Snakes on a Plain

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:14-17

Today our passages return us to the wandering in the wilderness. Specifically, this Numbers passage is the last, the final time, the Israelites complain in the wilderness. We’ve heard their complaints before.

They complain about the bitter water (Exodus 15), about the lack of food (Exodus 16).

They complain about being thirsty (Exodus 17).

They complain about manna and wish they had meat (Numbers 11).

And they complain about the prospect of invading Canaan (Numbers 14).

Their complaints remind me of the yelp style reviews people have made of the national parks. Have you seen those? An artist named Amber Share illustrated the best/worst one star review of each national park.

Here’s what someone said of Sequoia National Park: “There are bugs and they will bite you on your face”.

Of Yosemite, they said: “Trees block view and there are too many grey rocks.”

About the Grand Canyon, someone wrote: “A hole. A very, very large hole”.

I think our wandering in the wilderness ancestors would be writing similar one star reviews of their experience of being delivered out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

This time, they appear to have gone too far, even for a gracious God, one who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Because this time, they complain against God.

God sends snakes, real snakes. And these snakes kill people. I’d like to find some way to tame this passage down, to make it less scary than it is, but I can’t.

I don’t know how you feel about snakes, but a friend posted recently when she was staying at her parents house, that she woke up and saw a snake slithering across the bedroom. And it took most of a day to find and capture and release the snake out in to the yard. And as I was reading about it, I thought, “I’d burn the house down and start over. I’d never be able to sleep in a house knowing a snake was there”. Is that a rational response? No. Was it my response to hearing about a snake in a bedroom? Yes.

This story should be scary. I don’t think it is a coincidence that God uses the animal that scares us most to scare us straight. And it seems to work for the Hebrew people as well. They repent and beg Moses, asking him to intercede on their behalf to their God, against whom they had sinned.

And let’s be clear about their sin. What got them in so much trouble was not that they lifted up their disappointments to God.

It is that they didn’t trust God.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”, they complained.

They didn’t believe in God’s promises of LIFE. The whole wilderness experience for the Hebrew people wasn’t about getting the people to believe certain beliefs or doctrines about God. It was about getting them to trust that God would lead them to life in a new land, as God had promised.

Trusting in the promises of God.

It seems like that should be so easy, doesn’t it?

Yet, we live our lives as if we trust in anything but God.

We trust in ourselves.

We trust in money.

We trust in country—even though our country’s motto, written on our money,  is “In God we Trust”.

Where do you place your trust instead of in God?

The implications of this are huge for us as community.

Because if we don’t trust God, who created us and loves us, how can we trust our neighbors, especially the ones who don’t love us and aren’t anything like us?

And as we look at the world around us, we see a lot of behavior, often being enacted into law, that reveals how big our lack of trust issues are. It all reveals our fear of the other, our lack of trust in a God who is leading us to a future with hope.

When we don’t trust that God is leading us, how can we trust our neighbors?

Our theme today from the Belhar Confession is “A Call to Unity”. It’s hard to find unity in a culture that profits from fear. It’s hard to find unity when the one thing that might unify us—trusting in God—becomes just one more wedge to get in the way of our unity.

We look to the wrong things for salvation and we end up with snakes.

In Numbers, the killer serpents lead the people to repentance.

God hears Moses’ entreaties on behalf of the people and commands Moses to “make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Moses obeyed God and made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole. And whenever a serpent bit someone, the person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Notice God did not just get rid of the snakes. The dangers of the world were still there with them.

God took a symbol of fear and death and turned it into a symbol of life.

A photo I took of a cross with the serpent on Mt Nebo in Jordan, overlooking the promised land

Once the people have repented of their sin and turned again to trust in God, the thing that had been killing them becomes the thing that saves them.

And it worked very well, by all accounts, for years and years.

Centuries later, when King Hezekiah is leading reforms and cleaning out the Temple, around 700 BCE, listen to what he does, as recorded in 2 Kings 18:4. “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

So the chronicler of Hezekiah is making this report to let us know about what a good King Hezekiah was, but what I find interesting about this passage is that it shows that not only did Moses make this serpent, but that it worked, because people were still praying to it centuries later.

If the people believed that the bronze serpent, and not God, was the agent of their healing, then Hezekiah was right to destroy it. Whenever we mistake the signs and symbols for God, and we begin to worship the signs and symbols, instead of God, then we have made idols.

Take the sign and symbol of the Bible. Sometimes people seem to take the Bible so literally, it appears they are worshiping the book instead of the God who is revealed in the book.

I love my bible, don’t get me wrong. But I worship God.

So, we’re reminded not to turn snakes, or bibles, or money, or country, or anything else, into idols.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, asks this question about the snakes: “What is God capable of doing with those idols, once they have been plucked out from under our feet and set up on a pole where we can see them clearly? How does God respond to our fear, both in the wilderness, and at the foot of the cross?” (Barbara Brown Taylor in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2, (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2008)page 103).

Her question moves us toward the story in John’s gospel, where the connection is made between Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness to bring life from death, to the person of Jesus, who is lifted up on a cross to bring eternal life from death.

I get why the lectionary people assigned these two texts together in the lectionary. It is good and normal for us to make connections between them.

I just want to make sure we understand that Moses was not thinking about Jesus when he lifted up the serpent for the people. While we, as Christians, see the Numbers text in light of Jesus, the Hebrew people didn’t need Jesus in order to interpret it.

John’s gospel has some different themes, or different emphases, perhaps, then do the other gospels. One of them is the theme of being “lifted up”. Jesus often refers to the Son of Man being lifted up. On one level, he’s referring to the cross event, of his literally being lifted up onto a cross. On another level, it means being lifted up as being exalted, a sign of God’s glory, of death being turned into life. And there’s also the sense of his being lifted up to heaven.

Just as the Hebrew people can’t be saved from the danger of the snakes—remember God doesn’t take the snakes away—so too we cannot be saved without the experience of the cross. There is no exaltation without the crucifixion in John’s gospel.

So this passage from Numbers is brought in to reinforce for John’s community how God, in the past, had lifted up something to bring life to God’s people. They can recognize the healing power of God in the lifting up of Christ.

“Whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

John’s gospel, and this passage in particular, is often used to argue that our salvation largely rests on our choice. On our decision to choose Jesus.

And that is a part of this passage. There is a sense in John’s gospel that we do need to respond to the truth that “God so loved the world that God gave the only son”.

But our response to the grace that has saved us shouldn’t diminish the gift.

The exaltation of Christ on the cross that turns into the glory of the resurrection should not be reduced to only being something in our possession.

God didn’t so love just us. God so loved the WORLD. “Indeed”, we’re told in verse 17, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

So, we leave it to God to figure out how that saving works. That is way beyond our pay grade. We are not called to save. We are called to believe.

And we get busy, once we believe, creating a community where God’s love is abundant and available, lifted up for all to see.

What are we lifting up? Are we lifting up things that lead to repentance and to life and healing? Are we lifting up Christ, living into deeper discipleship and faith?

We are mid way through this Lenten journey. As we continue this journey to the cross, to our salvation, to the transformation of death into life, we are given this reminder of what to lift up.

We aren’t a social club, even if we enjoy each other’s presence socially.

We aren’t even a service club, no matter how helpful our presence may be in the community.

We are called to be a glimpse of God’s kingdom, lifted up for the community to see. As we make plans to slowly return to in person events and worship, can we be intentional about how we return, about what we lift up to the community and for each other?

A few weeks ago, when Texas was in the midst of the winter weather, I had to sit back and do nothing while my son was one of the millions of people who lost access to water. He hunkered down in his apartment for 5 days without water. I couldn’t help him. There wasn’t much he could do either. I had friends who would have taken him in, but they didn’t have water or power either, and Elliott at least had power. The university leadership was hard pressed to fix things either. They were also without power or water for their own families, and yet they worked tirelessly to make sure kids were fed.

Alumni donated bottled water that was distributed across campus. Dining room staff stayed on site because the roads were treacherous and they knew if they went home at night, they might not make it back in the morning to make breakfast. This mom was grateful to know people were there to care for my baby.

A college friend in Austin got busy making sure her elderly neighbor was safe in a friend’s home that had heat, and she coordinated people donating food to feed people who couldn’t leave their homes to get to the store.

When systems and government failed, the people came together to help, a sign of visible unity that overrode the differences we all have. Nobody cared who voted for whom or what opinions people had about any other topic.

It’s easy in the midst of such a crisis to worry about caring only for your own family, and there is nothing wrong with taking care of your own. But visible unity requires more than self focused concern. Risking your own comfort and safety to leave your house during a blizzard to make sure your neighbors are fed and safe—that is what we are to lift up for the world to see.

For all the selfishness and self-centeredness we can easily find in the world, there is an equal amount of generous and sacrificial love we can find, if only we look for it. If only we lift it up for the world to see.

What is lifted up on the cross is sacrificial love. God so loved more than one group. God so loved the world that God gave his only child. Not to condemn the world but so the world might be saved.

I’m appreciative of this Lenten reminder to be intentional about what we are lifting up for the world to see. What can we at Calvary lift up as a sign of our visible unity?

Are we offering up idols, only of value in service to themselves?

Are we offering up only fun and companionship, only in service to ourselves?

Or are we offering up Christ, letting the world see faith in resurrection and hope in new life?

How can we help each other live more deeply into discipleship, lifting the new life offered in Christ for the world to see?

I look forward to seeing how God is calling us to live into these questions. I am so thankful to be here in ministry with you.


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