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There's a Code for That

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Mar 25

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-16

The bronze serpent lifted high in the desert, and Jesus, the center of our faith. Our Lenten theme for these six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter is “From Wilderness to Community.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how we get from one to the other. What is it that rescues us from the desolation and danger of our lives and leads us into the life-giving vitality of true community?

The saga from the biblical book of Numbers is an interesting one. I especially love the verse about the congregation complaining. I can tell you that I avoided that text like the plague when I was serving a congregation in the midst of conflict.  “And the whole congregation complained.” It hit a little too close to home, especially when there are a predictable few in the congregation who were complaining, mostly about me. If you skim through the story of the people in the wilderness, you’ll find that the people complain not just once, but quite a few times – and usually about the food, or lack thereof.

But first, an observation: after Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they end up in the wilderness of Sinai, where the build the Tabernacle. When it’s time to bring an offering to the new Tabernacle, the first to arrive is Nahshon, son of Amminadab, the leader of the people of Judah. He’s the one who had walked into the Reed Sea until he was up to his nose – it was then that the sea parted, and the people were able to walk through on dry land.  His name means “stormy sea-waves.” Now, I don’t know much Hebrew at all, but I do know that it’s the consonants that matter … Notice that this man’s name has N H Sh. For his courage, Nahshon is chosen to be the first to present an offering in the new Tabernacle in the wilderness.

Back to the people -- they set out into the wilderness, and they’re complaining again in the 11th chapter of Numbers. There’s some internal squabbling between Miriam and Aaron and Moses, and then in the second year after their escape from Egypt, they get close to their destination. Ahead of them, they send scouts, who find that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey.  However, they’re not ready to enter the land. 

Ron Heifetz likes to point out that the Hebrew people did not wander for 40 years because they were lost in the wilderness. It’s not that they didn’t know where they were going – they knew exactly where they were, but the leadership determined that they weren’t ready to enter into the Promised Land. Heifetz says that they embarked on a “40-year leadership development plan”. 

Well, in Numbers 14, the people are complaining again.  And they’re still complaining in Numbers 16, when God gets annoyed and angry enough to send a plague. Moses stands between the dead and the living and the plague stops. Many years later, Miriam dies, and then in Numbers 20, the people complain again – of thirst this time, and Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock, and the rock brings forth water. Now in the 40th year of their wandering, Aaron dies, and then in the 21st chapter, down to one leader, they start complaining again.

By now, they’re journeying to the Reed Sea – going around the land of Edom, which we know as the country Jordan today -- since the Edomites refused to let them travel through their land. They had to travel through the Arnon desert, which is reported to be a stony, sandy, almost totally barren land between two mountain walls. It was a route called the “Way of the Wilderness” and it was particularly subject to fierce sandstorms. A real desert’s desert. You can imagine it, can’t you?  Feeling the sand being whipped against your legs, the dust blowing into your eyes, and the grit in your mouth? They were totally miserable – no food, no water – definitely complaining. This time, as if they hadn’t suffered enough, God sends poisonous serpents to attack them, and the people are dying all around them.

So here’s your next Hebrew word of the day: serpent -- nahash – note that it’s the same Hebrew letters N H Sh. The people realize that they shouldn’t speak against God and so they apologize to Moses who prays to God. And God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole so that anyone who is bitten by a serpent could look at it and live. Care to guess what the Hebrew word for bronze is?  Nehoshet … N H Sh again.  So a bronze serpent is n’hash n’hoshet.  It’s a play on words that gets lost in translation. 

This bronze serpent gets mentioned again in the Bible … a few books later.  In 2 Kings 18, we read that King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent.  So how long did they have it?  Well, if the Exodus is dated sometime around the 15th century BCE, and King Hezekiah reigned in the 8th century, then we’re talking about 700 years … which is a long time, for a piece of bronze.  For 700 years, that bronze serpent, that n’hash n’hoshet, endured.  A powerful symbol that stuck.  A real, solid, tangible, bronze serpent.

Why do you think?  When the people were at their worst point, starving, miserable, attacked -- Moses crafted a symbol for them, and lifted it high so that all could see it.  Instead of avoiding it, rather than running from it, their leader encouraged them to look right at the very thing they were afraid of.  If someone were bitten by a serpent, as long as they looked at the bronze serpent, they survived.  And not long thereafter, they finally made it into the Promised Land.  So often we try to look beyond our troubles, ignore our fears.  Moses says that the key to our survival is to look right at that which frightens us.

Remember that when the Hebrew people first arrived at the border of the Promised Land, the scouts went ahead into Canaan and looked around for 40 days.  They saw the lush vegetation, the fields, the fruit that was plentiful.  And yet they were afraid – that the people weren’t ready.  And so they reported back that there were strong people there, and large fortified cities.  They needed a strong community and they didn’t have it yet.  Building community takes hard work – sometimes it takes a generation: time to learn, time to grow, time to develop traditions that are their very own, not just the traditions that came from their Egyptian slavemasters.

It wasn’t until the 39th year, when the old warriors had died, and new leadership had emerged, that the people were free to enter the Promised Land.  And they brought that bronze serpent with them. A symbol – something that reminded them of a fundamental truth, that you can’t hide from your fears, that faith in your survival can save you, that the power of community can overcome those fears. I wonder how much of the saving power of the serpent was about the serpent itself, and how much was about having a common symbol that reminded them of their shared experience.

The gospel of John says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  What?  Jesus is a poisonous serpent?  Jesus is what we’re afraid of?  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent?  The analogy doesn’t make sense to me.  The serpent lifted up on the pole resembling Jesus lifted high on the cross?  The serpent will be killed and will rise on the third day?  That doesn’t work either.

Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place – maybe it’s not so much about the serpent as it is about the looking – in the space between the afflicted person and the object, we find the power of a relationship.  Maybe what this symbolizes is the courage to face our fears.  The people look at the serpent and know that God loves them – and that love saves them from death. 

It’s a bit cryptic, I’d say.  Symbols are helpful in uniting people around common beliefs, shared experiences.  Christians don’t wear a yarmulke like Jewish men wear, or a hijab, like Muslim women wear.  Here in the congregational church, our clergy don’t typically wear a collar like our Catholic and Episcopal colleagues.  Sometimes we’ll wear a cross.

Christianity is full of symbols: symbols with meanings that are obvious and other symbols with meanings that are obscure.  Perhaps the oldest Christian symbol is the fish.  In the days when Christians feared for their lives, they kept their faith secret.  In order to connect with other Christians, they had to be very careful.  They would take a stick, and doodle a bit with it in the sand, drawing an arc – and if the other person drew another arc – the other half of the outline of a fish, they would know they had found a fellow Christian. 

Why a fish?  We lose a bit in this translation too, because the Greek word for fish is icqus, and those five letters came to stand for an acrostic phrase, where each letter is the first letter of another word: i – iota -- for Ihsous, Jesus, c – chi - for Cristos, Christ, q – theta -- for qeos, God’s, u – upsilon - for Uios, Son and s – sigma -- for Soter, Savior.  It would be like if we took the letters of “FISH” and agreed that they stood for the words “Friends in Sacred Houses” or something like that.

In the first three centuries of Christianity, the icqus, the fish held this secret meaning, helping Christians to identify each other, keeping them safe in era of persecution.  It was a secret code, known to those who were “in the club” and shared only with those they trusted.  They followed Jesus Christ – who stood up with courage against the powers of the world – with Jesus, they were able to look right at the very thing that frightened them the most. 

Fast forward to 20th century and another Christian code.  Do you remember the guy who would show up at sporting events in the 80s holding a John 3:16 sign?  He seemed to pop up everywhere -- behind the goalposts at a football game, at the Olympics, political conventions (both parties), the Indy 500, and even a royal wedding.  He was holding the sign to draw attention to Christianity.  No need to keep it a secret – it was actually the opposite.  Get people to notice it and ask about it, and hopefully go from there to learn more about our faith.

Now, much more recently, we have Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos apparently soon-to-be former quarterback.  In college, he wrote “John 3:16” on the black paint under his eyes.  Within the next 24 hours, there were millions google searches for the Bible verse.  Another game and another Bible verse brought millions more searches.  This practice was banned by the NCAA and the NFL, but some would say that God’s message couldn’t be silenced.  They like to point out that in the recent NFL playoffs, Tebow passed for 316 yards against the Steelers, and set an NFL playoff record with 31.6 yards per completion.  It’s all code for a Bible verse.  I remember memorizing it in 2nd grade.  “For God so loved the world …”

So how do we get from the secret fish code to the somewhat cryptic, but publicly visible John 3:16?  And how do we use those codes?  The fish was used to identify others who are already in the club, while the John 3:16 signs are meant to spread the good news to those who might not yet be in the club.  One looks inward in a time of fear, while the other looks outward, seeking to build community.  I wonder at times whether our symbols are too cryptic.  Karen Anne had a good point at annual meeting when she said that she had heard that this church was “Open & Affirming” – and she felt that the label had fit her experience.  However, she later found out that it was “code” for our acceptance of people of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. 

What happens when our codes aren’t explained?  Just last week, a newcomer asked about “Spiritual Formation” – what that meant.  When we talk about the journey from infancy to Christian faith – like when we bless Maddie today, and officially welcome her into our community of faith – we believe that the journey doesn’t end with a teenage choice to be baptized or confirmed.  There is more room for growth.   It’s not so much education – once we learn it we’re done – but rather ongoing spiritual formation for adults and people of all ages.

I’m sure there are other concepts and acronyms that sound like “code” to newcomers.  In the United Church of Christ, we have an abundance of these: OGHS, OCWM, ONA, even UCC itself. We talk about the narthex or stewardship, or Maundy Thursday.  And we likely don’t explain them well, or often enough.

I look out at all of you, and I see many people who are new to the congregation, along with many who have been here many years.  If we forget that the purpose of our codes and symbols is to build community, then we will find ourselves back in the wilderness.  If we forget to tell the stories and decrypt the codes, then the meaning will become lost in translation. 

Holy Week is a time rich in Christian codes and symbolism.  In these next two weeks especially, may we continue our journey toward wholeness, and find ourselves in the lush, life-giving Promised Land of community that is genuine and deep, “daring to love, because we have been loved.”  May that community empower us to look at the things that frighten us, and find the courage to grow together into a strong, committed, and generous people of faith. Amen!

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