Finding Healing in the Wilderness
Like the serpent on the bronze pole that Moses help up for the Israelites to be healed from snakebites in the wilderness, we are called to look to Jesus for healing. Healing is one of the gifts of the eternal life that believing in Jesus promises us during our life on this earth. Finding deep healing involves practices of interior examination, such as exploring our family’s impact on us, learning what causes our anxieties, and getting in touch with our feelings and emotions.
When I was going through the office to get acquainted with my new work home, I came across this booklet, A Voice in the Desert. Its author is none other than our very own Cory Suter, and in his little book Cory reflects on his experiences of traveling to the Arizona -Mexico border to learn more about the realities of immigrants who spend days in the Sonoran desert wilderness traveling north in search of a new life in the United States.
It’s clear that Cory had a life-changing experience as he encountered immigrants and heard their stories of hardship and suffering in the desert. Most of the reflections are poems, and Cory’s stories remind us of the journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt where they had been slaves toward a new land that God had promised them.
It’s a 40 yr. trek through harsh desert conditions such as the migrants from south of the border experienced in the desert.
And the Israelites do what most of us would do if we’re traveling on a long journey, and it seems like we are still a long way off from our destination.
They’re tired, and impatient, and angry and hungry for something other than the quails and the manna that God had provided them. We have a word for how they might have felt—HANGRY, with all bold caps!
And just like parents can get get fed up when their children get hangry, God gets fed up with the Israelites, so much so that He sends a plague of poisonous snakes which wreaks havoc on them, even killing some of them.
This shakes the people up, and they tell God they’re sorry for complaining about their situation, begging God’s forgiveness and asking Him to save them from the snakes.
Moses takes their request before God, and God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone gets bitten by a snake, all they need to do look up at the pole and they would be healed, their life would be saved.
Maybe you’ve seen that symbol of the snake wrapped around a pole somewhere. It’s the symbol of healing profession known as the American Medical Association.
Now there’s some debate about the origin of this symbol. It could be from this story in the Bible, or some say that it comes from Greek mythology and it’s called the rod of Asclepius.
Asclepius is known as the god of medicine and healing and snakes were sometimes seen as a symbol of healing in the ancient world. (Emmanuel, what’s your understanding of this?)
In any case, God showed mercy to the Israelites in the harsh environment of the wilderness, saving them through His healing power provided by that snake on a pole.
Whether it be a desert, or a forest, a jungle, the wilderness can be beautiful, but it can be a harsh environment to survive in, it is a place where we feel especially vulnerable and exposed to the elements of nature. As the prayer of confession reminded us, it reveals our needs.
We lived in Arizona for 9 years, and experienced some of that harshness and vulnerability ourselves. We learned quickly that to survive in the desert, you need sunscreen, and water, and a hat, and sturdy shoes to protect you from cactus spines and snake bites.
The wilderness can be a time of testing and take us to our limits, like we see in the Israelites and also in Jesus when he was tested and tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.
We are in the middle of that wilderness now, as we about halfway through the season of Lent. And the story of the Israelites time of testing fits well into this season.
In the Gospel of John, the Old Testament story and symbol of the snake on the pole shows up in a conversation that Jesus is having with a guy named Nicodemus.
Now Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a religious leader of the Jewish people, and he is intrigued by Jesus—who he is and the things that he says. And he has a lot of questions for Jesus.
And he and Jesus have this very deep conversation, about being born from above, or “born again" as some versions say. It’s like the process of a mother giving birth to a child, but it’s a spiritual birth, a rebirth that happens inside a person through the power of God’s Spirit.
And then Jesus talks about his role in this process of being born again, and to help Nicodemus understand in language that is familiar to him as an Israelite. Jesus likens himself to that serpent on the pole. He says in John 3:14-15:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Instead of looking up at a snake to find healing, people now can look up to Jesus.
And then in John 3:16 he adds the reason, the motive behind it, which is God’s incredible love for people, a love that we are remembering during this season of Lent with our theme song “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus.”
John 3:16 is a verse that many of us have heard or seen countless times in our lives.
Remember the guy with the rainbow wig at sporting events who held up the “John 3:16 sign”? Or maybe you saw the verse inscribed on football player Tim Tebow’s eye black when he was the quarterback for the University of Florida in the National Championship games against Oklahoma in 2009.
90 million people googled John 3:16 that day, and it was the number one thing trending on Facebook and Twitter.
Anyway, for the record, John 3:16 says: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Now when I was younger, I went along with a popular interpretation of this verse that we could say was the “pie in the sky” approach.
Basically, this meant that “believing” in Jesus meant saying a short prayer known as the “sinner’s prayer”, admitting that you’re a sinner, asking God to forgive you of your sins, and then receiving Jesus into your heart as your personal Savior.
When you said this prayer, you were now “saved”, you would have the gift of salvation. And then your ticket to “heaven” would be stamped.
And heaven was that place way off in the sky where you went after you died, and it was a place where the streets were paved in gold and everyone had their own heavenly mansions.
In the meantime, life on this earth was like a “holding pattern” until you got to heaven, which was like an escape from the earth.
Later I came to realize that what Jesus says here about being “born again” and healing and salvation and heaven to do with life after we leave this earth, but also have a lot to do with our life right here on this earth.
It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
Eternal life is life that already begins when a person starts living as a disciple of Jesus, with a commitment to the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, right here on earth.
This new Kingdom won’t be fully realized until that day in the future when earth and heaven become one, when the kingdom comes in all of its fullness—
it’s an already-not yet Kingdom, and it began when Jesus stood up to preach in his hometown of Nazareth, unrolled the scroll of the Hebrew Bible to the prophet Isaiah, and described the vision of His Kingdom:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
There’s so much to unpack here about how Jesus’ message here and how it is good news to people who live under the crushing reality of poverty, people who have been oppressed and enslaved by those who have more earthly power,
But no matter what our situation in life is, this vision of the Kingdom is a promise of hope and healing for all of us. Lasting hope and deep healing. Right now, and right here in our earthly existence.
Hope and healing are tied together, for when we experience healing, we find new hope.
But healing usually doesn’t come easy or quickly. Yes, there are those times when healing happens in ways that we can only say are miraculous, kind of like when the Israelites just looked up at the serpent on the pole and were instantly healed from their snakebites.
But most of the time true healing, deep healing, is a slow process that can also be painful. Kind of like the process of recovering from a deep wound.
I believe that the “eternal life” that Jesus was talking about is an abundant life, and it’s a life that involves not only a healthy physical body on the outside, but inner health and healing as well. It’s a holistic approach to life.
In the Deeply Formed Life book that some of us are going through, Rich Villodas presents a vision for becoming a healthy disciple of Jesus. And a big key to being a healthy disciple and having healthy relationships with others starts right here with paying attention to what’s going on here inside of us, what he calls interior examination.
Villodas says that “interior examination is a way of life that considers the realities of our inner worlds for the sake of our own flourishing and the call to love well.”. (p. 94)
He then tells a story to illustrate how we try to avoid the hard work of looking inside ourselves to see what’s going on. When he was in college, he heard a strange thumping sound while he was driving around in his car.
In the next couple of days the sound kept getting worse, so he said “I decided to do what any person who has no time or skill to address the issue does: I put down the windows and blasted the music.” Well, that muffled the sound, but it didn’t get to the root of the problem.
Then the next day while he was out driving with some friends, his tire exploded on the highway. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it could have been ugly.
He told this story as a way show a lesson he learned: sooner or later the stuff we ignore will explode when we least expect it.
In Villodas’ case, one of the things he needed to deal with was his anger, and how he tried to suppress it and ignore it instead of dealing with it before it got out of hand and he exploded.
In the book, Villodas recommends three practices of interior examination that can help us in our journey to find healing and more fully become who God created us to be, to become more of what Paul said to the Ephesians in our scripture today, people who are created to do good works,
Healthy people who can flourish and experience the abundant life through having a healthy relationship with ourselves and healthy relationships with other people.
I want to briefly share those practices of interior examination with you, and encourage you to read more about them in Villodas’ book if you’d like to go deeper.
The first practice is taking an honest look at our family of origin. We are shaped by our families more than we realize, and examining the role our family has played in our life is enlightening, and sometimes painful.
Villodas mentions three areas about our families to explore—the first is patterns, legacies that we have inherited. He says “Jesus might live in your heart, but grandpa lives in your bones”.
There may be positive and negative legacies that our families pass onto us, and it does us well to identify them.
The second area about our families is trauma—what kind of trauma have we experienced through our family—he defines trauma as “getting what I didn’t deserve” or “not getting what I did deserve”. Probably lots to uncover here.
In families, there’s patterns, there’s trauma, and there are scripts. Scripts are the messages about what our roles should be and the ways we are supposed to live.
The second practice Villodas talks about is anxiety. He invites us to ask the question: What situations make us anxious, and why might that be so? Asking this can help expose the paralyzing grip that anxiety can have on us.
And the third practice Villodas addresses is the area of feelings, our emotions. Feelings are what’s underneath the surface of the iceberg of our life. And he says that we have too often been taught to avoid, repress, or rationalize our feelings rather than owning up to them and examining what’s going on with them.
He suggests the simple practice of asking four questions on a regular basis:
What am I mad about? What am I anxious about?
What am I sad about? What am I glad about?
By looking inside ourselves to examine our family, anxiety and feelings, Villodas says that we will be more able to open ourselves up to the love and grace of God so we can experience freedom and healing.
And as a result, we can have healthier relationships with others that are deeper and more filled with love and grace.
This past year with the pandemic and the political tensions we have experienced, and all that has come with them, we may have felt like we’ve been wandering through a long wilderness.
We’ve no doubt had our share of painful feelings/emotions and experiences, both inside of ourselves and well as in our relationships with others.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s those times when we are in the wilderness and feeling vulnerable, weak, and on the verge of despair that God is especially near to help us and bring us healing, just like He did with Jesus in his struggles in the wilderness.
There’s truth to what C.S. Lewis said when he said “God whispers to us in our pleasure, but shouts to us in our pain.”.
It takes time, and hard work, but God is the great Healer and in his mercy and grace can bring us deep healing and make us more healthy and whole people,
People who experience inner peace and people who have so much to offer to the people and world around us.
I want to close with a quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who is best known for identifying the five stages of grief.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.
So let’s approach our wilderness experiences not with despair but with hope, looking up to Jesus, because these times are opportunities for healing, opportunities to trust more in God’s healing power, opportunities to become stronger and grow in ways that we could never imagine. AMEN.