Our Failures, God’s Promise: In the Wilderness, a Way
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
When my nephew was about 4 years old he came out to visit me in South Dakota.
Grandma and grandpa drove him out, he went to Bible School with the children at my church, and we had a good time together. At the end of the week I drove him back to Minnesota and to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
Which turned out to be an ordeal. More than I expected.
It was about a 4 and a half hour trip, but you would have thought it was 40 years in the wilderness.
He was sitting in his car seat in the back seat and every couple of minutes he would ask again, how many miles? (Like he knew what a mile was)
Or how any minutes? (Like he had any real concept of how long a minute was.)
Every few minutes the question again, and every few minutes I tried to give him an answer. I even tried to stop at a Dairy Queen for a treat along the way, and that didn’t seem to brighten his mood.
And at one point his little despairing voice cried out, “Oh, I don’t think we’re EVER going to get to Grandma’s house!”
O Ye of little faith.
There is so much in this reading from Numbers that is outside of our experience. Except the complaining.
That part we can understand.
The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about 40 years now and they are complaining.
They don’t like the manna, they don’t think they are ever going to get where they are going, they doubt not only Moses’ wisdom, but God’s. And this “Murmuring” –that’s what it is called in scripture” — this has been going on for –oh – about 40 years.
So they are complaining in the wilderness – but the things that happen next – they are strange, and if we are honest, they probably don’t fit our picture of God.
First there are the serpents that God sends.
The scriptures doesn’t say that God sends them as a punishment exactly – but that’s what the Israelites understand, and when the serpents start biting them, and they die, they cry out to God for help. They ask God to take the serpents away.
Which (and this is strange too) God doesn’t do.
Instead, God says, make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and when people who are bitten look at it, they will live.
And that is what they do, and that is what happens.
When the people who are bitten look at the bronze serpent on a pole, they are healed. They do not die.
I’m not going to lie – this seems like a strict punishment for complaining, which is something we all do, sometimes.
In fact, if you read the Psalms, there are plenty of laments that sound exactly like complaining.
The Psalmist complains about the presence of evil in the world, and that he doesn’t understand God’s ways.
“Why do the wicked prosper? Why am I suffering? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
All of these complaints and questions are right there in the Psalms. The words are there for us to pray.
But here in Numbers, when the Israelites complain, they get serpents.
And when they turn back to God and ask for help – instead of getting rid of the serpents, God sends another kind of remedy.
And I am not even going to begin to say that I understand all of what God might be up to here.
But remember the covenant. Remember the promise that God made to them, and that they made to God. God said, “I will be your God. Trust me.”
And they said, “We will do everything that you say.” And they don’t.
Their complaints reveal ingratitude (We don’t like the food – blech), faithlessness (why have you brought us out here?),
and distrust. But I will give them this: when Moses tells them to look at the pole with the bronze serpent, they do it.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up” — Jesus says, in the gospel reading.
He is speaking with Nicodemus in the darkness. They are talking about the mysterious things of God, the Spirit of God, light and darkness, life and death, being born anew.
These are things that Nicodemus doesn’t understand, even though he is a teacher.
And then Jesus brings him back to what has to be a story familiar to him: remember when you wandered in the wilderness, and you rebelled and complained and did not trust God for your salvation? Remember the serpents, and how when Moses lifted one up on a pole, and you looked at the serpent, you were healed?
When you look to me, on the cross, when I am lifted up, you will be healed.
And it must have seemed every bit as strange to Nicodemus as the serpent does to us.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the people of Israel to look at a replica of the thing that bit them. Well, maybe I can.
I’m not a lover of snakes, especially if I know they are dangerous. That’s one of the things that sort of makes me nervous about Texas. You have the dangerous snakes here…. Not just the icky, but relatively harmless ones.
It had to take a sort of courage – to look at the serpent – and trust – to believe that it would work.
And for the early church – to look at the cross must have felt the same.
We put flowers on it at Easter time – but the cross did not start out to be a symbol of salvation.
It was a particularly gruesome form of execution, reserved for the worst criminals. Look at the cross, and live.
Believe that the cross heals you somehow. It had to take some courage to do that.
But even more – to look at the serpent on the pole meant that the Israelites had to look at their own complaining, their own mistrust of God, their own failure to live as God’s people.
They had to look at the serpent and know themselves. That takes courage too.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believed in him may have eternal life.”
So that whoever trusts him may be healed. So that whoever looks to him may live.
When we look at the cross, really look – what do we see?
We see an act of evil – and maybe we also catch a glimpse of the evil in the world, the suffering that we cause each other, the ways, large and small, that we grieve each other, and God.
When we look at the cross, what do we see? Do we see the ways we have turned our back on God, trusting anything else to save us? Do we see the one who offered the world healing, life, and forgiveness?
Do we see both of these things on the cross?
It is an act of courage to look at the cross. And see ourselves.
It is an act of trust to look at the cross – and trust that THERE – in that unlikely place – we will find healing. And love. And life.
I don’t understand why God didn’t just take away the serpents in the wilderness.
But he didn’t. He didn’t.
There are serpents in this world, there are dangers, toils, and snares.
And God doesn’t take them away.
We live in the wilderness – where there is a lot to complain about – a lot to lament about.
We live in a world where there is suffering and sin, and some of it belongs to us. We live in the wilderness, but we live with the remedy as well.
I think of my nephew – in the car – in the wilderness – on the way home.
And maybe the best we can do is say, like he did, “Are we there yet?”
It IS a long journey – but God is with us – and on the way there is manna
And dairy queen
On the way we can point out for one another and remind each other to look up – to lift our eyes —
And be healed.