The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Fayetteville, March 10, 2024

“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).

The season of Lent is forty days long: partly because of Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert, and partly because of the People of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Jesus’ forty day fast, of course, was itself rooted in the earlier forty-year experience of the People of Israel. However we figure it, there is a direct connection between our season of Lent and that forty-year-long time of testing in the wilderness.

As the story goes, the People spent forty years in exile because of their disobedience. Moses went up the mountain to fetch the ten commandments; no sooner was he out of sight than the People asked Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship. When Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness, he was reversing the course of Israel’s disobedience. When Jesus is tempted to worship the devil, he tells him, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matt. 4:10). In confuting the devil, Jesus is quoting the same commandments that Moses went up the mountain to receive. He’s dealing with the same temptation that faced the People, but this time rising to the occasion.

Disobedience and strife didn’t stop during the forty years of exile. The golden calf was only the beginning! Our first reading, from Numbers, tells part of the story. “From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way” (Num. 21:4). Just like before, when they asked Aaron to make the image, they forgot what God had done for them and sat down to complain. “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Num. 21:5), the People tell Moses. In response, God not only afflicts them with poisonous serpents, but also provides the remedy. By the prayer of Moses, and the lifting up of the image of a serpent, the People are delivered.

There’s a pattern of disobedience and deliverance that runs throughout these stories of exile in the desert. The People complain that there is not enough food, and God gives them manna (Ex. 16:2); when they don’t care for the manna, we see what happens in our reading today. There’s not enough water, and God tells Moses to strike the rock until water gushes out; but the end result is that not even Moses will enter the land of promise (Num. 20:12). The People rebel against Moses’ leadership, and the rebellion is destroyed, but the People are preserved in spite of themselves (Num. 16:22).

Jesus returns to this pattern of disobedience and deliverance in our Gospel today. “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). It’s one of those times when Jesus connects the dots between the pattern we see in the Old Testament, and the meaning of his own ministry. These connections are present throughout his ministry, but rarely does he make them as explicit as he makes them in our reading today.

The pattern is present even when it’s unspoken. When Jesus feeds the multitudes, he’s recasting and updating the drama of God’s miraculous provision of food in the wilderness; when Jesus teaches on the mountain, he’s recreating the moment when Moses gave the People the law. The relationship between the testaments is not just literary, but actual. In other words, what existed in the past as promise is now really fulfilled in Jesus Christ himself. What was merely a sign of things to come is now present in its full reality through him.

It’s this connection that Jesus makes in our reading. “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). The “lifting up” of the serpent is a sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection, prefiguring the reality that was still over the horizon: his suspension on the cross and his raising from the dead. Jesus is lifted up so that all who believe in him may have eternal life, as he says in our gospel.

In short, what was foreshadowed in the fiery serpent was fulfilled in Jesus Christ himself, and is now available to all who look to him. He’s the focus of our faith, for all who believe in him. What Jesus summed up in himself is now communicated to us. He’s the new Moses, by whom grace and mercy are extended to us. He is himself the “bread from heaven” (Ps. 78:24), “the true bread which gives life to the world.”

In Lent, we’re mindful of the pattern of our disobedience and God’s deliverance that is present in each of us. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy suggests that it’s through ““self-examination and repentance… prayer, fasting, and self-denial… reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” that we are assimilated to Christ. Each act of communion, and each remembrance of our baptism, brings us closer to God. Grace, God’s power and presence in our lives, is given to us to transform us, and to lift us up with him.

I love that while Jesus is connecting the dots, he makes his meaning plain in the very next verse. “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. 3:15). Disobedience and deliverance, brought together in one verse. And as Jesus puts it plainly for us, all who look to him will be saved.

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