To Be Lifted
Several weeks ago, I sat down to study and discern what theme to preach on this Lent. I started reading through the scriptures suggested by the reading cycle I often use. I was particularly struck by the stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of the stories were familiar. How many times have I read or heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments or on God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah? The story of Noah's family and the ark is a Bible story I've literally known most of my life. These are stories of promises and covenants made between God and humanity that have become foundational to how I understand the Bible. I was not surprised that these readings would come up during the season of Lent, when Christians are invited to consider our own commitments to God and one another. Even though the presence of these stories did not surprise me, the presence of another story about God's promise did. It's the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21.
The book of Numbers is not a book I think about very often. It is not referenced in the Gospels as often as, say, Isaiah (which I think about all the time) or in common worship usage as something like the Psalms. In the 3-year reading cycle that shapes my preaching, a cycle that suggests 4 different readings each Sunday, a reading from Numbers may come up only once per year. Compare that to Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy that are suggested multiple times during every year of the reading cycle. It's not that nothing important happens in Numbers. Plenty of things happen.
This is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. You remember how last week I said that there are actually 613 commandments, not just 10. A bunch of those other commandments, instructions on orienting one's life around God and neighbor and not according to slavery, are here in the book of Numbers. Also, this is a book where we continue to observe Moses acting as a mediator between God and the people. And, importantly, it is in this book where the people come to the end of their wilderness. They will be standing on the river Jordan, preparing to go to the Promised Land. This book tells us how they prepared to go into the promised land. Wilderness travel. Instruction. Preparation. These are not unimportant themes, especially in Lent. What is interesting is that the reading that shows up this season is not one sections of commandments or one of the descriptions of the leaders who will take over for Moses. No, the story that shows up here is a story about a bronze snake on a pole. What on earth does this story have to tell us about God's promises?
I won't blame you if you're not as familiar with the story as you are with Abraham and Sarah or Noah's family and the ark. Like I said, it doesn't come up nearly as often in Christian circles as those other stories do. It starts out a lot like a story we're more familiar with, the story of manna in desert. The people who are traveling in the midst of a desert, and are probably very afraid, start wondering if maybe things weren't better off in Egypt. The difference in this story is that we're told that they are 40 years into their journey and have become fearful. They have had the manna and quails in the desert for decades now. You would think that would have been enough to show them that God would provide for them. Generations of slavery and general crankiness are hard habits to break, though. Even a life in God's provision can seem burdensome. The scripture tells us that they have become impatient. So, they do what impatient people often do... they complain.
God in these stories reads more like another character whose personality you have to take into account. It appears that God is a little cranky, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God is actually doing right by them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I think this part says more about how people try to explain away difficult events than it does about the actual character of God. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to how these people explained a weird and scary thing that happened in their community. The authors of this book said God sent down a bunch of poisonous snakes. Now, who here would find living in the midst of a bunch of poisonous snakes pretty terrifying? Yeah, me, too. Every time I go visit family in Texas, I have to remind myself that rattlesnakes are real things that hang out in shady spots where I also like to hang out. My mom has nearly jogged over rattle snakes on several occasions. One of her dogs very nearly came to an early end when he saw a big ol' rattler and tried to eat it. If I thought God was dropping all those snakes on me, I would be unnerved to say the least.
The Exodus story has lots of plagues in it. They are ways to show how powerful God is. Some are painful, like boils and leprosy. Some are scary, like rivers of blood. Some are weird, like all those frogs that fell from this sky. This one strikes me as a little different though. Venomous snakes, while dangerous, don't chase you down to hurt you. They don't stalk you through the night. You have to do something to a snake, either surprise it or intentionally make it mad, before it will bite you. This plague, while dangerous, it is mostly dangerous in potential. It's not quite a trap, but is an accident waiting to happen. If you aren't careful, you will be hurt. But, you can navigate around the danger. You shake out your boots before you put them on. You don't go digging around under logs or in piles of leaves without checking first. If you want to sit on a rock, you check around the rock before you sit down. When you live with something so dangerous as this plague of snakes, vigilance reshapes your life so that you can stay safe.
In the Bible story, as in real life, people end up getting bitten. This happens sometimes when you live with snakes. You accidentally run into them. You get annoyed and try to move them. You compete for space and you occasionally loose. Enough people were being bitten that the people grew afraid, again, and this time blamed themselves instead of God. That said that they had messed up by speaking against God and against Moses. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God helps, but not in the way the people expected. God doesn't take away the snakes, these scaly reminders that life is best lived with great care and attention, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do run afoul, intentionally or accidentally, of a snake. In a time before anti-venom existed, the people needed something that sure looks like magic to us. God had them build a bronze serpent. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Man, this is a wild story. It could be easy to dismiss it as superstition. I think it is worth more than a dismissal. Remember, Numbers is a book about, at least in part, all those instructions for shaping your life according to love of God and love of neighbor. When the people have forgotten these instructions, forgotten to live a life a worship and service and trust in God, they begin to fall back into the patterns of slavery and deprivation. They worry that God's provision will run out. They complain and whine and fight. The commandment shape of their lives becomes warped. They fall into old patterns of jealousy, destruction, and scarcity thinking. These patterns are dangerous. They can fall into them accidentally, by habit, or intentionally, out of frustration.
I wonder if the fear of the snakes, and the necessity of shaping one's life in response to the presence of the snakes, is meant to be a parallel to the way one can live one's life according to God's instruction. A fuller and longer life is possible, even when surrounded by danger, when a person is willing to be attentive and responsive to powerful external forces. You have to be willing to shake out those boots and look under the logs. And, when you do step on the snake, you have to be confident that God has a way to heal you.
Maybe that's why the author of John liked this image of the snake on the pole as a metaphor for Jesus. Jesus can be both the vector of healing, like the bronze snake, and the reminder of God's instruction, like God's words as heard through Moses. While John didn't believe that God simply removed the hard and dangerous parts of life, John did believe that it was possible for people to pattern their lives that took temptation to destruction, scarcity, and fear into account. This story from Numbers has both the healing and the reminder to follow God that John would have needed to explain Jesus' mission. For John, Jesus will always be there, a reminder to live life according to God's instruction and the method by which God will heal the world. It's kind of weird metaphor to our modern ears, but, John found it meaningful.
Perhaps our question, as modern-day readers is, what can we see on high that will bring us back to the full life that God intends? If you're not looking for a snake on a stick to heal you, what are you looking for to remind you to shape your lives according to God's instruction? What heals you when you've poked the wrong snake or sat down on an ill-advised rock? Remember: We have access to great instruction. Let's hope we don't have to get bit by a snake to start looking for it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cameron B. R. Howard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3606
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Samuel Cruz: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3579
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Marilyn Salmon: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1256
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.