Stop Looking at Snakes
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21
Ministry is a second career for me. My first career consisted of doing computer network support. I’m sure you can see how those two are related, huh? Early in our marriage, during a time we now refer to as the exile, my husband and I lived in North Carolina where I worked in a computer development and testing lab. One day, one of the locals named Jimmy who worked at the lab came in and announced that his wife had left him. We were all shocked as we thought they had a really solid marriage. Many of us began to offer our sympathies. No – no Jimmy said – she hasn’t left me for good. And he went on to tell us what happened. Apparently, they had seen a snake in their house over the weekend and when Jimmy wasn’t able to find it in the house by bedtime, his wife packed a bag, packed up the kids and went to her mother’s telling him she wouldn’t be back until he had found and killed the snake. All the men who worked with us responded that – sure that was a crazy thing for her to do. My response was, “I get why she would do that.” After I voiced my opinion, Jimmy looked at me incredulously, shock his head and turned and walked away mumbling something about “women”. I know I should have called him on that “women comment” but since it was the first time I had ever heard him refer to females as anything other than “gals” I decided to let it pass.
With apologies to those who keep snakes as pets, one of whom is from my own family and present, I still hate snakes.
But since that time in NC years ago, I have decide that when people try to label my fear of snakes as “a female thing” I’m going to answer, “ No, it’s a Scriptural thing.” Snakes – or serpents as they are often referred to in the Biblical text – appear throughout the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation. And with the exception of Moses’ staff which is changed into a serpent to show that he spoke for God – and which by the way, frightened Moses himself the first time it happened– with that one exception – serpents are always displayed and spoken of negatively in the Scripture. So I’ve decided if the Bible says they’re to be feared, my fear is not squeamishness, common to my gender- its Biblically based wisdom. Who could read today’s Old Testament story and think otherwise? Our task is not deciding that serpents are fearsome, it’s to recognize the serpents in our own lives and recognize how we can be and are saved from them.
I would be remiss if I didn’t start at the beginning of the text and note that the problems in this story don’t start with the serpents. The problems start in the first verse – with the peoples’ impatience. The problem starts in hearts that are ungrateful. When this passage begins the Israelites, having been freed from slavery in Egypt have been wandering in the wilderness – a wilderness they should have been able to cross in a couple weeks – for about 37 years. Not as people used to joke, because the men were leading and refused to stop and ask for directions. Not because I guess the more current joke would be – their GPS was on the fritz. They were wondering because they had refused to take direction when God had given it. So God left them in the wilderness and awaited the arrival of a new generation – who it was hoped – would follow God’s direction and be more obedient to God’s commands.
But when we find them in chapter 21 in Numbers this new generation doesn’t look all that different from the previous one – they continue the complaining that has been going on since this journey started. First, we should note what they don’t say… they don’t thank God for caring for them in the wilderness all these years. These snakes didn’t appear out of nowhere. The dessert is full of serpents and scorpians but they have been protected by God and have been safe from them. The dessert is not an abundant place in terms of food either – yet God has fed them manna and quail and kept this community alive. I’m sure they didn’t pass many reservoirs where they could fill up their jars and skins. It is God who has provided them again and again with life sustaining water. God – the God who took them out of oppressive bondage – has taken care of every single need they have had all these years and their response is to complain and wish they were enslaved again – in order that the wants of their flesh might be met.
During their years and years of their wilderness journey, every time the Israelites decide they want something that God hasn’t given them, they murmur and grumble and talk about how good things were in the old days in Egypt. Funny thing is – most of the people now alive hadn’t been in Egypt – but it seems in the stories passed down in their communities the bad parts are kind of glossed over so now their life back in Egypt sounds a whole lot better than it really was. They had been enslaved and oppressed and they had been calling out to God for deliverance all those many years – yet now these people look back on that time with longing.
I can’t tell you how often I run into this syndrome in my work with the incarcerated. Men will talk about the lives they used to lead and the money they used to have and forget that their behavior had led them into a dangerous world where they were always looking over their shoulder. These are men who had been shot – who have lost their families and their freedom and they look back and think – Man those were the days. It’s like addicts who remember only the high they got and not what it costs them. It’s like compulsive gamblers who remember the one big win and forget the bankruptcy that followed. Its like many of us who look back on our country’s history and fondly remember “the simpler times” while forgetting the oppression of minorities, the horrible treatment of the mentally ill, the exploitation of workers and the poor, and the other injustices that marked those days. People who look back to their pasts with rose colored glasses, remembering only the good stuff and forgetting the bad, always seem to be asking God why we can’t go back to “the way it was?” And that was the Israelites. It seems like they wanted God to deliver them but on their own self-centered, self-indulgent terms.
And there complaining sounds just as foolish as it is. Look at what they say. We have no food – we’re starving – oh – and we hate the food you give us. These foolish people serve as a warning to us – the wealthy – well feed and sometimes quite spoiled.If we’re going to set things up as idols –if we want to stake our security in something other than God, we certainly shouldn’t be foolish enough to then go to God with ungrateful hearts and a sense of entitlement and ask God why we can’t have them. I’m not saying having nice things is bad. God has given me plenty of nice things and I’m grateful for every one of them. But we need to be wise enough to know they won’t save us or provide meaning in our lives.
Max Lucado once said God will do whatever it takes to get you to turn to him. He’ll take your burdens…he’ll even take your blessings. So for the Israelites, God’s protection against the snakes stop. The text says God actually sent the snakes among them . Perhaps we are uncomfortable with that. There are some things which – quite frankly, I wish the Bible didn’t say – and this is one of them. But it’s important to remember that God’s purpose is not punishment – but transformation – as I hope will be clear as we continue to explore this text.
So the text goes on to say the people were bitten and many died. Note it says many – like it took them a while to think what to do about this. What did they try first – did they check the wounds- tell themselves they weren’t really that bad, and try to treat them ? …did they try to kill the snakes? ….whatever they did to try to save themselves, when that failed, they admit their own sinfulness and ask Moses to intercede to God on their behalf.
How long do you think it took them to finally seek God’s help? How Many of them had to perish?
It reminds me of the story of a little boy who was trying to move a big rock as his father watched from the porch. First, he tried to push it. But the rock was heavy and he couldn’t budge it. But he was a bright boy – so next he tried digging around the base and getting his fingers underneath to lift it, but it was still too heavy. Eventually, he got a stick and tried to pry it up to get it to move, but the rock was so heavy, the stick just broke. Throwing it down in frustration, he began to cry. He father called from the porch and asked him why he was crying. He answered, “because I can’t move this rock.” “Of course you can,” said his father. “I can’t,” answered the boy. “Did you try everything?” his father asked. “Yes,” the boy answered. I tried everything I know. And the father replied, “You didn’t try asking me for help.”
Eventually, the Israelites are wise enough to turn to God. But God doesn’t answer their prayer in the way they had hoped. He doesn’t make the snakes go away. God leaves them there among the people – still biting. Why is that do you think? I think it’s because of humanity’s tendency toward forgetfulness. How long would it have been until they forgot their fear and started grumbling again or how long until they convinced themselves that they had been the ones who had killed the snakes? Can you imagine the stories and legends that would have arisen about the great snake hunt and elimination? We’re about to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – and one of the great legends surrounding the saint was that he removed all the snakes from Ireland, turns out though, they don’t think there ever were any snakes in Ireland.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight and try to kill those snakes that we come across, but we need to recognize that saving our world doesn’t depend on us – and our wisdom and bravery.
At this point I want to note that I believe God’s offer to save the people puts the sending of the snakes in a new light. This is where we see God’s ultimate purpose. Had that been an act of vengeance on God’s part God simply would have let them all die.
What God does instead is to offer a way of salvation that requires them to look up to the way of deliverance that God had provided. Should serve as a reminder that God is the one who has and does provide for us in innumerable ways every day.
But there was a catch. For the Israelites, in order to receive God’s mercy and God’s salvation, they needed to take their eyes off the snakes and off themselves and their wounds and look to the life-giving symbol that God had instructed Moses to make. Sounds simple…must have been one of the hardest things in the world. And I think it still is. It’s so easy to point out the snakes and to focus on them and try to figure out where they came from – and who’s fault it is- and what they’ve done to wound us – and what kind of snakes are hanging out in other people’s lives.
At the very least, after being bitten, surely they must have been tempted to sneak peeks at the wounds – or continue with their own efforts at healing “just in case”. Surely once they had been bitten the temptation would have been to spend all their time looking around for other snakes that might wound them. Maybe some even refused to look because up at the bronze snake because it was just too foolish – after all that couldn’t really help. I have no doubt many still needlessly perished. More’s the pity.
So what’s it to us?
We might begin by admitting that this wilderness we call 21st century America is full of poisonous serpents. And we would do well to ask ourselves exactly what are the serpents in our lives? Our seemingly insatiable consumerism, our pride and individualism, those things we know to be wrong that persist and are not only tolerated in our enlightened society – but often exulted? There is Violence and intolerance of those who look or think differently from us. There’s injustice and hatred. There are plenty of snakes in the world.
Maybe God didn’t send them – maybe in our own self-centeredness, we went looking for some of them and invited them into our camp, maybe someone else left them near our tents, maybe because there are so many in this fallen world we live in some of them just wandered in. Once we found that they were injurous, maybe we tried to convince ourselves they weren’t lethal –we keep an eye on the wound and tell ourselves its not bad and is going to get better but all the while, the poison is working its way through our lives. If these bites are not physically deadly– they are nonetheless spiritually lethal – When we have been wounded- and we all have been at some time or another, we’re likely to find ourselves living with bitterness or hatred or hopelessness or paralyzing fear.
Maybe we try to kill the snakes ourselves, but can’t. Maybe we’re so busy on the alert for any other snakes that might enter our lives that looking for snakes takes all our time and energy. Maybe we like the Israelites just ask God to take them away – but he hasn’t. But what he has offered us – is something to look up to and believe in which will save us from the sure death we face from these serpents in our lives. It is the cross of Christ.
Last week Pastor Brian asked what we see when we look at the cross. What we should see is the grace of God that comes to us in our brokenness and our own sinfulness and asks us to believe that God’s love and grace can overcome all that the serpents and we ourselves have done to harm us.
Our salvation depends on our belief in Jesus and his ability to save us. God calls us to fix our eyes not on the world around us and the snakes that seem to reside everywhere or even on our own injuries and wounds, but upon Christ who lived and died and rose for us that we might have eternal life. And if we will keep our eyes fixed on him God will give us a vision of so much more. We will be invited to see that this gift of salvation was provided by a God who wished not to condemn and destroy us – despite our own foolishness or sinfulness – but by a God who loved us so much that he saved us from the deadly poisons within us through the gift of his only Son. We will be invited to see – not only who Jesus is – but a vision of who we can be in him – not the weak ailing sinfilled broken people who have encountered too many serpents – but instead the healed, whole, children of God whose lives God wants to transform not in the future – but today. We are asked to look up and remember that it is Christ and not us that has the power to save and transform us.
But like the Israelites, many will choose to look elsewhere for salvation. They will pretend the threat is not really dangerous – they will seek ways to serve as their own God and they will be too proud or feel too foolish to look to God for help – and their own hardness of heart will cause them to perish. Some will be so busy looking at the snakes – and trust me there will always be plenty of them to look at – that they won’t have hope to believe there can be anything that can save us.
But still the cross stands…calling us to look upon Jesus and believe that our loving God offers us salvation if we will but look, believe in Christ and his message of the God who loves us and keep our eyes fixed upon him. And if we can do that – recognizing all that God has done for us in Christ, perhaps our hearts will remain so grateful that we won’t have time for grumbling to the God who takes care of our needs –and heals us from the very worst that the serpents of this world can do.
Rev. Tami Hooker
Bower Hill Community Church
March 15, 2015