Numbers 21: 4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 detest this miserable food.”
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Psalm 102: 2-3, 16-21
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die.
John 8: 21-30
Again he said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” They said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
It is easy to be shocked by the Israelites’ attitude in the first reading. They had just experienced a miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians and were on their way to the Promised Land, sustained every day with bread from Heaven, and yet seemed so quick to question God, His goodness, and His plan for them. Looking at their journey, and knowing how the story ended, we may wonder why their faith was so feeble. But how many of us have also become worn out and impatient on our own journeys? How many times have we witnessed God’s goodness in our lives, even in miraculous ways, but then started to doubt when that faith was tested?
Part of the Israelites’ struggle was that they did not completely grasp the purpose of their time in the desert. They were making their way toward the Promised Land, but that desert time was not merely a placeholder between suffering and happiness. During the journey, God was working continually to develop His people’s relationship with Him. He wanted them to learn to rely on Him for their every need, to learn His law and choose to seek His will. This is what would set them apart when they reached the Promised Land, since the promise was not merely freedom from slavery but living as God’s chosen people. The Lord knew what battles laid ahead of His people, how their faith would be tested even beyond the desert, and He knew what it would take to strengthen them and teach them to look to Him for everything. This is why He gave them manna each day. This is why He gave His law while they were still in the desert. And when the Israelites failed in gratitude and trust, He needed to humble them. They needed to gaze on the serpent, which represented their sin, the disaster their sin caused, and their inability to redeem themselves in their own power. It was a moment of reckoning and returning to God, reminding themselves that they did not in fact have all the answers and they needed His mercy to bring them through, just as they needed Him to deliver them from Egypt.
In many respects we can also think of our lives as having “desert” seasons, and our Church gives us the opportunity to meditate on this reality during Lent. Beyond waiting for Easter, perhaps you are waiting on a prayer to be answered, or a new phase of life to begin. The waiting period can be challenging, and we can be tempted to regard that season as “dead space” while we wait for happiness. We may wonder why God is letting us wait and struggle, when He has been good to us before. Like the Israelites, we may wonder the purpose of His goodness before if He has just left us in an empty space now. The Scriptures today give us three important reminders for the journey:
1. Whatever season you are in, this part of your journey is on purpose. Just as God had not forsaken the Israelites but wanted to use their desert experience to strengthen their faith, times of transition and waiting can be efficacious in strengthening our walk with God. Challenge yourself to look at this trial as an opportunity to grow in humility and trust. It will serve you well when you do reach that next phase you are waiting for.
2. Even in the Promised Land, there will be the Cross. When Jesus speaks of being lifted up in the Gospel, He is referencing the Cross, and as Christians, our call and salvation is to follow Him in the Cross as much as God allows. Because of this, our journey toward God will be a continual process of laying down our own lives so that God’s grace can work in us and make us who He wants us to be. This will look like different things in different seasons of our lives, but it is not realistic to expect to avoid carrying a cross in this life. On the contrary, to ask for release from the Cross would be asking to be separated from Christ.
3. Nevertheless, we always have hope when we turn to Jesus on the Cross. He was lifted up, having taken on all our sin, failure, and weakness, and when we come face-to-face with that reality and cry out to Him, He will be swift to answer. He does not come to take our Crosses away, but He will come close to us and help us carry them, which will give us the most joy we can hope to experience on this side of Heaven, even in the most challenging circumstances.
During this last week of Lent before Holy Week, take some time to reflect on your own journey toward the Lord. Gaze on a crucifix and resolve to carry your cross well, uniting your struggles and weariness to the One who already bore it all and loves you with an undying love. Take heart that He is near to you as you cry out to Him and will give you all you need as you continue to strive toward Him, both in the Lenten desert and throughout your pilgrimage on Earth.