us through death into life? Yes.

Am I certain that by picking up that thing which kills us (the cross), we will find life? Yes.

What I was trying to get across (and maybe not so successful, based on your comment), is that we can be certain of those things, but we also need to trust God to lead us. Do we move our trust in God to a certainty in a thing? Have we become "certain" that it's the serpent on a pole or the Bible that saves? Have we misplaced trust in God for the certainty of an idol?

And that's where I was trying to go with it. But sometimes, those thoughts can get muddled and not come across very clearly.

Hope that helps.

Fred Preuss | 7:03 PM, March 30, 2009  

I don't trust people who don't exist.
God doesn't exist.
Ergo, I don't trust God.

Unless I can actually talk to you, and you talk to me, I have no proof that you exist.
Sorry, that's just the way I am.

Reverend Ref + | 7:17 PM, March 30, 2009  

Fred, no need to apologize. Just curious though . . . what motivates you to hang out on religious sites where God is such a visible aspect of them?

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