Driving Out the Snakes
March 17 “Driving Out the Snakes” Genesis 15:1-18 *Psalm 27 (UMH 758) *Philippians 3:17-4:1 * Luke 13:31-35
After so many mass shootings, it isn’t getting any easier to endure the reality that such horrible things take place so often. Maybe they don’t seem to shock us as much as Columbine or Sandy Hook anymore. We are no longer so surprised, we respond with: “not again!” What is shocking is that this one took place in New Zealand, of all places. What I was beginning to think of as a uniquely American abomination, or perhaps a daily reality of life in Iraq or Pakistan is now not so uncommon in other places. My dream that there might still be innocent places on Earth is shaken. Images of New Zealand are usually peaceful, a beautiful land that we dream of visiting, introduced to us perhaps by the majestic mountains we glimpse in the Lord of the Rings movies. But now we add it to the list of victims of terrorist attacks. In an instant, more lives were lost than are here in this room. Regardless of your feelings towards Islam, we should be horrified that yet again a house of worship was targeted for mass slaughter. How often do we have to ask: “what is our world coming to?” before we can make things better? Innocent blood again is shed, for nothing.
Our politicians make promises claiming that they will make our world better, but nothing seems to really work. We may pass laws that punish criminals and seek to lessen the possibility of bad things happening, but we can’t pass laws that eliminate the evil that dwells within us. St. Patrick may be credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland, something that is as believable as the promises of politicians, but can we truly drive out evil by our own efforts? Snakes in nature of course are not all bad, just as people who are snakes are not, they are just under the power of sin. Certainly St. Patrick’s efforts in spreading the Gospel drove out the snakes of sin for a time, if not the literal snakes. The longer I am here on this planet, witnessing yet another horrendous event, the more convinced I am that only Jesus can make things better, but we are not there yet. We ask again: “how can God allow something like this happen?”, in Christchurch or anywhere else, and no answer really satisfies. Knowing that we live in a broken world does not help to lessen the brokenness we feel in our hearts when innocent people suffer. And yet, it is in God alone that we put our trust, for only he can make this mess better. Only his promises are worth believing in, not those of politicians or anything else.
Although I may not take the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland too seriously, I am finding that the stories in the Bible that draw my interest are increasingly the weird ones, such as today’s reading from Genesis. Sometimes the stories that defy our understanding of the natural world hold the most meaning, the stories that draw us into God’s presence beyond our understanding. This reading is full of God’s promises, promises of protection and abundance. But like us, Abraham wants more than just promises, and to him, the most important promise is to have a son. But it is not time yet, apparently, so God gives him this wonderful encounter. We are told that this all happens in a vision, not a dream, so Abraham is awake and aware. But where the vision ends and reality begins, we are not told. What happens next seems so real. Abraham gets the animals and birds as God tells him to do, and splits the animals in half, staying near to shoo away the vultures. And he waits. God doesn’t act right away, but comes at night, although all that is seen is a burning vessel and a flaming torch. Perhaps we can imagine God holding the pot and the torch, walking between the cut animals, getting their blood on the hem of his robe. In the Old Testament, blood is usually required to establish a covenant, as God does with Abraham here. Blood is required to fulfill the promises of God, as it would be required under the Temple system to keep the land of Israel holy, along with God’s people. Most translations say that God “made” a covenant, but it literally says: “cut a covenant.” Making a covenant with God requires a sacrifice, cut into flesh. In the end, the covenant would not provide just a son for Abraham, but as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, including us.
The covenant between us and God also required the shedding of blood, for the last time, when Jesus went to the cross. We remember this every time we take Communion. We may not be required to shed blood to keep our end of the covenant, but we are to take it just as seriously, for our lives depend on it. The eternal lives of all people we share the promises of God with, established by the death and resurrection of Jesus, depend on it. We will be accountable for those we fail to share the Gospel with. Lent is a time to look at ourselves and ask if we are keeping our end of the bargain. We look at our hearts to see if they are rightly set on God and adjust them appropriately. We ask ourselves what we need to do to be more fruitful and set out a path to get there. We too seek to be righteous like Abraham, trusting in God, but knowing we are not saved by our righteousness, but solely through the righteousness of Jesus.
God gives us promises of good things, but he also promises that difficulties will come first. Abraham is promised descendants like the stars, but he is also told that they will be immigrants forced into slavery before they inherit the Promised Land. But after their time of suffering, they will depart with great wealth. We too are on this journey of faith, and as we get older, we may doubt that we will see our world get any better. But we can see God’s promises being fulfilled in our kids and grandkids. Like Abraham, we will have times when we are oppressed by fear, suffering and deep darkness, but God willing, we will live a good long life and depart in peace to be with our Lord.
Our insert today lists many of the accountability questions provided by John Wesley. In addition to attending regular worship and larger meetings of the Methodist societies, early Methodists were required to attend smaller meetings where the tough work of discipleship was done. Perhaps you are thinking: “I’m sure glad we don’t do this anymore!”, but perhaps our world would be better if we did. None of us probably has the fortitude to be so disciplined all the time, but perhaps during the season of Lent we can work a little harder to drive the snakes out of our hearts.
While I am pretty sure that none of us here are capable of mass murder, we still begin with ourselves when we seek to make our world better. We remember that after God made his covenant with Abraham, it was still many years more until the birth of Isaac. At times we all wish for one-on-one experiences with God, but all things considered, maybe not! Such experiences in the Bible often require actions that we might not be ready for, not to mention the fact that getting so close to the glory of God will change your life forever, and in some stories, that’s not a good thing. Part of being faithful disciples is being patient for God to act. We keep doing our part even when we get tired of waiting. We seek to push away the sins within and let in the grace and love of Jesus in ever-increasing measures. We do what we can to make ourselves better, and let God use us to make our part of the world better. We keep asking what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and what is the next step along this journey.