These past few weeks we have heard the Word of God spoken to the people of Israel through covenants that abound with hope. We have encountered God in the remnants of the flood and the promise of commitment that has been made with Noah and his family. In Abraham and Sarah there is a promise of new life and God promises them the birth of Isaac. Last week we witnessed the promise of community in the Ten Commandments that Moses gives to the people through God.
This morning we are given Moses and snakes! If this congregation is a good representation of adults in our country, at least a third of you are afraid of snakes. From a large boa constrictor to the smallest garden snake, they are all slimy and engage our flight mechanism to run when we see them. They can also be very fascinating creatures.
We have a creature at home. No it is not a snake! His name is Rabil, and he is a leopard gecko. He does have one thing in common with snakes. Every couple of months or so, he will decide that is time to shed his skin. To watch the process, is both fascinating and disgusting at the same time. We can tell when it is time to shed his skin, because his color will become dull. However, with the shedding of the old skin, he once again appears a bright orange and yellow. In a way, there is a healing that takes place in this process.
A healing not unlike the one that the Israelites encounter this morning. While, God may not come right out and state a covenant this morning, we can find the promise of healing that is found on the cross as we look up.
This may be far one of the strangest stories that we will hear during the season of Lent. Some of you may recall hearing it in the past, while others are just left wondering the weirdness of it. It is a continued reflection on the Israelites quickness to turn away from God. They slip into their old way of doing things and forget of their salvation out of the land of Egypt. Perhaps, the hurt that they are showing in today’s lesson is magnified by the fact that Aaron has recently died. If you recall, Aaron was the mouthpiece for Moses because he was not gifted with speaking like Aaron had been. Aaron had been just as much of a leader for them as Moses and they did not know where to go from here.
However, there is a history of them turning their back on God. It seems at times they have done nothing but complain. They complained because there was no water to drink when coming out of the land of Egypt, and Moses ensures that their thirst is quenched. They complained when they thought God was going to let them die in the wilderness, and God provided bread from heaven. Moses once again provides water for them after more complaints as he strikes a rock with his staff. They complain because they have no meat to eat and God provides quail. Before Aaron dies, they are once again complaining of no water and it is remedied.
You may notice, there is a pattern here. As the people complain, God provides. They are taken out of their comfort zone and are struggling in the wilderness that has now become their lives. While God provides hope, it is soon forgotten. They are getting weary of the traveling and would like to know what the future holds for their families.
Thus we find ourselves this morning in the midst of serpents. Snakes that bite and kill. These serpents that came to move around their camps were their worst fears and they did not know what to expect. It is not necessarily the snakes that are killing them, but their worries, fears, and anxieties that have left them wondering what is next. There does not seem to be an end to the journey that Moses has led them and they do not want to die in the emptiness that they now find themselves.
Surprisingly, in the midst of the snakes, the people have learned to repent of their ways. They come to tell Moses, “We have sinned against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” In this repentance comes the sign of healing for the people. Moses is instructed to take a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole and in it should bring healing. Once again, the weirdness of the story shines through. It’s almost like we are reading Harry Potter instead of the Book of Numbers. This is not an idol that Moses has created. It is a sign of hope. A sign of healing that is placed in front of the people. For those that are bit, all they need to do is look up to it and be healed. With this action Moses wanted them to trust in the healing power that comes to them through God. This is the promise that God brings to them at this time in their suffering.
We are not exempt from suffering. Like the Israelites looking toward an end to their journey in the wilderness, we too look with longing and anticipation on those things that are just outside of our grasp. We too grumble when things do not go our way. We grumble because we had different expectations and those expectations were not met. We grumble when we do not think we have enough.
We are surrounded by our own serpents. Those warnings that reach up to bite us to make us aware that we may not be quite going down the right path. These are signs that we have detoured and have found ourselves headed down a dead-end path instead of on a path to redemption in which we are called to by Jesus. Instead of praying for help and guidance we wallow in our own self-pity and fall into a complacency. I am sure that if we think about it, we can name those serpents in our lives. It could be be an addiction. It could be greed. It could be anger and self-righteousness. Serpents can come in all types and forms. The challenge is not to give those serpents any power.
Phyllis Tickle, referring to this passage, writes:
“And what the story recognizes is that all of us are going to be bitten—painfully bitten—in this life. Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience. But, according to the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith for it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it.” [“A Serpent in the Desert”]
This season of Lent calls us to repentance. To repent of the sins in our lives that have led us down the wrong path; those serpents that have struck out to bite us. We don’t have to understand how the snake on the pole worked in the wilderness; nor do we have to fully understand the complexities of Jesus’ death on the cross. What we are called to is faith. A faith in our Lord and savior Jesus Christ that vanishes all of our fears, uncertainties, and anxieties. A Christ, whose story does not end on the cross, but whose eternal life is fully revealed to us in the resurrection.
The Wisdom of Solomon, from the Apocrypha, refers to the pole Moses lifts up in the wilderness and says, “For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all” (Wis 16:7). Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross in a sign of power by the leaders, but for Christians, it is a sign of hope and a promise of healing.
Let us pray. Healing God, as we continue down the path to Holy Week, may we be reminded of your love for us that you died on the cross. May your healing come not only to us in our own wildernesses and suffering, but also be extended beyond us to all of creation. Amen