"Why Should it be Said, “Where is their God?” It shouldn’t! #5"

Date Sunday March 11, 2018
Service Fourth Sunday in Lent
Text Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
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     When Melissa Bane Sevier was a new third grade teacher, she kept a file box of “emergency ideas.” She writes in her blog that this was in case there was an extra 10 minutes to fill after the math lesson was completed. No teacher wants 10 minutes of unstructured time in a classroom. So, her “emergency ideas” included things like an oral math game or a writing prompt. One day she was discussing this concept with a fellow teacher who said, “Ask them if they have ever seen a snake. Every third grader has a snake story.” Melissa says that she doubted her, but when she tried it every hand in the classroom shot up – even the hand of the kid who never participates in class discussion. (1)

     There’s just something about snakes that gets our attention. I, in fact, have several snake stories, two of which involve encountering rattle snakes in the western Nebraska Sandhills. (No, I wasn’t afraid; rattle snakes are somewhat routine around there.)

     Well, we aren’t the only ones with snake stories. The people of Israel have a very odd one that we read today. It begins with whining, crying and complaining that has been nearly continuous during the Israelites’ wilderness journey. This time, though, they not only blame Moses for their discomfort, but their complaints are against God too.

     Against God … who liberated them for slavery and hash conditions in Egypt and has given them life in the wilderness, a place filled with death. Here’s the problem – they are tired of the food God has provided. Supposedly there’s no food, they say. (Shades of “Mom, there’s nothing to eat” when, in fact, there’s a bowl of fruit on the table and carrot sticks in the refrigerator.)  The fact is that they are sick of what God has provided – quail and manna. They want an expanded menu!

     I will confess to you that when I read about the whining, complaining and carrying on of the people of Israel in this part of the Bible, my attitude toward them is negative. They are so ungrateful, I think. But this time when I read it, it dawned on me that at this point in the story they’ve been in the desert for decades, and they haven’t made much progress in their trek to the land, their new home, promised to them.

     As commentator Terrence E. Fretheim points out, the wilderness wanderings, or at least their length and breadth, were a surprise to Israel. Listen to this: "Instead of a land of milk and honey, they get a desert. The promise falls short. And, the wilderness seems endless. The promise has been spoken, but who can by words alone? The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. Trust in God turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. And judgment is invited to share one’s tattered tent. (2) (And, besides, they are sick to death of the food!)

     And, so, as if to add insult to injury, God sends snakes. Not just one or two, but hundreds; not mild-mannered garden snakes, but nasty poisonous ones that bite. How’s that for a gracious God? Remember, though, that this account is one of many incidents of disobedience and ungratefulness on the part of the people of Israel. The snakes invade, and many people die from their bites. It then dawns on them that this is the consequence of complaining against God, and more particularly God’s grace. They go to Moses, confessing their sin, and ask him to petition God to remove the snakes.

     Here’s where the story gets even more interesting … God provides a remedy for the threat rather than removing it. That remedy is a bronze serpent perched on a pole, which after being bitten the people must look at to survive the bite. In other words, they still face the fear and the suffering, but there’s a way out. Scholars are quick to note that this is only because God’s gracious power provides a means of healing; there’s nothing “magic” about the snake-on-a-pole.

     I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to sort out if there is a message in this story for us, which, of course, is always our goal as we read scripture. Perhaps it’s to never complain about the food God provides you, even if you eat the same thing for 40 years?

     Seriously, though, I like what Melissa Bane Sevier, the teacher I mentioned earlier, writes about a message she heard. It is, “wherever we go, there we are … we don’t leave the bad parts of ourselves behind”. This certainly was true of the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Since in scripture snakes are symbols of evil, could it be that this story is a metaphor about people ...about how people are overwhelmed by poisonous (shall we say sinful) thoughts, actions and attitudes and it’s killing them. (3)

      As I contemplated this I thought, wait a minute: God sent the snakes in the story, so are we saying that God sent sin? Well…God did allow free will to exist, which led to humans desiring to “be like God”and choosing "poisonous" behavior, which created a wall of separation between God and people. So, mull that over for a moment and then return to the metaphor.

     People, as they wander in the wilderness of life struggle with the desire to be "god of their own lives," and realize it is their poisonous thoughts, actions and attitudes that are killing them, so they repent, and ask for these “snakes” to be removed. It’s not that easy; God doesn’t remove them. Instead, they must deal with what is poisoning their lives; it’s still present; it has the potential to hurt them and others. But, if they look up … look to God and trust the one who can turn a snake into a source of healing … they will survive.

     You probably noticed that in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus refers to the snake on a pole story. If that was not the case, most Christian scholars say it would have faded into obscurity. It seems an odd thing for Jesus to mention during his conversation with Nicodemus about entering the kingdom of God by being born from above. Just before he speaks perhaps the best-known and best-loved verses in scripture (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:16-17), Jesus mentions Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. “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.”

      The message is parallel in the two passages - the problem is sin; it separates us from God; it’s killing us. We look up, to the cross, to Jesus, and his suffering becomes a source of healing. The answer to our wandering in the wilderness of our sin is the Son of Man being lifted high on the cross, and God’s gracious power providing life in the face of death.

     During Lent we have been asking, as the Prophet Joel did in our Ash Wednesday reading, “Why should it be said, “Where is our God?” You know the answer by now: it should not be said. Even in the wilderness of sin, God comes and provides a way out. AMEN


(1)   “Snakes on a Plain” by Melissa Bane Sevier, March 12, 2015, Contemplative Viewfinder, www.melissabanesevier.wordpress.com

(2)   “Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9” by Terence E. Fretheim, www.workingpreacher.org

(3)   Same as #1