Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, South Dakota
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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 loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9, ESV)
Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;
(Pause - 1 minute)
I am going to preach... That was only a minute...  if you think it felt like a long time to you, just imagine how long it felt to me!  Did you get impatient?  When your are waiting for something, even a short time can seem like a long... impatience sets in...  we drum our fingers, begin looking around, maybe even whistle...  We just don't like to wait.  
Waiting is almost a natural state these days.  We are always waiting for something.  We wait for traffic lights tapping on the steering wheel.  We wait in line, at the bank, the grocery store, and the dry cleaners.  We wait for the phone to ring, or wait to go on a date.  It seems like it takes forever for the order you placed on the internet to arrive.  If you are hungry waiting for supper can seem to take forever.  Waiting is a part of life that we just can't escape.
You would think that as much waiting as we do we would get good at it.  But, the fact is, we aren't.  We don't like waiting... we become impatient.  It feels like we are wasting our time.  When we have to wait our pulses race, blood pressure rises, we get hostile (even to family and friends).  We think of all the things we could be accomplishing instead of waiting.   Computers, microwave ovens, pagers, and cell phones are all designed to keep us from waiting.  They are the high speed tools for working in an impatient world.  I read an article in time magazine about how children these days can multitask, doing homework, chat rooms on the computer, and listen to music all at the same time.  They do it because they don’t like to wait.  They're supposed to help us use our time more efficiently, but we often end up impatiently waiting on them.  If you really want to see impatience first hand just take a quick trip to McDonalds, or visit a busy airport.  You won't have to be there very long and you'll se it:  someone waving their arms, red faced, and raised voice, upset because they had to wait for their food or the airplane was delayed.  People get angry at delay because of impatience.  For an impatient person delay means denial.
It wasn't always this way, waiting used to be considered a virtue.  If you couldn't afford something you saved until you could.  But it just isn't that way anymore.  American families owe an average of $7000 on each credit they hold.  This is a huge indicator of an impatient society that wants it, and wants it now.  (It comes to a total of over 1.7 Trillion dollars in credit card debt in 1997)  Where it used to be a virtue, now having to wait is  a bad thing, almost the ultimate evil.  If it can't have it now, if it can't be mine right now, if I have to wait, it is just like not getting it at all.  Delay means denial.  We have all been there, impatient customers, complaining about the wait and wanting it right now.  
In the book of numbers (and specifically our text for today) we also find some inpatient people.  Unfortunately we can certainly identify with them.  Some human attributes cover the distance of time very well.  It reads They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; They were ready to take control of the Promised Land.  Their 40 years of wandering is almost over.  They've wandered and waited.  The fastest route to their destination is through the country of Edom.  But when they ask permission to pass trough, permission is denied.  They just can't strike a deal with the King of Edom, and a war is not an option.  Going around means a long delay...  it means they have to go back the way they came... back toward Egypt.  They feel like they are walking in circles.  This turns out to be convenient for the complainers.  They emphasize the people's impatience.  "This trip is going to take forever!!  We had it good in Egypt," they say.  "Good water, Good food... better than this old manna!"  What they conveniently forget is the bad stuff that came along with Egypt.  Like whips and chains.  Working hard for the food they ate.  While they are wandering in the desert all they had to do was collect the Manna off the ground.  It was given freely and abundantly. But, they are tired of it.  They've been eating manna every way possible for nearly 40 years.  They make Manna soup, manna stew, manna with gravy... manna burgers, manna waffles, manna bagels...  ba-manna-bread.  And now they are turned away, no short cuts, they have to go the long way.   They blame Moses... they blame God...  "...another delay, another time they can't get what God has promised.  How many more delays will there be?  Maybe God is really not going to give them what he promised.  Maybe this delay is just another one in a never-ending line of delays.  If we can't have it now, If it can't be ours right now, if we have to wait, again, its just like not getting it at all."
God is not amused.  After forty years of wandering in the fiery desert they still doubt his promises.  They still don't trust his word.  They are still an impatient people...  he sends another reminder.  The Hebrew bible calls them "fire serpents."  Poisonous snakes with a burning bite...  they bit the people and many Israelites died.  Immediately the people repent... "Moses, we've sinned!  Get God to take away the snakes!"  God has his own plan and the bronze serpent is raised on a pole, so that anyone who looks at it will survive the bites.  God's plan is that they are to pay attention to him and his solutions, they are to look to the pole for salvation.  Don't watch the ground where your enemies are look to the pole.  I've provided a way out.  A way for you to be saved.  ... and it works.   The Israelites would wander a little more...  they would fight a little more... they would complain a little more...  but, the promised land was theirs, that was God's promise.  It was theirs when God gave it to them.  God's delay is not his denial.  
So... do you feel like looking under pews for poisonous "fire serpents?"  Do you see yourself in the impatience of the Children of Israel?  Well, the text isn’t here to tell us that we are impatient so God is going to punish us with snakes.  What it is saying is that God's promises are true, even when we experience delay after delay... but we are impatient.  We want his promises now.  
We pray for healing...  "God heal me I can't bear the pain any longer.  I don't understand why you don't answer me."  we grow impatient... “Why do I have to struggle with money?  God why don’t you just make me win the lottery?”  discouragement sets in... “I’ll never be married.  No one would want to live their whole life with me?”  We focus on ourselves...  “I am a worthless person.  Everything I do fails.” questioning...  “Doesn’t God love me?  Is God really there?”  
God's delay becomes God's denial.  “If I can't have it now...  then it’s just not worth it.”  Our troubles become the center of our thoughts.
Sometimes we even miss the ways that God does work.  And when we are focused on the problem we can miss God’s purpose.  Maybe God’s answer is found with the Christian next door who is allowed to serve and practice their faith by helping you.  When we are patient waiting for God’s resolution to our problems our children see faith in practice... an example of turning to God and accepting his will in spite of discomfort.  God might even intend to for other Christian friends and family to be inspired to go to their Lord more often in prayer.  In these ways, and many others, God strengthens is people.  His delay is not a denial but a gracious act; a faith strengthening act, for someone... maybe even you.  
God's delays are a part of his perfect will for the world.  He delays because it isn't the right time to act.  God always acts at just the right time, the perfect time, the only time necessary.  Just as he acted when he sent Jesus to be our Savior.  He chose the perfect time and the perfect place...  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8 NIV)  Right when we needed it most... when we were lost in our sin with no hope of escape.  God sent Jesus for us.  His death saves us.  His crucifixion gives us the life we were created to have by removing the curse that sin has over us.  We get impatient with God because we don’t trust that He has our best interest at heart when He delays.  Instead of punishment God forgives us for Jesus sake.  In light of our faithless impatience we need to look to Jesus.  Just like the snake on the pole we look up to him, on the cross and see the way that God has provided ...the way for us to be saved... and it came at just the right time, for us.  Knowing about God’s forgiveness for our impatience allows us to begin again and wait for God’s perfect timing.
I'm an impatient person.  Everyday I struggle with it.  My foot gets a little heavy on the gas pedal.  I watch the clock for supper to come around.  ...  I know you struggle with your own impatience.  It's hard to wait especially when what you are waiting for seems to be so much in God's will.  But, God delays...  and we wait...  We don't always know his will, we don't always see what the waiting accomplishes, and sometimes we may never see it until we go to be with Him.  St. Peter wrote that... The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)  God delays because he is gracious.  When the Israelites repented in the desert, he didn't remove the snakes right away.  He provided a way of salvation that pointed to him.  He provided a way that showed faith in his promises.  He provided a way that points us to his Son.  When we were dead in our sins, God sent our Savior Jesus at just the right time.  He is the one who saves us and he does it in his own time.
Delay... it isn't always clear to us why God delays.  We get impatient... we are impatient people... we want to see results and we want to see them now... if we don't we think that God is denying us.... But God's delays are not denial.  What he promises is true whether it happens now... a week from now... a year from now or in the next millennium...  He gives us strength through his word and sacraments to believe in his promises and to stand in faith ... patiently.  Amen.
The peace of God, keep your hearts and minds in the promises of Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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