Weekly Seeds: Choices, Choices

Sunday, March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
Covenant Choose to Give Thanks

Focus Prayer:
Steadfast God, you reach out to us in mercy even when we reel against your holy call and prefer to walk in disobedience rather than in the way of your divine truth. Soften our hearts with the warmth of your love, that we may know your Son alive within us, redeeming us and raising us up into your eternal presence. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Exodus 20:1–17
Numbers 21:4–9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. 
Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22
         O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; 
    for his steadfast love endures forever. 
    2      Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, 
    those he redeemed from trouble 
    3      and gathered in from the lands, 
    from the east and from the west, 
    from the north and from the south.
    17      Some were sick through their sinful ways, 
    and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 
    18      they loathed any kind of food, 
    and they drew near to the gates of death. 
    19      Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, 
    and he saved them from their distress; 
    20      he sent out his word and healed them, 
    and delivered them from destruction. 
    21      Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, 
    for his wonderful works to humankind. 
    22      And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, 
    and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. 
All readings for this Sunday:
Numbers 21:4–9
Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22
Ephesians 2:1–10
John 3:14–21

Focus Questions:
1. What reminds you of God’s grace?
2. What are the ways we chose our faith?
3. How important are tangible reminders?
4. How do you practice gratitude?
5. How do gratitude and grace intersect?

By Cheryl Lindsay

There is a choice. We have the ability to choose even in the midst of  uncertainty and limited resources. Even when we don’t have full control, we frame our own narrative. We determine our own attitude, and we dictate our behaviors.  Our choices belong to us, and we bear responsibility for the impact of our decisions.

The Book of Numbers, which is also known in the Hebrew Bible as “in the wilderness,” reflects a people who have been confronted with the choice of how they should live, who they should serve, and what is their perspective given a life marked by profound uncertainty. Other than the Book of Genesis, The works of the Pentateuch largely document the same adventure but from different perspectives. In Numbers, as Karl Jacobson notes, we receive:
The story of the nation of Israel from its first encounter with God at Mount Sinai (see Lev. 27:34), to the final instructions given by God to Moses on the plains of Moab at the banks of the Jordan opposite Jericho: the “beachhead” of Israel’s entry into the promised land (see Joshua 2). “Numbers” is an appropriate title for the work in the sense that Israel is counted in its entirety (both the eleven lay tribes and the Levites) not only once, but twice. “In the Wilderness” is equally fitting—and perhaps more so—in that the bulk of the book’s material takes place in this particular physical landscape.
So we can see the book of numbers as one that focuses on the genealogy  of a Nation that’s being formed as well as the spiritual journey that takes place within the context of wilderness.  Jacobsen also reminds us that context extends beyond the physical to the spiritual reality. The people take a path that has not been charted before. This framing helps us to identify with the people who are living in ways and a place without a roadmap to guide them. Their help comes from the God who maps out the journey even as they’re taking it.  They’ve been enlisted as map makers, but that’s probably not how they see themselves.

In this portion of Numbers, we see a people who have taken to complaining about their circumstances. They are not happy with their leadership, with their provisions, or with their God, and they are not afraid to express their dissatisfaction. Jacobson draws a distinct comparison between the perspectives upon this response found in Exodus and in Numbers:
The complaints of Israel are, in the book of Exodus, “treated as legitimate needs: the people need water (Exod. 15:22–26), the people need food (Exodus 16), and the people again need water (Exod. 17:1–7). In each case God takes the complaints seriously and fulfills the needs of the Israelites.” But in Numbers, the complaints are portrayed as signs of Israel’s lack of trust, a prelude of sorts to the episode of the spies sent into the promised land, which follows shortly (13:25–14:12). The initial response of God to the complaining of the Israelites is not provision, but pyrotechnics, “Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying part of the camp” (11:2).
In Exodus, which emphasizes the journey, the author focuses on the miracles performed by the God of Provision, which includes sending manna from heaven to meet the physical needs of weary sojourners on a rough road. In Numbers, the emphasis is on the formation of the people who don’t appreciate the gift of God and gripe about the menu. 

What is our response to the gift from God to meet our needs in times of uncertainty?
Is it enough to be kept in the wilderness? Or, are we too busy complaining about the conditions of our stay to recognize that we are fed, led, and secure?

Is the same impulse that prompted the wilderness people to complain about the details of their deliverance also at work in those who resist continuing with safety measures to combat a global pandemic? The efficacy of mask wearing and physical distancing are no longer in doubt among scientist and public health experts, yet individuals and government leaders across the country still resist these precautions and make decisions that jeopardize their communities. Even the increasing levels of vaccinations delivered and to come only seem to escalate the objections to doing what is best for the common good. 

Why is it so hard to make it through the wilderness…even when our needs are met, our path secured (if uncertain), and our God abiding with us? 

In the congregation I pastor, we have been focused on gratitude (book study)  as well as covenant (worship) during the season of Lent. At the heart of both lie a commitment to a grace-filled life and continual acts of choosing. Covenant is an agreement of relationship that requires choosing that relationship, through grace, over and over again. Gratitude is often choosing a perspective that cultivates appreciation over complaint.

The Exodus narrative is essential because needs are important and valuable. We need only look to the Psalms, Jeremiah, and the cross of Jesus to remember the power of lament in a faithful life. Numbers illustrates the distinction between lament, petition, and complaint:
One may well wonder if what Numbers is doing is outlining the kind of complaining that is neither true nor faithful. The tension in these stories of complaint is critical: the people have been freed from slavery, met by God, ordered, mustered, and led to the promised land. And in the face of all of this, they are not satisfied, and will not trust. The modern reader does well at this point to follow Paul’s lead and take from these stories of complaint a warning, and a lead. What is enough for us? (Karl Jacobson)
In this journey, the wilderness people have limited choices. They were freed from captivity. At the same time, their lives still do not reflect their own choosing. The generation that escaped captivity forgot how they longed for this new freedom and clung to the memory of the certainty that this new life lacked. In the midst of a difficult transition, how often do we romanticize the past rather than hope and dream for a better future? How readily do we ignore the blessings in favor of dwelling on our sacrifice?

Again, there is a place for lament that responds to tragedy and human suffering. COVID-19, for one, has offered many reasons to lament–to cry out to God in the face of overwhelming grief and despair. It’s hard to argue that wearing a mask is one of them. There were legitimate reasons for despair for the wilderness people as well, but tiring of their supply of daily bread was not one of them. 

The uncertainty of wilderness journey called the generations to turn to their God, in trust, in faith, and in hope. Anastasia Boniface-Malle reminds us that:
In the book of Numbers, we witness the desert generations struggle with the transition from one way of life to another and with the transmission of their experience to the next generation. We see the possibilities and problems in the passing on of faith and how God and people played their parts.
Transitions do not come easily. They push us to grow. They challenge our expectations and often counter our experiences. Transitions, however, do offer a choice…which is so often framed by our expectations. In response to their complaints, God sends poisonous serpents. Throughout the biblical narrative, serpents and snakes are used allegorically.  Variously, they represent separation from God, idolatry, and death. At the same time, in this passage, the bronze serpent given by God offers life. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz explains that the use of a created serpent model would have signified a curative to the people of the time and that while the snake/serpent allegories in the Bible point primarily to physical and spiritual death, snakes have also represented healing. The use of a bronze snake at God’s direction provides the antidote. 

I once served as the program chair of a major fundraiser. My responsibility was to script the program and to communicate with the unscripted dignitaries who would have their turn at the microphone. I was brought on board to help shorten the program from previous years. We knew that a prominent elected leader would be on the program and had a tendency to take all the time he wanted. I recommended that the organization leadership and I meet with him to discuss his participation in the program. When asked what I hoped to get out of that meeting by the leadership, I simply said, “We will make the problem the solution.” In our conversation, I let the other leadership talk about fundraising goals and other considerations, but I directly confronted the problem. I didn’t ask him to limit his remarks. I told him that we wanted to limit the length of the program. He then asked how long he had to speak. We gave him seven minutes. He took five and some of that time to encourage others to be as brief and succinct. Not only did he respond favorably, he set the tone for every other speaker to follow. 

What happens when we instead turn the solution into the problem? When we live with such dissatisfied lives that there’s no room for gratitude? When the constant need for consumption or persistent state of discontent stifles a life of gratitude? What community do we form when our concern for real human suffering and tragedy is preempted by our complaints about temporary inconvenience? 

Our focus passage this week is a cautionary tale, but it ultimately provides a choice. In responding to their plea for mercy, God does not remove the danger; God delivers an antidote–a way to counter the problem. The bronze serpent represents choosing to trust in what God is creating, what God is doing, and how God is moving. The antidote does not negate their real concerns, it reminds them of the God who addresses them. God does not take them out of the wilderness; God invites them to become people of the wilderness…living a “life ordered by God, among a people marshaled by God, in a land created for this people by the promise of God.” (Jacobson) It’s their choice…and ours.

For further reflection:
‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.” — Alice Walker
If one sees self-sufficiency and individualism as highly valuable traits, feeling grateful can be perceived as uncomfortable, weak, and perhaps demeaning.” — Diana Butler Bass
Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” — Karl Barth

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.