Of Snakes & Such
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Numbers 21: 4 – 9, John 3: 14 – 21. Focus on why we have to face death in order to gain life. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir following the sermon.
The text from Numbers is a strange text. It probably would never have been picked up by the lectionary folk had it not been referenced in John’s text today. The book of Numbers is a collection of various types of ancient literature. It’s got stories, and a multitude of laws that the Israelites are to live by. It’s also got stories of talking donkeys – Balaam’s Ass, complaints about the food and water that the Lord is providing to the former slaves of Egypt and the most famous benediction in the Bible:
“May the Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you, may the Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6: 24 -26) But that said, this text from Numbers wouldn’t have made the top one thousand favorite stories found in the Bible. But thanks to John’s gospel we have it before us today.
Here is the setting of the story: the Israelities, upon their escape from Egypt, have gone into the wilderness and are grumbling to Moses about the lack of food and water in the wilderness. They long to go back to the flesh pots of Egypt where they have memories of better times, even though those memories are false. In reality, they were slaves who had to lay bricks and straw seven days a week, and depended upon whatever the Egyptians gave them to eat.
So as they plunge further into the wilderness and its endless landscape of dust and more dust, the people become impatient and begin to whine at Moses and God. They cry to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food or water, and we detest this miserable fare!”
Which reminds me of the joke about these two old guys sitting in a diner having lunch. One guy says to the other, – “The food in here is so bad.” To which the other guy replies: “Yeah and they give you such small portions!”
You can see the humor in the text. Their refiined palates are tired of eating quail, and more quail and manna and more manna. It would seem that there are only so many ways that quail and manna can be prepared before you want to scream – “Enough! My kingdom for a cheese burger!”
Needless to say God is not happy with their desire for a diner like menu and tiring of their complaints God sends poisonous snakes. The snakes begin to bite the people and they begin to die and the people think to themselves maybe their their culinary complaining has gone just a bit too far. “We have sinned,” they scream at Moses, “by speaking against God and against you. Pray to God to take these snakes from us!”
Moses does and God’s response to Moses is to “Make a seraph, and set it on a pole; everyone who is bitten shall look upon it and live.” So Moses makes a snake out of bronze and puts it on a pole that whoever looks upon it shall live and not die, which if you think on this for a minute is weird because God has just wiped out a huge number of the Israelites for making a golden calf and worshipping it. But that’s a story for a different time.
So what were these ancient texts trying to say to us? They certainly weren’t advocating magic but maybe they were saying to us: The poison of a snake can kill you, but an extract of that same poison can provide the antidote for your healing. We were not the first people to figure out that what does not kill us can make us stronger. You just need the right antidote, which just happens to come from the very poison itself.
So when John uses this little known story in his gospel – John’s allegory of Jesus being lifted up is reminesent of Moses lifting up the serpeant in the wilderness. Jesus being lifted up on the cross becomes the way that we, who are doomed to die, may look on him, “believe in him” and gain eternal life.
My seminary professor Raymond Brown put it this way: “The first step in Jesus’ ascent is when he is lifted up on the cross; the second step is when he is raised up from the dead; and the final step is when he is lifted up to heaven.” (Brown’s commentary – The Gospel According to John, p. 146). Now this is fascinating to me as a student of the Bible, to see the connections between the two testaments and how the New incorporates the Old, but does this have any application for us today?
Maybe its a story designed to tell us that we can live more fully the lives we’ve been given when we face head on those things that we fear can kill us, those things that scare us to death. Maybe it’s meant to teach us that by facing our own demons, those voices in our heads that tell us that there is no one in charge but us. That there is no meaning or purpose to life and we simply have to survive or perish are in fact wrong. Maybe we’re being told that by facing death and all that death brings head on, we can look up to a power greater than ourselves, a power that is a stumbling block to the Israelites, and utter foolishness to the gentiles and be saved by it.
The only way to know is to put our lives into it. That is what it means to believe in Christ. It’s not just about thinking that he is a nice idea or ok. Rather it’s a story meant to say to us who feel powerless over so much in our world that in a world that is out to destroy us, the cross of Christ just might be the antidote that saves our lives. Like John said in his Revelation, “I saw a new heaven and a new and the One who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold I make all things new. In my kingdom there is no crying, or pain or death anymore for these the former things are passing away.’” (paraphrase) Again the choice is where we put our live’s gaze that determines what we will believe in and what will save us for all of our perishing ways. Amen