God’s Vaccine (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

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I had to get up early enough to be in Waldorf at 8:00 am, but on Thursday I got my first Covid vaccine shot!  I’m really glad to have been able to get my shot, and I’m looking forward to a time in the (hopefully) not so distant future when everybody will be “fully immunized.”

Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with my primary care physician (who is an infectious disease specialist) about an unrelated issue.  But I told him I had an appointment to get the vaccine.  He asked me which one I was getting, and I told him I didn’t know.   But he said whichever one I got, I had his blessing.  Because, he, said, they’re all good.  And as another doctor put it online recently, “all of them are 100% effective at keeping you out of the hospital, out of the ICU and out of the morgue!”  And that’s what matters!

Of course, the thing about a vaccine is that it doesn’t actually prevent the virus from coming near you, or even potentially lingering in your body (which is why CDC still says that even immunized people should wear a mask around those who aren’t).  The virus is still out there.  What the vaccine does is prevent the virus from taking hold of you. 

And because the virus can’t kill you or incapacitate you, you can get on with your life!  You can begin to return to normal.  And the stress of worrying about what might happen really does decrease. 

So I was thinking about vaccines as I was reading the lessons for today, and it struck me that, in a sense, Moses gave the people a kind of ancient vaccine.

In today’s story from Numbers, the ancient Israelites have been journeying through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  On the way, things have been rough.  And as they went along, they started to complain vociferously about virtually everything, and how they felt that God and Moses just weren’t taking very good care of them.

And to make things worse, suddenly they found themselves in the midst of poisonous snakes (which shouldn’t have been that surprising considering where they were.)  But they interpret the presence of the poisonous snakes in their midst as punishment from God for speaking “against God and against Moses.”  And so they ask Moses to ask God to take away the snakes.

So Moses does.  He asks God to please make the snakes go away.

But God doesn’t take away the snakes.  Instead, he tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole.  Then, whenever someone gets bitten, they are to look at the bronze snake, and they’ll live.

Like the virus, the snakes were still out there.  They could still bite people.  It would still hurt to be bitten.  But now, God had given them a kind of ancient vaccine.  The snake bite wouldn’t kill them. The snakes wouldn’t be the center of their lives anymore.  They could continue on with their journey.  And they reached the Promised Land.

In the end, God didn’t magically make their problem go away.  But he gave them a way through it.  He gave them the ability to endure.  He gave them hope and strength to continue their journey until they reached the Promised Land.

And while that may not have been what the people asked for, it was what they needed.  In that time with the snakes, they realized that God wouldn’t always make their problems and fears go away, but he would always give them a way through them.  He would always be there to help them and give them strength.  And their fears and problems would not be able to stop them from reaching the place God wanted them to be.

And this is probably why Jesus references this story in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, also, is leading his followers on a journey.  And probably very often Jesus’ first disciples hoped that Jesus would insulate them from the fears, dangers and problems that slithered around them.

Jesus wasn’t going to do that.  Jesus wasn’t even going to take the dangers, fears or hardships away from himself.  But Jesus was going to give his followers a way through.  And that way through was the Cross.

Even as the ancient Israelites probably didn’t want to look at another snake, nobody following Jesus wanted to look at a Cross.  It was a terrifying symbol of pain, suffering and death. And yet what Jesus did on the Cross showed that even death won’t ultimately be able to kill us. 

Many times in my life, and maybe in yours too, I ask God to take away the “snakes”.  Please God, make this problem just go away.  Erase it from my memory.  Don’t make me have to face it anymore.

I ask this for myself.  And I ask it for others.  And occasionally, God takes away the snake.

But that’s usually not how life works for me or anyone else.  But it’s also true that that’s never the end of the story.  God never leaves us without help, hope and strength to move forward.  And God’s help and hope in our lives can take many forms.  Sometimes, they’re obvious, and sometimes they may seem really strange (like that bronze snake on a pole).  But God always answers with help and hope.

Sometimes, that help and hope comes from the presence of a friend or family member.  Sometimes, that help and hope comes from the development and availability of a vaccine.  And sometimes, the help and hope comes from the promise that Jesus’ death and resurrection means that not even the thing that kills me will have the last word in my life.

Like Moses, sometimes we spend time asking God to take the snakes away from our lives.  But whether that happens or not, Jesus calls us to look for signs of God’s hope, especially when we face fear.  Jesus calls us to look for the presence of God’s help, especially when we feel weak.  And Jesus’ calls us to look for how God is guiding us towards the place God wants us to be, even if that way isn’t what we first imagined.