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Daring to Face into Fear

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Our Scriptures today invite us to consider how we deal with fear; how we cope when we are faced with unfamiliar situations, with the unknown, with wilderness; how we deal with what terrifies us and threatens to destroy us.

Fear can be a warning for our protection, telling us we need to flee, or be prepared to fight to save ourselves. But most of us spend more time dealing with fears that are not particularly justified by the situation. An event or a person, triggers us into a place that reminds us of a time in the past, perhaps when we were very young and powerless, with little choice. It was in that context we developed skills and patterns to deal with fear that we bring with us into adulthood. Many of us never realize that what served us well when we were children, often does not work, or is even an obstacle to healthy living when we are older.

As you listen to these ancient stories, I invite you to reflect on your own experience of fear. What happens to you when you are afraid? How did you learn as a child to deal with fear? How do you handle living with fear now? Have you ever had to face into something that you feared; something potentially dangerous in order to receive healing?

So is there any wisdom for us in these ancient stories. Both come from times of crisis and fear.

In Numbers, the Israelites were dealing with the whole new terrifying experience of being in wilderness as a pilgrim people in search of freedom and new beginning. There was grave danger for them in that place. They are sick and tired of wondering around in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. They are afraid of the wilderness, afraid of dying in an alien place, afraid of not having enough food, afraid of not having enough water, afraid their leader Moses doesn’t have a clue where he is going. And then there are these snakes that come out of nowhere! One more thing to be terrified of! They sound off angrily at Moses and at God, and then they are afraid of the anger and frustration that they have expressed- It’s a vicious circle.

In the story, Moses is told by God to take a snake, the very thing that is causing so much grief and pain, and to place it on a pole for the people to look at, so they can be healed! Sounds odd!

We are all familiar with the snake associated with evil in tradition, but in almost all cultures, the snake is linked with transcendence, with eternal life. Snakes renew themselves by shedding their skins. Indeed they must shed them, in fact, in order to grow. An interesting image that, shedding what limits growth. Times of crisis in my experience, have usually demanded that.

An interesting sidelight on this whole story is the close association between serpents and the Goddess religion that prevailed in the Near East at that time. The serpent, represented knowledge of the powerful medicines to be found throughout nature, in both plants and animals. I once saw a TV show about milking snakes in Thailand; collecting venom, to make anti-venom! A source of dread, hurt, of death, turned into a means of life, of healing!

The snake was also the symbol of healing in the Greek temples of Aesculapius. When one was sick, one would go to the temple and spend the night. The snake would come and whisper in one’s ear what to do for healing. The ancient story from Numbers and this Greek tradition converge with the symbol of the intertwined snakes on a cross, which is the logo of the modern medical profession.

We know as well that in early Christianity there was a Gnostic Christian sect who worshipped the snake in the creation story, seeing it as the Christ symbol in the story. The snake, like Christ, was the one who brought consciousness and was cursed for doing it; very reminiscent of the ancient story of Prometheus.
So in the Numbers story, by facing the very thing which terrified, the people experienced the healing power of God. They could continue their journey.

The followers of Jesus were coming to terms with what it meant to live with the horror of crucifixion, both Jesus’ execution as a criminal, and their own persecution by Roman authorities. The writer of John’s gospel addresses Christians who have recently been expelled from the synagogue, at a time of deep conflict and division within the Jewish community. In a bloody Roman empire, they lived in fear because they followed one who had been crucified as a danger to the state. Persecutions and crosses had been many since that time for those who were Christ followers. One of the central themes of John’s gospel is a message of resistance; the irony that the humiliation of a criminal’s death on a cross actually leads to new life.

The writer compares facing the execution of Jesus with Moses lifting the bronze serpent in the wilderness. He tells them to look directly into the death of Jesus by execution. It will destroy the fear of the very instrument of torture used by the state to keep control. They will no longer be paralyzed by fear. Moses took the very thing that was poisoning the people, put it on a pole, and placed it firmly before their eyes. He said, “Look at it — See the healing power of God coming to you out of the snake.”

Facing Jesus on the cross has become a symbol that forces us to look death and evil in the face — but in so doing, we discover the life that even this horror cannot destroy. It points to the horror, but it points deeper still, to the love of God that does not end and to the power of new life that comes. The gospel writer is saying that the fears that the cross represents and whatever conflicts John’s community experienced are not the final word. The light has come into the world, and those who love truth are drawn to the light of Christ. In that light, what triumphs is love; God’s love so great that God is willing to give everything for the world God created. The light and unconditional love of God are stronger than our fear, stronger even than death.

God’s invitation to the Hebrew people, the Gospel writer’s invitation to the early Christians, to find healing by facing…. is an invitation to us as well to find healing as we too face what haunts us. Healing only can come when we face that which is crippling us. When we face our fears, they become smaller, and we find some perspective.

So, how do we help one another, we snake-tormented souls, we sojourners in the wilderness, how do we help one another to a faith that grasps the fear, that takes it and owns it…lifts it up, but also that dares to hope, to believe, to trust that there is healing in facing the very thing we fear…

We have choices about how we deal with fear. We can indulge our fears and live an anxious life trying to protect ourselves from danger. We can build a wall of security around ourselves in the illusion that we can insulate ourselves from life itself. We get paralyzed and live in denial. Or we can compensate for our fears by living a risky, thrill filled life. Though these kinds of people look as if they are not afraid, in fact, fear is often driving their reckless behaviour. Or We can avoid awareness of risk through self delusion or the use of intoxicants.

Or we can embrace life with all its risks, face our fears. accept the danger, and move forward into living. That’s what our scriptures suggest we do. Eleanor Roosevelt says “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.” This from the wife of the disabled President Roosevelt, who at his inauguration in the midst of the depression in 1933 said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

No wonder President Obama whose campaign slogan “Yes, We Can” has touched such a chord with people. In the face of fear-mongering, wars on terror, he faces into fear, names painful reality but holds up hope and courage and possibility thinking-.

At the height of the fearmongering around terrorism, writer Salman Rushdie said. “How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”

Feeling the fear, but facing it anyway. Courage is not the absence of fear, but managing your fear, and doing what needs to be done in spite of it.
In another scripture Jesus says “Perfect love casts out fear” Healing comes when we face what is crippling us. And allow the light of God to lead us.

Numbers 21: 4-9

The ancient story written down in Numbers, comes from a time of crisis for the Hebrew people. Moses was trying to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt through the wilderness. Everything was going wrong. Not enough food, or water: and now poisonous snakes were biting the people and they were terrified to move on. The people complain bitterly against both God and Moses. They ask God to remove the poisonous snakes. The people do not get what they want, but God tells Moses to do what seems at first glance to be a pretty strange thing! Let’s listen.

John 3: 14-21

The reading from John’s gospel is the last part of Jesus’ nighttime visit with Nicodemus. Scholars believe that the community to which John’s gospel was written was in deep conflict with their fellow Jews. It may be that they had recently been expelled from the synagogues and the hurts and angers created in the community permeate the gospel of John. In this context the writer tells the story of Nicodemus who comes in secret at night cautious about being identified with this Jesus.

Jesus with very earthy images speaks of new birth-a radical embodied earthy transformation to new life- and he speaks of the spirit of God blowing where it will. Jesus then reflects on the passage we read in Numbers.

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