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The Serpent in the Wilderness

Numbers 21:4-9

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia

March 22, 2009 (Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B)

Lent brings us into the wilderness.  In the Hebrew Bible, the “wilderness,” which is also often called a “desert,”  is a place of challenge and testing.  It is a place of deprivation, where the landmarks are unfamiliar and the neighbors are unfriendly.  It is not the sort of place where you would want to settle and put down roots.  It is a place to journey through, on the way to somewhere better.

On the other hand, our ancestors remembered more than just their suffering and need from their time in the wilderness.  They also remembered it as a time when they stood in the very presence of God.  When God led them, personally and directly.  When God fed them and protected them, and when God gave them guidance about how to live their lives.  The wilderness was a place separate from their everyday lives where God’s people drew away from the material things which comforted them, and drew closer to the God who loved them.

The New Testament preserves both understandings of the wilderness.  In the synoptic gospels, after his baptism Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where he fasts for forty days and is tempted by Satan.  Jesus triumphs, and returns to his friends after having been ministered to by angels.  In the desert we see a first glimpse of the true character of the Son of God.

And so, commemorating both the journey of our spiritual ancestors through the wilderness and the fasting of our savior in the desert, Christians set aside the forty days of Lent as a time where we try to step a little further away from the things which tempt and distract us, and draw a little closer to God.  Lent brings us into the wilderness.

And so, today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible gives us a glimpse of what life was like in the wilderness as the Jews, God’s chosen people, tried to struggle their way to the promised land.  The events we learn about in this passage from Numbers are not what I would consider one of the high points of the story.

It turns out that one of the downsides of travelling in the wilderness is that the food is terrible.  In fact, I admit that one of the first things I thought of when I was reading this passage was our recent road trip to Chattanooga for John Francis’ spring break.  The connection might not be immediately obvious, since Chattanooga is a wonderful city and we had a fantastic time.

There was only one real downside to the trip:  finding places to eat.  Chattanooga has plenty of restaurants, but when you’re a family full of vegetarians, trust me, Chattanooga is a wilderness.  Especially when we wandered a little off the beaten path, the options for food that wasn’t fried in some sort of animal fat became very limited. 

If you’ve ever been on a road trip where you can’t find anything to eat, you may know that it can make you pretty grumpy.  It turns out that decades in the wilderness with nothing but mana to eat can make you really grumpy – and that’s where our story begins today.  The people are making a detour around the land of Edom, and they get impatient.  They do more than just grumble, and instead they actively speak out against both God and Moses.

“Why have you brought us here to die?” they ask.  “There’s no food, there’s no water, and we really can’t stand this lousy food.”

For those of you who are parents, this isn’t a new complaint.  How many times have your children stared at a full pantry and said, “There’s nothing to eat!”  Now, let’s be honest with ourselves.  How many times have we stared at  a full pantry and then gone looking for the phone number for Papa John’s pizza?  (For the record, we don’t have to look in our house.  It’s on speed dial.)

We human beings are generally lousy at recognizing the difference between what we need and what we want.  Even as the people were complaining about the complete and total lack of food in the wilderness, they were also complaining that the food provided by God was “miserable.”   The issue was not that they did not have any food, the issue was that they did not have the food they wanted.

Lent takes us into the wilderness, and the wilderness is a place where we have to differentiate between what we need and what we want.  The wilderness is a place where God’s providence becomes clear.  It is a place where – in the absence of our ability to provide for ourselves – we see the ways in which God cares for us:  directly, lovingly, and kindly; but not always in the way we had hoped for.

God’s chosen people wanted a variety of food, and God gave them the food they needed to survive.  How often, when faced with our own times in the desert, do we ignore what God has given us to survive on, complaining instead that we do not have the exact things we wanted?  How many of us, when our romantic relationships have floundered, have ignored the friends God placed in our life because we were mad that we didn’t have a mate?  How many of us, when we felt our churches or our denominations have failed us, have left them entirely because they couldn’t be all that we hoped they could be?  How many of us, in times of financial need have worried more about what we didn’t have instead of being thankful for what we did have?

By the way, I’m certain I’m guilty of all of these at one time or another; so I’m pointing my finger at myself as well.  None of those examples are my way of saying that we shouldn’t look to improve our lives, or mourn things we have lost.  Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t dream of or work to improve our lives, our relationships, or our institutions.  Sometimes things simply aren’t  what we need them to be, and we have to work to find what we need.

Today’s text isn’t about those times.  It’s about the times when we have what we need, when we’re right where God wants us to be, and we’re unhappy.  How can we tell the difference?  Well, the Israelites had the advantage of God speaking directly to Moses and doing things like parting waters and guiding them with pillars of fire. 

In our own lives, things aren’t always so clear-cut, and that may well be the first lesson of this text.  When we find ourselves whining, complaining, or unhappy; how do we know if it’s because there’s something we need to change or if it’s because we can’t differentiate between our wants and our needs?

I think most of us answer that question in different ways, and there probably isn’t a universal answer to it.  A general rule though might be that, when we are on a journey to where we think God wants us to be, those things that might distract us from that journey might not be what’s best for us at that time.  Being in the wilderness isn’t about staying there, it’s about getting to where God wants us to be.

The rumbling of their stomachs caused God’s people to forget that for a while, and they lost their trust in God’s ability to provide for them.  So far, nothing new; then the text takes a turn for the weird.

How does God respond to their complaints?  God sends poisonous serpents into the camp, and the snakes bite and kill a significant number of the Israelites.  You don’t want to eat what’s in the pantry?  Well fine then!  Die!

I hope you find this image of God as theologically troubling as I do. 

My first thought on reading that sentence – “The LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people…” – was of the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Luke.  After teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus talks about how God responds to our requests.  He says, “If your child asks for a fish to eat, will you give them a snake?  If they ask for an egg, will you give them a scorpion?...If even you, who are evil, wouldn’t do that, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”

OK, so giving a snake to someone who asks for food is something that even evil people wouldn’t do, why does God send snakes to kill the Israelites when they complained that they didn’t like the food in the wilderness?  This text is just full of good questions that I can’t answer!

Of the possible interpretations of this story, I think “If you whine, God will strike you dead” is probably not the best one.  It would have made an interesting children’s sermon today though.  Feel free to try it over lunch with your own kids and let me know how it works.

Nevertheless, if whining were a capital offense I don’t think humans would have made it past the Cro Magnon stage.  This particular story is about a time when God had given direct and clear guidance to a group of people.  God had entered into a unique, covenantal relationship with them.  God had provided for their every need in obviously miraculous ways.  God had outlined a plan for them and, having rescued them from certain death as slaves, had begun to lead them to a land of hope and freedom.

And that wasn’t good enough for them, so they rebelled.  Sometimes in life the stakes for our decisions are very high indeed, and in this case – on a direct mission from God – the stakes were as high as possible.  In this instance, their rebellion against God cost them their lives.

I spent much of the past couple of days trying to soften that, and then I realized that probably was a disservice to the text.  Sometimes, in our ingratitude or selfishness or shortsightedness we make decisions that cost us a lot, even our lives.

In this wilderness season, I don’t think the concern should be “If we whine, will God kill us?”  But some good questions might be, “What are the costs of my priorities?  What price will I pay for the choices I make?  Which of those choices keep me on the path God expects of me, and which of them take me from it?  If I go too far from that path, where will I end up?”

Then there’s probably the most important question of all, “Where do we turn when we have wandered off that path?”  Because, at one time or another, we will find ourselves in the wilderness having lost our way.  God’s chosen people messed up, and they turned to Moses to intercede on their behalf.  Moses does, and God’s answer is to make an enormous poisonous snake out of bronze.  Whenever anyone who is bitten by one of the snakes looks upon it, they’ll live.

At this point, it’s fair to say that this text has taken a turn for the even weirder.  I think it’s too easy to get distracted by the roots of this story in ancient mythic symbols.  In some of the earliest recorded stories, snakes are both symbols of death and life, of poison and healing.  A snake coiled around a staff as a symbol of healing is present in the stories of many cultures – and even persists today in the symbol of several modern medical organizations.

That’s not the focus of this story however.  The heart of the story is that the people of God stopped paying attention to their own worries and desires.  They even stopped paying attention to the deadly vipers at their feet.  Instead, they turned their eyes in the direction where God told them to look.  When they did, they saw the symbol of their fear, an image of death itself.

And in looking they realized that God their Creator had mastery over the source of their fear and pain.  They realized that God was present with them.  They remembered why they were there, and they knew the path to take.  They knew that things were going to be OK.

And so, in the third chapter of John, when Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus what’s going to happen in the coming days, he says, “And 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.” 

There is somewhere for us to turn when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness.  There is a landmark where we can anchor our gaze when we are paralyzed by fear.  It is the cross, and hanging from it is the ultimate source of all fear, death itself.  At the place where Almighty God encountered and defeated death, we are reminded, as the Israelites were reminded in the wilderness, that God is present with us all along and that God will provide for us.

That passage in John is right before the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16.  In fact, John 3:16 is meant to explain why Jesus is “lifted up” like Moses’ bronze serpent, the reason Jesus had to die:  “For God so loved the world…”

Lent has brought us into the wilderness, in the company of Jesus.  If you’re looking to find the way to the other side, look to the cross.  Don’t look out of fear, and don’t be afraid when you do look.  The cross is not really about death just as the bronze serpent wasn’t really about snakes.  Both are a reminder that our God is willing to face death for us, that our God is victorious over death.  “For God so loved the world…”  When we set our sights on the cross, we aren’t facing toward death, we are simply drawing ourselves closer to the love of God.