March 18, 2012 “ 4 Lent B
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Step One of the Twelve Steps says: We admitted we were powerless over whatever it may be “ that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two says: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The people of Israel are traveling through the wilderness. They have been rescued by God and saved from many dangers. They have been sustained by food seemingly falling from heaven. But their daily work is still hard and they are complaining again as we pick up the journey in the Old Testament lesson. Now they come upon poisonous snakes and are at the end of their rope. This is too much, the last straw. Now life has become totally unmanageable. They realize they simply cannot bear anymore. They come to Moses and ask for help. Moses, inspired by God, comes up with the idea of constructing a bronze staff with the image of a poisonous snake. When those who have been bitten by the serpents look at the image on the staff, they will be healed.
The gospel lesson echoes this. 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. We are now so familiar with the healing effect of gazing at the cross, but to look at the cross for hope is as counter-intuitive as looking at a bronze serpent. In effect, to look at either is to consider the worst case scenario. The serpent and the cross both represent sin and death. The people in the wilderness are invited to look at the bronze serpent, to consider their own sin and their impending deaths. We, in our own wildernesses, are invited to look at the cross, to consider our own sin and our impending death. And, somehow, through that consideration of just how unmanageable our situation has become, we are empowered to find hope.
How is it that thinking about just how bad things have become can lead to healing? How is it that taking seriously our participation in sin can lead to forgiveness? How is it that recognizing the reality of our own deaths can lead to new life? How is it that admitting defeat leads to ultimate victory?
Part of our problem in life, perhaps our primary problem, maybe even the crux of our sinful nature, is that we want to jump to the victory rather than admitting defeat. We want to get to manageable without admitting things are unmanageable. We want to get the healing before we go through the sickness. We want forgiveness before we deal with sin. We want life without the bother of death. In Twelve Step terms, we all want to start with Step Two. We want to know the Power so as to avoid the Powerlessness. But the Twelve Steps, very much like our Christian faith, reminds us that Step Two doesn’t come until Step One has been taken. Power just isn’t known until Powerlessness is admitted. And for most of us Step One isn’t taken until all our attempts to gain some semblance of power and control fail miserably. Step Two doesn’t come without Step One and Step One may take the vast majority of our lives. At least it will involve the biggest and most energy-consuming struggle of our lives. We all want to own power but all we can really own is powerlessness.
The serpent on the pole, Jesus hanging on the cross, are given to each of us for our Step One: so that we may admit our powerlessness, so that we may honestly know that life on our own is unmanageable.
Those experienced in the Twelve Steps will all attest that, once Step One is honestly admitted, Step Two follows quickly and easily. Step One is all work. Step Two is all gift. Confessing sin is all work, forgiveness is all gift, we know as practicing Christians. Acknowledging that we need help and asking for it brings the help. But, as easy as Step Two is, trying to start there makes it impossible to get. As easy as forgiveness is, trying to start there makes it impossible to gain. Admitting our powerlessness, admitting our sinfulness, that’s where we have to start. And one of the great truths of our faith, just as one of the great truths of the Twelve Steps, is that we have to keep starting over every day, sometimes every hour. We have to keep admitting our need, our powerlessness, our sin, in order to gain the help, the power, and the forgiveness that is promised to us.
Typically we go along in life, like the beast of burden in the famous Arab parable, ignoring the straws that are piling up on our back. Suddenly, after that one last straw is added, we collapse and break. When we get to the place of the last straw, it’s good not just to deal with that one straw but with all the others that have been accumulating. What was the first straw? What are all the straws? As we admit our burdens, they are lifted, but until we do we are much like a stubborn camel carrying more than we are designed to carry.
A friend of mine is dying. She’s put up a good fight but it’s not going to be much longer. She’s kind of a Twelve Step guru but even she is struggling again with this Step One, Step Two thing. Robert, you’re going to have to teach me how to die, she said a while back. You’re going to have to show me how to get there. All I know about getting THERE, I told her, is to be HERE first. You know the Steps better than I do.
Our faith holds up a serpent to show us healing. Our faith holds up an implement of death “ the cross – to show us life. Our faith holds up confession to show us forgiveness. Our faith holds up Step One to show us Step Two. Our faith assures us that, as we are faithful to the here and now, we are taken to the there and then. We’re not put here to find a way to meet all our needs ourselves. We are put here to know that we have needs which are met by the loving and renewing God. Gaze upon the cross, admit where you are and you will be taken where you need to go through the grace of Christ Jesus our Lord. 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.