Ten times, the Book of Numbers tells us, ten times already the people put God to the test. The story sounds like what my generation would call “ a broken record.” Again and again and again, the people want this, the people want that – until it literally bites them back.
Repentance requires turning oneself around. To help them do that, Moses mounted an image on a pole for the people to look at, to help them focus finally on something other than themselves.
And are we any different? Sure, we’re not wandering through the Sinai in search of cucumbers and melons. Our sins seem different, but the story’s much the same. We live rich, comfortable lives, but we’re still stuck in the desert. We too have our wants, and all too often we likewise let them rule us. In the famous words of the Book of Common Prayer: “We have erred and strayed like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”
Our world further feeds our obsession with ourselves. There are advice columns, self-help books, therapists, life coaches, personal trainers, old media, new media – and heaven knows what else – all focusing us on ourselves. But the lesson learned in the desert is that forgiveness and freedom and salvation are ours when we look away from ourselves, when – as Jesus explained – we turn away from our sins and turn to Christ on the cross. As the Pope said just this past Sunday, God “never tires of forgiving, but we, at times, we tire of asking forgiveness.” But, as in the desert, however many times we look the wrong way, Christ calls us to turn to him instead. There, those who had been bitten looked up at the image on the pole and recovered. And so it is with us, when we turn and look instead to our one and only savior, who takes us out of ourselves, as only he can. And through that simple movement of letting ourselves be turned around – which is what the sacrament of penance is all about - we too find forgiveness … and freedom … and salvation.
Homily at the Lenten Penance Service for Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost parishes, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 19, 2013.