Sermon
March 26, 2006
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

rule1.gif (2367 bytes)

Scripture Readings:

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. “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. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

rule1.gif (2367 bytes)

Sermon: Don’t Blame the Snake

I had an epiphany a week or so back. Are any of you familiar with a feature on Oprah called “What I Know for Sure?” I realized that there is something I know for sure. I was cleaning out the professional Mr. Coffee machine we have in the Fellowship Hall kitchen. Someone had put coffee grinds through the grate in the opening that is labeled “Water Only” As I stood there filling the water reservoir up and repeatedly turning the machine over to flush it out, I wondered if someone put the coffee in there on purpose or by mistake and said to myself, “no one could be that stupid.” Then scenes from my own life flashed through my mind:

The time I was chopping hot chili peppers and reached up to rub my eyes;
The time I used a savings bond to mark my place in a book I was selling;
The time I didn’t think to ask for help when putting a large metal ladder against the house and hit the incoming power lines;

O yes, the Lord has saved me from many moments of stupidity.

And that was my epiphany – the moment of realizing one thing I know for sure. Whenever you say, No one could be that stupid, you are always wrong.

Maybe stupid is too harsh here – foolish, dumb, mistaken, what would fit better? But if you think about the sweep of history and the scope of humanity, the truth is you could substitute almost any word and the thing that is for sure would still be true: No one could be that cruel; no one could be that selfish; no one could be that short-sighted. The list goes on – and probably includes many good qualities as well but since this is the season of Lent, a time of confession and penance, and the subject of my sermon is “Don’t blame the snake” you’ll soon see why I’m walking down the dark side of the street.

In the Gospel lesson today Nicodemus comes in from the dark of night to talk with Jesus. Jesus wants Nicodemus understand what God is doing and says:
And 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.

Now the next sentence is much better known, “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.” But before we go there we need to know what Jesus is talking about in the set up.

And so the second lesson this morning is the story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

So in parallel to this story Jesus tells Nicodemus – something is poisoning the people and causing them to die, and the antidote, the healing remedy, is what God will do when the Son of Man is lifted up, that is Jesus lifted up on the cross, so that all who look upon him and come to faith will live.

And my question on this Sunday in Lent is – what is it that is poisoning the people – what has bitten them and is causing death?

Now the theological answer, the traditional answer, is very straightforward – it is sin. But the word sin can raise as many questions as it answers. What is sin? When did sin come into the world? Why does sin exist? Do people have the power to overcome sin?

The most famous lesson about sin is found in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis – Adam and Eve, the eating of the apple, the expulsion from the Garden.

Genesis 3:1-13 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

And so, in that story, sin is forever associated with disobedience and sexual attraction. And certainly there have been many times especially with a recent President when themes of disobedience and sexual attraction have made the whole nation shake its collective head and say of those who are most powerful among us: Nobody could be that stupid.

But let’s look at a slightly different take on the nature of sin. Another dynamic of the story is that when God confronts Adam about his transgression, the first thing Adam does is blame Eve and in the process try and throw a little guilt back on God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

And when God confronts Eve, what kind of answer does God get? , “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

Let me suggest that here we have a poisonous problem of human behavior that is even harder to overcome than all the others combined – the problem of passing the buck, of blaming someone else for your own mistakes, of refusing to admit the truth, take responsibility, ask for forgiveness, and face the consequences.

I’m not sure how many illustrations we need to flesh out this poisonous problem, but one shouted out at me off the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times:

2 Years After Soldier's Death, Family's Battle Is With Army
By MONICA DAVEY and ERIC SCHMITT
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Patrick K. Tillman stood outside his law office here, staring intently at a yellow house across the street, just over 70 yards away. That, he recalled, is how far away his eldest son, Pat, who gave up a successful N.F.L. career to become an Army Ranger, was standing from his fellow Rangers when they shot him dead in Afghanistan almost two years ago.

"I could hit that house with a rock," Mr. Tillman said. "You can see every last detail on that place, everything, and you're telling me they couldn't see Pat?"

Mr. Tillman, 51, is a grieving father who has refused to give up on his son. (He) has spent untold hours considering the Army's measurements, like the 70 yards.

He has drafted long, sometimes raw, letters to military leaders, demanding answers about the shooting. And he has challenged Army presentations meant to explain how his son, who had called out his own name and waved his arms, wound up dead anyway, shot three times in the head by his own unit, which said it had mistaken him for the enemy.

"All I asked for is what happened to my son, and it has been lie after lie after lie," said Mr. Tillman. "This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual," said Mrs. Tillman. "How are they treating others?"

There is nothing more poisonous than the sense of betrayal that comes when you or someone you love is the victim of another’s malice, mistake or negligence, and you cannot get answers, you cannot get accountability, you cannot get justice even from the people and systems who are in power with the particular duty of protection, investigation and assigning responsibility.

The Tillman family is experiencing this poison with the Army and the government, our family is experiencing it with the hospital and the insurance industry, and anyone who was around when a lovely young woman in this congregation was hit and killed by a speeding police car remembers how her family experienced it with the police and the courts. It is a particularly toxic expression but it is a common problem: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

When Jesus is lifted up on the cross it is a sign of sin – a moment of realizing how cruel and heartless and blind humanity can be. How systems that are meant to keep order and preserve justice and honor God can be corrupted and put to evil ends.

But it is also a sign of forgiveness - 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.

But can God forgive those who blame others? Isn’t confession the foundation of forgiveness – Only when the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you – only then was the serpent lifted up for their healing.

Until we admit our mistakes, our sin, forgiveness cannot enter our hearts. So let’s not blame the snake – let us take responsibility, confess, repent, seek forgiveness, and live.

Return to Home Page