As a young person, my friend vowed to never succumb to the spinal contortions common in his older relatives. Everyone on his mom’s side of the family bent like trees in a high wind, having to support themselves on walkers or in wheelchairs as they aged. It seemed inevitable that he, too, would suffer their fate. But he wasn’t going to go there without a fight. He worked out regularly, ate well, maintained a healthy weight, did all the right things. But gradually, over a period of many years, his spine turned on him, too. By the time he retired, he was bent double, wracked with arthritis and always in pain.
His spine was not the only thing that turned. His personality twisted, too. Formerly a gentle man with a positive outlook on most things, as he aged, he became increasingly negative and judgmental. Everything made him angry. Everyone irritated him. His world grew smaller and smaller. “A man too unhappy to be kind,” a mutual friend once remarked.
There were occasional moments when he was his old self, when he could tease or converse, sometimes even able to acknowledge that his physical posture had changed his emotional outlook. It was in one of those rare, honest moments that he said to me, “I hate that I always look at the ground. What I wouldn’t give to look people in the face, to look up at the sky. Walking this way, always looking down, has changed everything. All I see now is dirt.”
Most often when we use the image of “looking down” on someone or something, we imagine an unrepentant snob looking down their nose, as though examining a distasteful substance on their shoe. But my friend was no snob. He had no choice but to look down. Every day. At everything. And it made him angry.
I was reminded of my bent friend while studying Sunday’s preaching texts. In a little-read but enormously significant Old Testament text (Numbers 21.4-9), the people of Israel, freed from slavery, find themselves wading in snakes. Poisonous snakes. Actually, the Hebrew word for these particular snakes is “seraphim,” which are flying, flaming, venomous vipers. These horrible snakes bit them, killed them, terrified them. Worst of all, these biting seraphim meant the peoples’ eyes were always focused on the ground. Dancing. Tiptoeing. Leaping to avoid the snakes that slithered everywhere. All they could see was snakes. All they could see was trouble. It changed them. In one of the weirdest prescriptions ever written, Moses, at God’s instruction, fashioned a snake of bronze and hoisted it on a pole. God said, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
In other words, get your eyes off the ground. Stop looking at the snakes. Look up and live.
Jesus mentions this odd text in Sunday’s gospel reading (John 3. 14-21) as he attempted to describe his mission to Nicodemus, a night time visitor. Jesus said, “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.”
In other words, get yours eyes off the ground. Stop looking at your sin. Look up and live.
As I write I am reminded of the gospel song “Turn Your Eyes,” whose refrain sings, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” (Helen H. Lemmel, 1922) I first heard that hymn years ago, at the funeral of a man born blind. Though he had never seen anyone or anything because of his visual limitations, he believed that, in the next life, he would be able to see. He had insisted that we sing that song at his funeral. His greatest desire, in both life and death, was to see Jesus’ face.
Though we’ve already selected the hymns for Sunday, and this particular gospel tune doesn’t entirely fit the trajectory of the texts, I am humming, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” It was the antidote to snakes on the ground. It was the purpose of the cross. It is the posture of the faithful. “Look up and live.”
Please join us for Worship on Sunday, as we “look up and live.”
Following worship, we will host our March Vitality Talk with James Nieman, who will describe the ELCA’s “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent,” (2019) as part of our ongoing discussion about racism and anti-racism. You can read the document here: Slavery_Apology_Explanation.pdf (elca.org)
Our Lent Challenge with Holy Family Ministries continues, as we support their initiative to become accredited as a Trauma Responsive School. Our Lent Pen Pal Project with Holy Family’s 3rd and 4th graders is underway, as 23 of our correspondents exchange a first letter with their new friends at Holy Family.
Don’t forget that on Sunday we turn our clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Savings Time.
I would be more than remiss not to mark this dark anniversary—a year since the WHO declared a pandemic because of the corona virus. No one could have imagined the tragedies that would occur, both worldwide and close to heart, because of the virus. With you, I pray for quick vaccinations, for economic recovery, for comfort for the millions who have suffered immeasurable loss. Our president reminded us last night that there is, finally, reason to hope. I’m taking him at his word.
“Look up and live.” If only it were that simple—for my twisted friend, for snake-bitten Israelites, for Nicodemus, for all whose lives have been upended this last year. That’s why, when we can’t do it ourselves, God lifts our eyes toward life.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post