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Tuesday, Fifth Week of Lent

March 27, 2007

Blessed Tuesday!

Readings:
Numbers 21:4-9 (the story of the bronze serpent)
Psalm 102:2-21 “O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to You”
+John 8:21-30 (we must believe in Jesus to be saved)

There is a silent, invisible killer among us. What’s worse, we may not
even know we’re dead until we meet with the second death, from which
there is no resurrection. The Good News is that God’s able and eager to
equip us with the ability to detect and to thwart this evil.
The unpleasant news is that the process hurts.

This is what happened during the Exodus, many times over. In today’s
reading, the Israelites, almost within sight of their goal, have fallen
prey to impatience once again. Despite the fact that God has powerfully
delivered them from cruel slavery (Exodus 7-14), made bitter water
drinkable (Exodus 15:22), given them bread from heaven (Exodus
16:13-15), fed them with quail twice (Exodus 16:13, Numbers 11:31),
provided water from the rock (Exodus 17:6), given them the Law (Exodus
20) and a magnificent expression of worship (Exodus 25-31) and forgiven
them repeatedly (Exodus 32:14, Numbers 14:20, etc.), all they can see is
their present discomfort. They’re sick of manna and thirst and
wandering in the desert. They rue the day anyone ever talked them into
leaving Egypt. Far from being grateful for the incredible blessings
God’s given them, they complain about those very blessings!
They’re pining for slavery! They have been bitten by the
ancient serpent, the devil, and his venom has killed their relationship
with God. They are spiritually dead. And they don’t even know it.

This is where the mercy of God steps in. He sees exactly what’s
happened, knows that they need help detecting the silent killer among
them, and sends a visible sign. Seraph serpents come into the camp and
begin to bite the people. The pain from their bite is fiery, like the
flames of hell, and deadly, like the poison of the devil. It awakens
the people to recognize the more deadly wound of sin, into which they’ve
fallen, to repent, and to plead for help. They ask that God would take
the serpents away, but God has a better plan. If He took the serpents
away, the people would forget again. They still needed this visible
reminder of the horror of sin. Instead, He told Moses to make a bronze
serpent and raise it up (possibly on the sort of pole from which a
banner is hung, which would be in the shape of a cross). Anyone who
looked at the bronze serpent was healed.

That bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. We have
been blessed even more than the Israelites, for God has walked among us
in the flesh. He has powerfully delivered us from the slavery of sin
(John 8:34-36) through the waters of Baptism, fulfilled the Law and the
Prophets (Matthew 5:17), forgiven us through the Sacrament of Confession
(John 20:22-23), called us friends (John 15:15), given us His very own
Body to eat (Matthew 26:26) and given us a Church in which offer Him
fitting worship (Matthew 16:18). Yet we complain. Life doesn’t go the
way we want it to, and that’s all we can see. We’re tired of being told
what we should and shouldn’t do. The Eucharist (foreshadowed by the
manna) has become boring. We want to go back to Egypt. The slavery of
sin is looking all too inviting. We, too, have been bitten by the
ancient serpent. His poison is turning our hearts away from the One who
is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
We are in grave danger of death.

In response, God lifts up the cross:

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
(John 3:14-15).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns His unbelieving audience that they will
die in their sins unless they come to believe in Him. When they ask who
He is, He replies, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will
realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on My own, but I say only what
the Father taught Me” (John 8:28). “I AM” is the name by which God
revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), and when
Jesus explains that He says only what the Father teaches Him, He
confirms His identity as the Word Who was with God from the beginning
and Who is God (John 1:1).

On the cross, then, we come face to face with the horror of sin. The
silent, invisible killer is exposed in all its gruesomeness. What sin
has done to Christ on the cross, to God Incarnate, it has done to our
souls, which are battered and bloodied with wounds we cannot see.
Unless we turn our lives around and come to believe in Him, we will die
in that condition and suffer the second death, which is the pool of fire
(Revelation 20:14), from which there is no escape (Revelation 20:10).

At the same time, we come face to face with our salvation. Anyone who
looks upon the crucifix with faith and conversion (i.e., who follows up
on this look with an active rejection of sin) will be saved. God does
not prevent us from sinning nor exempt us from temptation, as much as we
might like and/or ask Him to (although He and all the hosts of heaven do
fight for us when we cry for help). The serpents are still among us.
But as we learn to recognize these serpents and to learn their habits,
we become better at avoiding them (also known as avoiding near occasions
of sin) and fighting them off. And the closer we stay to the crucifix,
the more quickly we will come to repentance and Confession, through
which we will be healed of each wound they do manage to inflict.

May we who have lifted up the Son of Man on the cross,
now lift Him higher with praise and thanksgiving,
giving Him glory by courageously living the new, holy life
that He has won for us.

May God bless your fight against the ancient serpent.

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