This past Sunday’s gospel begins with a very strange idea – very central to our faith: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.” In the original story, “The people spoke against God . . . . Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:5-6). God sent punishment – and it was by their acceptance of that punishment, by looking on the serpent that killed them, that they were saved.
Our Sunday readings help us to understand this strange dynamic, and what it reveals to us about Christ and Christianity. And by teaching us the saving value of punishment, these readings give us not only a preview of Good Friday, but also a glimpse of what we are about in our Lenten penance.
The first reading, from the very end of the Chronicles of Israel, summarizes the exile. “Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion.” But for the wickedness of the people, “there was no remedy.”
So God gave them the Exile: the Babylonians destroyed their city and their kingdom, and “Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon.”
The prophet nicely sums up the drama of sin: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest.” The people had refused to give up their projects, to set aside their work for the Lord’s day. So God set their work aside for them.
But then, beyond all expectation, “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!”
The Lord takes away, and then the Lord gives back. There is absolutely nothing Israel does to gain this redemption: they do not earn it, and they do not fight for it themselves. It is purely miraculous.
Our reading from Ephesians puts this drama into the language of the interior life: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”
Sin is death: death for the land, death for the kingdom, death for our souls. And there is no natural resurrection from that death, no possible way for the sinner to become just. Christianity is not about trying harder. It is about resurrection: a miracle.
“By grace you have been saved . . . and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” The Israelites cannot pat themselves on the back when Cyrus rebuilds their temple – nor have we anything to boast about when Christ saves us by grace.
Yet we are truly saved: “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.” It’s not that good works don’t matter. It’s that the good works are a gift: just as God created us without any contribution from us, so he makes us good as a pure gift. And so, just as we do truly exist even though we are not responsible for our existence, so we truly become good, even though we did not make ourselves good.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” says our Gospel, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
“By grace you have been saved through faith,” says our reading from Ephesians.
Faith is the recognition that we are saved by grace. That recognition matters; it is the foundation of our holiness. This is the lesson the people learn in the Babylonian exile: they learn that salvation is God’s free gift. It is the lesson Moses’s people learned in the desert: we need God, and God wants to save us.
And it is the lesson we learn on Good Friday: the wages of sin are death. We are dead because of our sins. “People preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” The Cross is our lot.
But when we look to the Cross, we find God there, “who is rich in mercy,” and who will bring us new life.
Lenten penance is not about trying out works righteousness; it’s not about how if we just try harder, we can save ourselves. It is, rather, about learning the depths of our sin, the depths of our foolishness, and longing for Christ to come and bring us to life.
How is this Lent teaching you about your own “preference for darkness,” your own need for Christ?