Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Today’s passages raise a variety of questions. Though they speak of divine rescue, they also suggest a dark side to divinity. God causes suffering or may be the source of punishment that far exceeds our misdeeds. These passages invite us to consider the relationship between grace, punishment, and personal responsible. Is God the source of punishment? Or, do certain behaviors lead to negative outcomes that alienate us from God’s vision for our lives?
The Numbers reading could be titled “snakes in the assembly.” It is a rather curious passage – one that I am tempted to omit altogether from today’s readings. Once again, this passage is so problematic, that you must preach about it – and challenge it – if you read it in church. Basically, the people continue to misbehave, God gets impatient and angry, and God sends poisonous snakes among the people, whose bites cause several fatalities. The people confess their sin and ask Moses to intercede on their behalf. God relents and has Moses fashion a bronze serpent as an antidote. Despite God’s remedy, the snakes are still running loose and people are getting bitten, but if they gaze upon the bronze serpent, they will recover, no doubt after much discomfort and fear.
What are we to say about this divine torment or terrorism? Do finite sins deserve capital punishment? What sort of psychological aberration motivates a deity who says to the people, yes, I will continue to hurt you, but I also will provide an antidote? Surely the Hebrew parents were beside themselves in fear, trying to protect their children from divine vindictiveness.
Could such an event have actually occurred? Or, was it some sort of “fictional” object lesson, aimed at keeping the community in line? In any event, this passage is unworthy of the revelation of divine love in Jesus Christ, and unless it is critiqued, should be omitted from the worship service. Arbitrary and vindictive images of God shouldn’t be encouraged even if they come from scripture. Our failure to critique them encourages the proliferation of unexamined negative theology in our congregations.
Psalm 107 speaks of God’s steadfast love. Yet, the Psalm also contains some problematic verses. The Psalm asserts that some became sick as a result of sinful ways. Obviously, our behaviors have consequences and our lifestyle can lead to illness. Still, not all illness has behavioral origins. How would this passage be heard by a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer, or someone dealing with a chronic or untreatable illness, unrelated to lifestyle or behavior? It is important that we encourage personal responsibility and the importance of confession and transformation without implying that there is an exact one-to-one correspondence between acts and consequences and behaviors and outcomes.
Ephesians affirms that God’s grace revives us, restores us, and inspires us to do good works. Grace does not depend on our perfection, but grace comes to us by God’s good pleasure, apart from our moral or spiritual achievements.
The passage from John’s Gospel is also ambiguous. On the one hand, it proclaims God’s love for the world. God’s love is overwhelming in its expansiveness. God sacrifices so that we might find healing and salvation. God’s love extends beyond humankind to embrace the whole world. Yet, beyond the good news, there is threat. God does not send the Divine One to condemn; yet those who don’t believe are already condemned. This passage begs a number of questions: Is God the source of condemnation or does condemnation occur in the nature course of events in response to our actions? Can our love of darkness thwart God’s grace? What is the nature of this condemnation – is it a matter of inability to experience the fullness of God’s love or is it eternal in impact?
Today’s passages require more than superficial treatment. The preacher can “cut and paste,” omitting offending or ambiguous passages, and focusing on the good news from Ephesians and John 3:16-17. This is an appropriate response. Another response is to preach scripture in all its ambiguity, exploring these problematic passages and trying to discern where they fit in our understanding of God and the world.
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