The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, Christ Church, Alto & Trinity Church, Winchester

“The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you” (Num. 21:7).

When archaeologists excavate one of the ancient sites in the Middle East, they discover different strata of civilization. What’s uncovered reveals things about the people who’ve lived there: what kind of tools they used, what sort of goods they made, even the kinds of food they ate. Sometimes digging down into an ancient garbage dump can tell the most interesting story, since you can tell a lot about folks from the stuff they throw away. If the site is really ancient the story that’s uncovered can go all the way back to the very beginning of human settlement.

One thing is regularly discovered as a dig goes on: strata of history where there’s evidence of fire and destruction, of a conflict that disrupted life in that place. The ancient cities of that part of the world were plagued by battle and siege and a periodic irruption of violence. It’s still the same today: Damascus, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world, is the site right now of this same sort of conflict. When future archaeologists dig down and get to this layer they will know immediately that something bad happened. It seems like human history is punctuated in that way, and as we delve down into the earth we keep uncovering the evidence of sin and death.

Our first reading from the Book of Numbers points us toward a similar phenomenon in the history of the People of God, of a recurring theme that punctuates the relationship of God with ancient Israel. The last few Sundays we’ve heard how God made Covenant with the human race and all creation, then with the family of Abraham, and finally with the People of Israel. Covenant: the establishing of a relationship in which the trustworthy God promises to be faithful no matter what. In Covenant, God makes reliable promises to bless, preserve, and guide. The history of God’s relationship with his People is a history of Covenants made and kept.

As we dig down, however, into this history of relationship between God and humanity we keep coming up against other strata, darker periods that keep recurring. If you go back to the start of the sacred story you come up against Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the earliest rebellion and the first murder. From then on the pattern uncovered is God’s blessing followed by human sin, layers upon layers of turning away from God in the history of ancient Israel.

Our reading from Numbers is a case in point. The book is part of the chronicle of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt; it continues the story of liberation from slavery and the journey after the Exodus to the land that God had promised. It was not a short journey: there were years of wandering in the Wilderness as the People traveled toward their destination.

During the journey God was powerfully present, but this did not stop the People at each crucial point from turning away and departing from the path. We catch them in our reading this morning, wondering whether God can really provide for them; wondering whether God can really do what he promised. Even though he saved them from the Egyptian army they doubt whether he can preserve them now. As it says in our reading, “the people became impatient on the way” (Num. 21:4).

I wish I could tell you that this was the last time this happened in the history of Israel; the last time that the People doubted God and rebelled, but I can’t. Part of the story we dig into each Lent is a story of sin and repentance, the alternating strata of human history that punctuates the relationship of God and humanity. We dig into our own garbage dump each Lent, our own story of sin and death, to discover again our own need for repentance, for turning to God in hope of forgiveness and reconciliation. There’s stuff we need to throw out, and Lent is the time to do it.

“Jesus said, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’(Jo. 3:14-15). God is faithful, even when we are not, and he has sent his Son into the world to bring life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jo. 3:16). Lent is our time to dig down deep and discover the God who loves us.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee