We human beings do not wait very well. Have you noticed that? Computer chips operate at billions of cycles per second, and we continue to want something that runs just a little faster. We pre-order books and movies and i-pads, order tickets online, take the “shortcut” to wherever we are going. Time, it seems, is something over which we want control.
Our ancestors did the same thing in their own way and time. Like us, or even more so, the Israelites are exhausted. They have been trying to find a safe way passage through the desert; instead of safety, they find skirmishes and disagreements along the way. Is there not a safe way through the desert? Impatient, they complain bitterly. “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” We don’t like manna, you see, even though God gives it to us. We would rather have the food of our choice. We stand in front of the refrigerator and say the same thing: “there’s nothing in here to eat!” even when there is plenty of food in plain sight. “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” We do not like many of the things that God gives us. (Do you hear our arrogance? We do not like what God gives us!)
God hears the people of Israel, and God sends poisonous snakes to them. Sometimes God’s answer to our impatient whining is a resounding “NO.” It is not we who are in charge. God is always in charge. We respond as people do. The Israelites ask Moses to pray, and to pray in a very specific way: “pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
God is merciful and so God gives Moses a way to save the people from the snakes. Notice that God does not remove the snakes. God chooses not to eliminate that which gives us problems. Instead, God gives us ways to live through that which plagues us, a way to get past the present calamity. The serpents remain, and the people are given a way to live. A serpent of bronze is put on a pole and when people are bitten – notice “when” people are bitten, not “IF” – the people can look at the bronze serpent and live. How interesting that we can look at our very problem and live.
If only it weren’t a snake. Snakes are problematic for us because so many of us are afraid – terrified! – of them (me included). In a 1999 Harris poll, 40% of Americans said that snakes are THE thing that they fear the most. We fear snakes more than we fear public speaking and spiders. Snakes for us symbolize fear. We have a cultural difference here with the people of Israel. For the most part, snakes for the Israelites symbolize life and fertility. It is a new twist for them when the serpent in the Garden of Eden is cunning and tricks Eve and Adam. Their perspective is totally different from ours and now, from their own. In this desert place, snakes bring death. From the expectation that snakes bring life, what was life-giving now brings poison and death. With a total change in perspective, God brings life back to the people. We are given a way to live, to be healed from our troubles, to look beyond the present situation … to turn to God. God turns our worldview upside down and gives us a way to continue to choose life.
Here we are then, in this waiting time of Lent. We are being called to turn around our hearts and our lives. The world around us, though is not waiting at all. Nature, it seems, is on fast forward. The azaleas are in full bloom and just a little past, the birds have built nests; the weeds, if we let them, might take over our yards. Nature, it seems, has discovered Easter. Must we stay in Lent? How do we do that when beauty and growth beckon to us, call us literally outside?
We remember that we are called to a holy Lent, a time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Part of the message of Lent is that sometimes discipline is hard. Being a committed Christian takes effort on our part. We live in that Pauline sense of being in the world and not of it, of recognizing certain seasons even though they do not match up with what is going in around us. Turning around is hard work; we are those stubborn people who detest the food that God has given us. Our time might not match up with nature, let alone with popular culture.
Not everything has galloped ahead to Easter, in nature or in ourselves. Bird nests wait for new life to fill them. The ground is not quite warm enough to sustain tender new plants. Some of what we see now is the hardy stock, the showy beauty of things that have lived through desert time before. This beautiful display of nature is but a flash, a little encouragement, if you will, for other, more difficult times. We, too, need this time of waiting, this Lenten time of intentional quiet, of prayer and unseen growth.
Lent is not as unrelenting as the desert. We celebrate Sunday as an intentional time of respite. Each Sunday is a “little Easter,” a time that we celebrate the resurrected Christ. In that light, every Sunday is a feast day, a celebration. So important is the resurrection to our life that we do not abandon it for Lent. Sundays are at the same time holy and joyful. The resurrection is that important to our life. We are reminded that it is the resurrection that gives us new life. God does not abandon us.
This particular Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is called “Laetare Sunday,” from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” This Sunday is a time when some traditions recognize the new Jerusalem of Isaiah 66:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory.” (Isaiah 66:10-11)
This passage is an expression of deep hope to a people in desperate need of such hope. Today, “Laetare,” rejoice Sunday is also called “mothering” Sunday. We have an image of the new Jerusalem as a mother, one who provides abundantly to her children. God provides abundance for us (even when we do not like it). We rejoice today, give ourselves some encouragement to hold on a little longer with our Lenten disciplines. We will be provided for; rejoice, rejoice.
Continue, friends, our Lenten journey. Remember that God gives us whatever it is that we need. It does not matter whether or not we like what we are given; we are given, food, sustenance, abundance, and God’s Son. God is in charge. The world happens on God’s time. Let go and rejoice! Pray, study; seek God. Along the way, take time to enjoy the beauty that God provides. Allow God’s extravagant beauty to sustain us, always. Persevere and be faithful. Let your mind, body, and spirit prepare for the new life that is sure to come.