The first lesson is Numbers 21:4-9. The Psalm is 107: 1-3 and 17-22; the epistle is Ephesians 2:1-10. The Gospel is John 3:14-21.

It has often been said, not without reason, that if the entire New Testament had to be summed up in one verse, it would be from today’s Gospel, specifically John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” It takes no great insight to understand the verse, and no great insight to explain it: God made the ultimate sacrifice so that we might be redeemed.

But an observer initially wonders why those who set up the Episcopal lectionary (from which these readings were selected) chose the story from Numbers — which is about the Israelites doubting God in the desert, as they are stung and frequently killed by “fiery serpents” (probably scorpions), until, once they showed signs of repentance, God told Moses to put an image of a serpent on a stick and lift it. Then, all who saw it and believed in the promise were healed from their serpent bites, and lived.

Upon closer examination, one sees that the passage from John refers back to this incident, in verse 14, two verses before the famous summation. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” so that those who see and believe “should not perish.”

The Psalm, too, is all about God healing His people. Likewise, the passage from Ephesians is about God’s healing grace, through which we are “saved through faith…. It is the gift of God.”

The message could not possibly be clearer: God heals us of His own free will, as a gift, not because we deserve it, but regardless of our own merit — except that we are required to have enough faith to trust that the healing, in God’s time, will come.

But… but… but that makes it all sound too easy. The truth is that, when the serpents of life bite us, it is not so easy to believe we will be healed. It is hard to endure the pain. It is surpassingly difficult to see past the suffering and death.

The Gospel doesn’t end with verse 16, though. It doesn’t end with the healing. God then gives us a commission, in verse 21, to “doeth truth [and thus] cometh to the light, that [one’s] deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.”

The healing is not a result of our merit, but its own result should be manifest in our deeds. Could it be, then, that we will not comprehend the healing God already provides until we choose, regardless of whether we still feel the pain, to “cometh to the light”  and make manifest the deeds that are “wrought of God”?

The Son must be lifted up. We must respond accordingly. God’s healing grace compels it.

 

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