What Keeps Us Turning Back to God?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday in Lent + March 11, 2018

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


What’s up with that weird snake story in our first reading?

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Bronze Serpent by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from Die Bibel in Bildern (1853). Via Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive.

Moses and the Israelites were out wandering in the desert some place between Egypt and the Promised Land — no surprise there; we know that part of the story — and the Israelites were not happy. They were complaining: We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. This miraculous manna stuff is gross.

That part should probably not be a surprise to us, either. The wandering band of Israel complained a lot. In the story of their escape from Pharaoh — which some of you heard on Wednesday evening — they hadn’t even gotten to the Red Sea yet when they started begging Moses to turn the car around: This is dangerous! Why couldn’t you have left us alone, with our slavemasters, where we were safe? And God said, Why are you freaking out? Just keep walking, I’ll part the sea for you. Haven’t you figured out that I’m saving you yet? (Exodus 14:10-18).

Apparently that lesson never did sink in. God had sent plagues on the Egyptians –always sheltering the Israelites in Egypt from all the frogs and the bugs and the livestock diseases — trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God had shown them that God was with them by sending a pillar of cloud to guide them by a day and a pillar of fire to light their way at night. God had provided them with bread and quail from heaven. But after God had done miracle after miracle to free them and protect them and provide for them, still the people had no faith — no trust — that God’s taking care of them. They just kept on complaining every time something went wrong: We’re hungry; we’re thirsty; seriously, what is this manna even made out of? Why did you take us out of Egypt?

And then there were snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? But this time the Israelites were wiser. Instead of wanting to run back to Egypt, they ran to God. Or rather, they ran to Moses, begging him to run to God: “Pray to the Lord to take away these serpents from us.” And God told Moses to make up a bronze serpent and lift it up high on a pole, and everyone who got bitten by a snake could look up at the snake-on-a-pole and be instantly protected from its venom.

More seriously this time: Why did it have to be a snake? Why a bronze snake on a pole? Why not, “and then God scared all the serpents away”? Why not, “and then the Lord God revealed unto Moses the formula for the antivenom”? It almost seems like — in total contradiction to what we learned in the 10 Commandments and in Pastor Lippard’s sermon from last week — God told Moses to make an idol that the people could worship, an idol that could save the people. Was God trying to get them to finally stop complaining by giving into their need for a golden cow or some kind of metal animal to worship, like when a parent finally gives up and gives their crying child a piece of candy?

Ancient Jewish commentaries on this story say: No! Of course not. The snake-on-a-pole was not meant to be an idol or a talisman with magic powers; instead it was a helper, a device to help the Israelites remember to turn to God — the God who told them to make that snake-on-a-pole; the God who gave them manna when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty; the God who parted the sea and saved them from slavery in Egypt. As one modern Rabbi put it: “In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet.”[1]

We sometimes need helpers to turn our thoughts to God, too. After all, how often are we distracted by the snakes slithering around our feet? We, like those ancient wandering Israelites, can forget about the bigger story we are a part of. We forget the story of what God has done for us; we forget the promise that God will be with us; and then we worry about what is happening to us right now as if we were without hope. We forget who God has said we are — a beloved child of God — as we worry about what other people think of us, as we let the media tell us what we should be, as we let the voice in our heads tells us we are not good enough. We forget the core message of the gospel — you are forgiven and accepted — and instead mire ourselves in guilt or regret or isolation.

Maybe even more importantly, we forget the full story of that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Our individual salvation stories are all part of this global salvation story, the story of God loving the whole world: God showing God’s presence through the traditions of other cultures; God by the side of those drinking contaminated water in Michigan or in Bhutan; God hearing the prayers of mothers who worry their children will be shot in classrooms or on the streets or in war; God’s work being done through people in Haiti and El Salvador and the Congo and Vietnam and Iran.

Sometimes the snakes that distract us from the bigger story are our own refusals: to hear the other side of a story, to climb outside of our politics, to see God in people who don’t look or act like “us.” Sometimes we don’t even know we are being plagued by snakes — we don’t realize we are being distracted from God’s true mission.

So we need something like that bronze snake-on-a-pole to help turn our attention to God. In our times of fear, in our times of hopelessness, and even in the times when we feel fine. We need habits that keep us turning back to God.

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Brazen Serpent, sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni (20th century), Mount Nebo, Jordan.  Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

The cross serves as one helper for us. Our reading from the Gospel of John 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.” We turn our minds towards Christ on the cross to remember God’s saving work in the world and in us. Many of us wear crosses or hang crosses on the wall as a reminder to turn towards God, God’s promises, and God’s mission.

Coming to worship is another habit that can help us turn our attention to God. Here we come to God in prayer; we hear the promises and the challenges of God through scriptures and sermons; we cross our foreheads with water, we taste bread and wine on our tongue to remind ourselves that God is with us. Here we are forced to see God in ways we wouldn’t on our own, as we hear how other people understand God and God’s work in the world.

How do you keep yourself turning back to God outside of Sunday mornings?

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who lived during the time of Martin Luther, developed a daily check-in system to help him always keep turning to God’s presence and work in his life and in the world around him. His official followers — the Jesuits — call it “the daily Examen.”[2] The Examen has five steps:

  1. Give thanks to God. Look back over your day for any and all good moments, even little things, and thank God for them. This first step is not only about realizing all the good things in life; most importantly it draws us to focus on God.
  2. Ask for grace to know your sins. “Where did you act contrary to your better judgment or to God’s voice inside of you?”[3] Where did you neglect to “see the image of God in others?” The goal is not feel guilty, but to help us realize that we need God, and where we most need God, and to ask for that help to continue evolving as disciples of Christ. Again, the purpose is to help us move closer to God.
  3. Review your day. Run through it like a movie, from start to finish. “Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving…[Recall your] thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says. Each moment offers a window into where God has been in your day.”[4] What is God up to in you and around you?
  4. Ask God for forgiveness. This step reminds us of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and never-ending love.
  5. Ask for God’s grace for tomorrow. Ask God for whatever it is you feel you need help with most: seeing God’s presence with you; trusting God’s promises; breaking harmful habits; learning to see God in others.

Maybe you’ll find that steps like these can help keep you turning to God, too.

Today’s reading from John 3 said: “those who do what is true come to the light.” The Gospel of John is full of this image of light: Jesus is the light who has come into the world, revealing God’s presence and God’s love, revealing God’s will and mission, revealing God’s hope and purpose. How can we keep coming into that the light of Christ to help us keep our lives in God’s perspective? How can we keep our eyes on God and our minds on God’s story, so that we could see our place in that story as people who receive God’s promises and share in God’s mission to our neighbors and to the world?

Let us pray.

Holy God, we thank you for your patience with us when we get distracted by the worries of this life, when we turn away from your promises and your mission. Help us to keep turning back to you. Give us faith to trust your promises and give us clarity as you reveal your purpose in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.


[1] Fred N. Reiner, “Healing by Looking: Seraph Serpents and Theotherapy,” ReformJudaism.org, July 8, 2006. Available online: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/chukat-balak/healing-looking-seraph-serpents-and-theotherapy

[2] My reference for the Examen is James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), pp. 86-102.

[3] Martin, 89.

[4] Martin, 91.

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The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fourth Sunday of Lent + March 26, 2017

Bible Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23


I’m going to begin this morning by thinking about the first of today’s readings. But I know that you all just heard a rather long gospel reading, and your memory banks may have been maxed out by that.  So let’s remember back to that first reading together: back in ancient Israel, in the days of the nation’s very first king, the Lord had decided that king, Saul, was no longer God’s chosen king of Israel, and so the Lord told the prophet Samuel to go and anoint the next king. Samuel was not a fan of his new divine assignment; God was sending Samuel to commit treason against the king — the same king Samuel had anointed himself not very long ago. “How can I go?” he asked God, “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” But “Samuel did what the Lord commanded,” in spite of his own fears.

The famous Psalm 23 — known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm” — had of course not been written yet when Samuel set off on his mission. According to tradition the young shepherd boy that Samuel would anoint that day would write that psalm years later, when he was known as King David. Still, I wonder if Samuel prayed something very similar to Psalm 23 as he travelled to Jesse’s home to commit treason for the Lord.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures,

And leads me beside still waters.

Of course the Lord was not leading Samuel beside still waters; the Lord was taking Samuel into very dangerous territory, into white water rapids full of sharp rocks.

You restore my soul, O Lord,

And guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.

But was this really the “right pathway”? Setting up a new person to be king, potentially stirring up rebellion, dividing the allegiance of the people?

I’m sure Samuel had a lot of questions for God, and a lot of doubt and fear. Still he moved forward, following God, trusting God even when it must have seemed crazy. On his journey to Jesse’s home Samuel must have been thinking back over all the times God had already been his good and faithful shepherd: God had caused Samuel to be born to Hannah, who had been unable to have children (1 Sam. 1). God had called Samuel by name to be a prophet and leader of God’s people (1 Sam. 3). God had led the Israelite army to victory against the Philistines, and Samuel had been there serving as their priest (1 Sam. 7). And perhaps Samuel thought back on all God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel: leading them out of slavery in Egypt; leading them into the promised land. These memories could have served as reminders, as a foundation to support Samuel’s faith in a difficult, trying moment.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord has been my shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Looking back on God’s faithfulness would have helped Samuel to see God being faithful to him in his present moment. He would have remembered that the same God who had been with him and his people for so long, who had guided them and protected them, was there with him on that strange and dangerous journey to anoint a new king. He would have had faith that God would still be with him after the journey and the anointing, come what may.

Of course I don’t know what Samuel actually prayed or thought on his way to Jesse’s home. But whatever his prayer was, it helped keep him moving forward through a time of doubt and fear.

I think people (myself included) tend to look back on prophets and saints and other “special” people of God and assume that somehow they were more certain than us “regular” people. They were more sure of God’s guidance; they had a greater sense of clarity; they had miraculously less doubt and fear and confusion. It’s especially easy to assume that for stories like Samuel’s, where the biblical accounts seem to tell us that Samuel and God were exchanging audible words, that God was speaking loudly and clearly to Samuel in a way in which we long to hear from God.

But many of the people we hold up as special saints admitted feeling doubt and fear and frustration, admitted feeling like God was silent or maybe even absent.

Many of us admire the pastor and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the faithful life he lived. He chose to stay in Germany during Hitler’s reign there, though he could have stayed in the U.S. or England or any number of safer places. He spoke out publicly against Nazi takeover of the church. When the Nazis suppressed the church that spoke out against them, Bonhoeffer worked underground to train students of the faith. He worked as a spy. After he was caught, he spent a year and half in prison, where he ministered to the other prisoners and continued his writing. He was executed along with fellow conspirators. The story of Bonhoeffer’s death, passed on by a physician who had been an eyewitness, sounds like something out of an ancient book of saints:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.[1]

Bonhoeffer is a renowned example of inspiring faith and action in the midst of terrible times. But Bonhoeffer’s outward faith emerged from a storm of inner struggle and doubt. While imprisoned, he wrote this poem about the difference between how other people saw him and how he experienced his own life:

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

 

Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

 

Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

 

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

 

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.[2]

Bonhoeffer, like other remarkable saints, experienced the feelings familiar to us: loneliness, helplessness, fear, second-guessing. But still he and the other saints threw themselves on God: remembering God’s faithfulness to their ancestors in the faith, remembering God’s past faithfulness to them, they opened their eyes to find God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times. Praying until they trusted more, praying in a way that kept them walking with God and trying to be part of God’s work in world.

Bonhoeffer wrote these words as part of a prayer for himself and other prisoners:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you; I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me…Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am. You know all man’s troubles; you abide with me when all men fail me…Lord, I hear your call and follow; help me…O Holy Spirit, give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice…Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.[3]  

(You can read the full prayer here.)

 When we gather for worship, one of the things we do is call to mind God’s faithfulness to our ancestors in the faith. We do this when we read the Bible, when we sing hymns, when we give thanks for our baptism, and when we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember in order to give thanks to God, but we also remember so we can hear that God’s faithfulness continues down through the generations and into our own lives. We remember so that our eyes will be opened to see God’s faithfulness to us now.

When you go through your own hard times, practice remembering God’s faithfulness to you and to others. Call to mind your favorite Bible stories or verses. Remember how God has worked in the lives of those you love. Remember the ways you have experienced God at work in your own life. Remind yourself of who God is, and then in prayer practice trusting God, even in the times it feels hard to do so. Maybe through that practice, you will come to see the goodness of God even in those hard times.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord is our shepherd.

The Lord will be our shepherd.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

L23-Goodshepherd-medium

Painting of the “Good Shepherd” found in a catacomb in Rome; from the mid-third century. (Source: Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition)


[1] Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Quoted in the Wikipedia article “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972). pp. 347-348.

[3]Bonhoeffer, 139-141.

Bonhoeffer’s Morning Prayer for Fellow-Prisoners

This prayer was written by the pastor, scholar, spy, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer around Christmas 1943, while he was imprisoned for his work against the Nazi party.  I quoted excerpts of it in the sermon “The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd” (March 26, 2017) and wanted to provide the full prayer for those who are interested.  


O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you;

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me.

O heavenly Father,

I praise and thank you

For the peace of the night;

I praise and thank you for this new day;

I praise and thank you for all your goodness and faithfulness throughout my life.

You have granted me many blessings;

Now let me also accept what is hard from your hand.

For you will lay on me no more than I can bear.

You make all things work together for good for your children.

 

Lord Jesus Christ,

You were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.

You know all man’s troubles;

You abide with me when all men fail me;

You remember and seek me;

It is your will that I should know you and turn to you.

Lord, I hear your call and follow;

Help me.

O Holy Spirit,

Give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice;

Give me such love for God and men

As will blot out all hatred and bitterness;

Give me the hope that will deliver me from fear and faint-heartedness.

O holy and merciful God,

my Creator and Redeemer,

My Judge and Saviour,

You know me and all that I do.

You hate and punish evil without respect of persons in this world and the next;

You forgive the sins of those who sincerely pray for forgiveness;

You love goodness, and reward it on this earth with a clear conscience,

and, in the world to come, with a crown of righteousness.

I remember in your presence all my loved ones,

My fellow-prisoners, and all who in this house perform their hard service;

Lord, have mercy.

Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.


 [found in Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972).  Pp. 139-141.]