“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8
Even if you are not a huge football fan, you have to admit the way this season unfolded for the Eagles gave the city of Philadelphia and its surroundings a boost in morale. Finally, after years of mediocrity punctuated by just enough seasons where they were good and close enough to the prize to make it really hurt, they not only went to the Big Game, but with their backup quarterback (and facing the dynasty also known as the Patriots), they won it!
And although there are several storylines of their journey that found their way into many pulpits (including the Providential selection of Isaiah 40:31 as an appointed scripture reading for Super Bowl Sunday), the more important lesson to learn from this shared roller coaster ride of emotions is, “Now what?”
Let’s face it. In this region we are used to shifting gears from excitement to disappointment to resignation, and finally to philosophical musings. We’ve gotten comfortable over the years coming to terms with something less than the happiest of endings. But actually winning the Big One – this is new territory. Even in the movies, when stuff like this happens, they roll the credits. What comes after the initial victory that is transferable to the Game of Life once the grease is off the light poles and the parade is over?
The scripture passages for the fourth Sunday of Lent hang together in a way that provides perspective on our life circumstances in all seasons:
Psalm 107 is arguably the most dramatic of the readings. It is a psalm of thanksgiving, giving voice to individuals who know the saving grace of God first-hand and have a story to tell. One was lost in the wilderness with no food or water. Another was in prison, sentenced to hard labor, at the end of his strength, and no one cared. A third was suffering illness so severely as not to be able to eat or drink, and was near death. A fourth was on the high seas in the midst of a storm so rough they felt the water was tossing the boat into the heavens one second and pulling it to the ocean floor the next.
In each case, whether their plight had been the result of their own doing or not, at the pivotal moment they cried to God and were delivered. The wanderer was led to an inhabited town, the prisoner was freed, the infirmed was healed, and the seas were calmed. Having lived to tell the story, each has come to the sanctuary to bear witness and give thanks to God.
The Old Testament reading from Numbers 21:4-9 probably reminds us of people we see every day, maybe even the one we see in the mirror. Like those who gave their testimony in Psalm 107, the people of Israel have reason to give thanks. Less than 40 years removed from some of God’s most miraculous acts of salvation on their behalf and fresh on the heels of yet another prayed-for victory, their thanksgiving was short or rote at best.
Their complaints of, “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,” are not new to their weary leader Moses. In the past, the people complained to Moses, and he complained to God about them. And whether through the provision of manna on the grass each morning, quail so abundant they were sick of it after a couple days, or water flowing from a rock, God responded to their questions of, “What have you done for me lately?” remarkably.
This time, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and many Israelites died through the serpents bites. When the people acknowledged their sinful lack of gratitude and Moses interceded in prayer on their behalf, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze, wrap it around a pole, and lift it up so that anyone bitten by a serpent could look at it and be healed.
The epistle reading from the first ten verses of Ephesians 2 relates Paul’s counsel to a congregation like many today. It is welcoming of the new believer still awestruck from dramatic salvation encounters reminiscent of those in Psalm 107. It is also the home of those who grew up in a household of faith, or were so seasoned in their identity as Christians they had begun to think of those out of the church as different from themselves.
Paul reminds them they “were (as) dead in the trespasses and sins” as those not in the church. Not only were they (and we) like them, but it is only by God’s grace and love that, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together in Christ.” (v.5) Knowing it is one thing to recognize a need for God when we are in trouble, and quite another when we believe ourselves to be pretty decent church-folk, Paul makes it clear in verses 8 and 9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Boom! Drop the mic!
In my experience, most of my encounters with the serpent have been less about being bitten and more about being seduced to eat the fruit offered. Namely, I am more likely to rationalize any choice that is not in total obedience to God as no big thing, not hurting anyone, or a small “oops” in an otherwise good life. In so doing, I find myself negating the truth of the gospel for myself and others. My good works are not good enough, and pretending they are, and projecting a worldview based on that premise for others, is a recipe for death of the soul.
Like winning a Super Bowl, we may reach a moment when we believe we have done everything right and have won the Game of Life, but those moments are not sustainable forever.
The gospel reading from John 3 provides perspective for everyone seeking a victorious life: “God so loved the world that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And even that belief is a gift from God. Only by looking to the Son of Man who was lifted up, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v. 14) will we find healing.
May this Lent deepen our faith, our gratitude, and our invitation to others to embrace it in every season of life.