A reflection on Numbers 21:4-9
In my first quarter at seminary we were required to take a course in Early Church History. This class was taught by a renowned professor who was very erudite, whether preaching or teaching he always looked up toward the sky. He never looked you in the eye. The very first day of class, using slides and a slide projector, he took us, in one hour, through 50,000 years of religious history that occurred before the birth of Christ. Then he assigned our text book and told us that we would read it all and that our quizzes, which would be weekly, would include questions from the footnotes of the text book.
One of my tools for studying for that class was too make flash cards. I remember one night flipping through the cards trying to memorize the various early church theologians, who they were and what they did, and how they died. I did this out loud and Dan, sitting near me could hear, and when I got stuck on someone like St. Ignatius of Antioch, he’d provide the answer. It seems that 12 years of parochial school and done a fine job of teaching my husband what I was trying to learn in 12 weeks.
Around that same time in my formation for ordination I became interested in another Ignatius, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Born in Spain he lived in the 1500’s and is credited with authoring the spiritual discipline called the Ignatius Spiritual Exercises.
The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius created were designed for use by the ordinary person as well as by persons entering into a vowed religious order. The exercises are lead by a Spiritual Director who guides the directee through them over a period of four weeks, or longer. Essentially the Exercises assume that God and Satan are active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is to assist the individual in his or her ability to discern between good and evil aspects of life through a process of prayer, self examination, and discernment. There is a basic understanding that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time drawn away from God by distractions that cause broken relationships in the world. A principle aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is the examination of conscience. This examination becomes a part of daily living, a method for one to prayerfully review what one has said and done over the course of a day. It is a process for us to consider the ways we have been selfish, angry, hurtful, judgmental, prejudiced, and then the exercises help us make decisions about where to make amends and how to live the next day in a manner that serves our higher purposes and God’s desire for us.
Our scripture reading this morning points us in this same direction, an examination of conscience. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now. They are tired and complain bitterly of the plain old manna, the food God has provided to satiate their hunger. They want real food, with seasonings and spices like they had in Egypt. All of Lent we have been hearing stories from the Old Testament about the covenant God makes with God’s people – a covenant of faithfulness, land, and children with Abraham and Sarah, a covenant with Noah to never destroy the people again with devastation, a covenant with Moses of how to be in relationship, God with God’s people through the 10 Commandments. But today we hear a story that strains those covenants that God has made. Despite the covenants God has grown weary of these complaining angry people who fail to see their blessings and only see what, in their estimation, is lacking. God reacts with anger and a poisonous snake. The people are forced to take some time to stop and think about how they have behaved, how they have been thankless and bitter. In essence they are forced to do an examination of conscience. As a result they want to change their ways, to focus more on gratitude and a sense of being thankful for what they have. God responds in a curious way. God asks Moses to make a bronze serpent which God blesses. The bronze serpent, inspired by God, is a human made construct, made by human hands and then blessed by God. As such it becomes a source of healing for the people.
Lent is a season in which the Church offers us human made constructs that are both inspired by and blessed by God with the intention of growing us in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another. The season of Lent is designed to focus us carefully on the last days of Jesus and his journey to death and resurrection. Lent points us to spend time examining our consciences, to ponder the ways we are contributing to the brokenness in our lives and in our world and then taking the time to make amends. Making amends invites us into an opportunity for reconciliation and healing, of being made whole once again. That is one of the reasons we offer the anointing and prayers for healing in our Sunday services in Lent; this prayer time is an invitation to move from examining the ways we are broken and cause brokenness toward ways we can make amends and become whole. Becoming whole within ourselves we are then able to go out into the world, seeking and serving Christ, and being his hands and heart in the world.