Whatever happened to Moses bronze serpent?


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bronze-serpentSome questions are never asked but you come across the answer anyway. Another way of putting it – “When do life-saving traditions turn sour and useless?”

Now that’s more useful. To know what happened to Moses’ artefact, read 2 Kings 18:1-8. It had long outlived its purpose and become something detrimental to the life of the nation.

The helpful question then is “What long respected tradition in our community life has outlived its purpose and, for the sake of community well-being, needs to be replaced or abandoned?”

I once served a church that prided itself on “not having any traditions.” Within a week I had identified several deep-seated ones. These are not detrimental if they are community building and life-giving. When they become life-sapping and a source of diffusion of community focus they become, not Moses’ bronze serpent, but Hezekiah’s dead snake on a stick.

So where will we start?

Snake on a stick

caduceus_largeWhen we were kids on a long road trip, we would end up complaining loudly about the time, the length of the journey, each other and life in general. The parental reaction was “If you don’t stop I’ll give you something to whinge about!”

Something like this happened in the wilderness where the Israelites wandered for forty years. They wouldn’t stop whinging about their lot. Fed up, God sent venomous snakes into the camp. There were many deaths from snake-bite, so they turned to Moses for help. God told Moses to make an image of a snake from bronze and erect it high on a pole. All people had to do was look at it when bitten and they would be safe.

There are other reasons for the image of a snake on a stick that is sometimes on our medicine bottles (see Aesculapius) .

However Christian imagery picks up this bizarre story as an image of the work of Christ on the cross (see John 3:14).  The ancient wisdom underpinning all this is to suggest that it is looking into our malady that we find our cure. It is also found in the gospel’s double entendre in that “raising Christ up” (on the cross? from the tomb?) God’s purpose for us all is accomplished.


Drought-time faith


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Jeremiah 14:1-9 takes us into a real-time angst-ridden experience of drought where no relief is in sight. How do people pray in such circumstances?

Lay it all out as it is – don’t hold anything back. Be impolite and complain – God is not so fragile that God cannot handle it! But Jeremiah also identifies with and owns up to his people’s own transgressions – a hard ask for us in a society that abandons the common good in favour of individualistic self-interest.

Nevertheless, in spite of circumstances, a trust in God’s provision prevails.

Scandal and folly


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jesterThe church is no stranger to either and often bears both at the same time. This morning the resolution of a strange and very public dispute between a local priest and his diocese is in the media. No doubt it will add fuel to the fire of the public perception that the church is a collection of nuts!
One of my favourite church satire sites is Ship of Fools.
Comedy shows often depict clergy as incompetent clueless idiots.
So why continue? Ironically, this can also be one of the most endearing features of the church as we pull back the skin.
Who doesn’t love the Vicar of Dibley?
And the Apostle Paul caught on. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Any vision that has the cross, an instrument of shame and torture, as its focus is bound to attract derision.
According to Renée Girard, we all need a scapegoat upon which to project our chaotic and destructive desires and maintain a cohesive and civil society. When that scapegoat transcends this imposed role and becomes a messiah that redeems society, we are flabbergasted.
Hence Paul preaches Christ crucified, “a scandal to his own people, and foolishness to others.”


When Jesus let fly …


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Jesus Cleansing the TempleChristian activism, maligned by many, has one prominent stand-out exemplar – the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus described in today’s text in John 2:13-22. 

Holding passive sit-ins at parliamentary offices seems mild compared to the passionate action of Jesus turning over moneychanger’s tables and fashioning a scourge to drive animals from the temple precincts.

Both evoke the question that bridges the ages, “By what authority do you do these things?”

The occasion in John’s gospel becomes an opportunity for reflection on how Jesus as the Christ embodies in his death and resurrection a new cosmic order. The Temple and its ways will be no more.

Christian activism similarly challenges the way things are with the way things might be according to the cosmic order of shalom ushered in by Jesus. It looks forward to the day when things, as they are, will be no more due to the spirit of the living Christ that is already at large amongst his followers, already practising shalom amongst themselves and eager and zealous to see it spread.

Hope when all is hopeless



haggaiHaggai is not a well-known prophet but his words are like fresh spring water bubbling up in a parched paddock. His work is summarised well by Rev’d Peter Walker in today’s commentary on the text in With Love To The World, “he inspired Israel to recognise that a shattered people can rebuild their community.”

I remember how, in my first month of service at Fremantle, WA, we ministered to survivors who had come down from the Christmas Day, 1974, devastation in Darwin from Cyclone Tracy. They believed it was the end of Darwin. Today Darwin is the thriving capital city of the Northern Territory.

More recently, near and far, communities destroyed by wildfire are rebuilding against all odds. No matter how captive we become through depressing circumstances, it seems that, collectively, there is enough of a spark of resilience to start again.

We see glimpses of it in the places of deepest despair – Syria, Manus, Nauru.

Haggai’s strident optimism and hope may still catch us wherever we are.



Jeremiah’s critique


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Opening_parliament_house_1988The complaints in Jeremiah’s critique could well come from the press gallery in the Canberra, or Washington, or London of today. Unjust bias for the wealthy, subterfuge, graft, double-dealing – all happening amongst the ruling class of Israel in the years leading up to the first destruction of Jerusalem’s temple and forced exile of the population to Babylon in 587 BC. Surely there is nothing new under the sun.

Jeremiah’s frustration is palpable. For almost forty years, no one listened to him. Even today, though remembered, his name is used as an epithet for pessimism and doom. Yet his message carried an antidote for us who stand at today’s crossroads.

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

Jeremiah did not cease, and he was vindicated.

Dissing the Decalogue?




“Les tables de la Loi”, vitrail de synagogue, Alsace, fin du 19e siècle, Musée alsacien de Strasbourg.
Ji-Elle – Own work

Hear the phrase “Ten Commandments” and you’re likely to get a reaction! They form today’s text from Exodus 20:1-17

The scared and anxious in our society want to reclaim them as a kind of fortress to which to retreat.  Chiselled into our court buildings and taught every day in our schools, this set of edicts will protect us from all that threatens our cohesion and security. More progressive views in our community prefer to leave them to a bygone age with little relevance for today.


To understand the context from which the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) emerged, an escaped band of slaves seeking cohesion through faith and community while wandering the wilderness and growing a sense of destiny, we can transfer the essence behind the Decalogue into our own time.

It boils down to a sense of rootedness in the Source of our own being (Jesus called it “loving God”) and is evident in the first four of the ten. In loving the Source of our own being, the natural corollary is to care for our community, as small or as large as we perceive it to be (Jesus called it “loving our neighbour as our selves”) – these are the final six commandments.

No need to diss ’em!

Identity crisis?


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who-do-you-say-i-am_std_t_nvSometimes over-familiar bible passages throw out a surprise. Today’s text  from Mark’s Gospel follows the meme we grew up calling the “Good Confession.” Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say I am?” and Peter makes the “good confession” – “You are the Messiah [Christ].”

The surprise is being asked to consider whether we are to understand this exchange as Jesus testing his disciples to see whether they’ve “got it” yet, or whether he was seeking affirmation for himself.

In this modern era, the expectation is that we are creators of our own destinies, highlighting the freedom of the individual to pick and choose their path.

In previous days, one’s identity was formed primarily by their extended family, or tribe, or cultural group. The ascendancy of the concept of the individual is a much later thing. This cast’s Jesus two questions “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” in a much different light. It increases our awareness of his vulnerability. He is reliant on those around him, those who have become part of his following, to grant him his identity. We are in the part of Mark’s Gospel where he has firmly established himself as a well known public figure whose message is in direct contradiction of that of the Empire.

For him to carry this consciousness through to its costly conclusion requires an affirmation from beyond his inner awareness. Peter supplies it.

Once Peter realises the implications and the cost and tries to divert Jesus from his course, Jesus rebukes him. The power of recognition in the words “You are the Christ” is too strong to resist.

We should think twice before making the “Good Confession,” for once uttered it can’t be taken back without great cost, and once uttered it requires great cost to follow through.

We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder…



Jacob’s story is not exemplary. He was a smooth operator who finally met himself in a confronting way – a way that involved disturbing encounters with the Source of his being. One of these encounters (Genesis 28:101-17) became a song sung by oppressed slaves of the southern states of the USA. Its plaintive cry perhaps expresses Jacob’s inner journey from bondage to health and integrity.