Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Lent 4
March 18, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Last summer we read quite a bit out of the book of Exodus and we spent a number of weeks in the wilderness with the Hebrew people after their escape from slavery in Egypt. We read of their complaints against Moses because they had no food or water, and so then God gave them manna and quails and water. We read of their impatience with Moses when he was up on the mountain talking with God. The people didn’t like that he was away for so long and so they made the golden calf and started to worship it, dance around it, and sing hymns to it. We read of their impatience there that irritated Moses and God when they discovered what the people have done. We read of other moments of unfaithfulness and ingratitude for all the things that God was doing for them while they were in the wilderness. But we did not read this crazy story that we read today in the book of Numbers.

In fact, we only read from the book of Numbers in our three-year lectionary cycle three times, and two times we read the same text. We don’t get much out of the book of Numbers. And for the most part it just retells the same story that we get in Exodus. It covers a lot of the same ground. But it does have some parts that Exodus doesn’t have, like today’s story, and Numbers also has a number of those long genealogies (“So and so begat and so and so begat begat begat”) which is why it’s called Numbers because of the numbering of the generations, the numbering of the people. But we do have this story we read today that sits uniquely in this text. The story of a people who continue to complain. In the book of Numbers, this story is the last of five complaint stories. Stories of the people complaining while they are in the wilderness. But this one is different. Not just because of the poisonous snakes, but because in the first four the people complain to Moses. They say, “Moses, we don’t have anything. We liked Egypt better. At least we had food. We had homes.” Whatever their complaint was. They always came to Moses, and then Moses would go off and talk to God. “The people are murmuring, they’re talking about this” and they come to a solution. God would make it all right. Moses would come back and say “Okay, it’s all taken care of. Don’t worry. God is going to take care of you.”

But this time they complain against God.

God’s retaliation is swift and final.

Generally, as I said, the people go to Moses, Moses talks to God, and comes back. But this time they complain to God, and in the face of their complaint, God says... nothing. There is no verbal response from God. Those of us who have had significant others, or even those of us who have had parents, have learned and may know that when you have made a “suggestion” or “observation” to this person and you are met entirely in silence, you know the next few minutes are not gonna be in your favor. They’re not silent because they’re thinking to themselves what they’re going to prepare for the banquet in your honor.

So take a look at the text. In that one sentence they complain and in the next sentence they are up to their eyeballs in poisonous snakes and dead bodies. Swift and final response from God. Do not complain against God in this way. Having maybe learned somewhat of a lesson, the ones still living go to Moses in repentance. They say, “Wow! Moses, apparently we found God’s button. You need to do something. We repent. We’re really sorry. YOU need to go tell God.” They don’t tell God. They’re afraid to talk to God now probably. Moses needs to go. So Moses does. He goes to the Lord to tell God the people have repented. And God tells Moses to make this staff with the poisonous snake on it. Snakes are killing the people, so God wants them to be exposed to that which is hurting them to find their salvation. So Moses makes the snake out of bronze and puts it on a staff. Curiously, this doesn’t really mean anything necessarily to the text, but when this is taking place, about 1300 BCE, that is also, I find it interesting, the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age. Moses is making a bronze snake here.

This snake a salvific property, or ability to save, in that anyone bitten by one of the snakes looks at the snake and they are cured of the poison.

This is one of a few stories in the biblical text that confounds scholars. There are a couple texts like this that have no preparation and that aren’t talked about again in the Biblical text, but are so unusual, and they just sit there. It’s like the writers don’t give us any context for them, they don’t set up the story for us at all. The story just shows up and then they move on. And it also confounds scholars because God’s instructions to Moses are so contrary to God’s law. This is something that God should not have asked Moses to do. Of all the things a people or person could do, making a magical totem in a snake’s image is probably even worse than making the golden calf. In God’s law, there were to be no icons, no idols, no magic, no other gods, no totems, no fetishes. This kind of thing shouldn’t happen, and yet this is what God instructs Moses to do. It’s really odd. But there it is. With no explanation why it was considered okay, except that this is what God wanted. What God told Moses to do.

So we’re lacking in this story a couple things. We’re lacking an explanation of what is going on here, why all this is going on. But there also is really no relief from God from the punishment God has inflicted on the people. God does not remove the snakes. They are still there. People are still being bitten, they just now have a snake idol that will help.

The only thing God did was offer to Moses a way for bitten people to avoid death. I wonder, What about those who couldn’t make it to the staff in time after they were bitten? There’s only one staff, and a large community. I don’t know how quick acting the snake’s venom was, but I wonder if there were those who couldn’t make it to the staff in time and died.

And I wonder also if God was maybe giving them a dose of their own medicine. They keep complaining. They are constantly complaining when they are in the wilderness. They keep showing lack of trust that God, who saved them, brought them from Egypt, they keep failing to show trust that God will continue to protect and provide for them in the wilderness. And that’s all God wanted from them was to trust. To have faith. And that’s all that God still wants from us. To trust. That’s the heart of faith is to trust. To trust that God will fulfill the promises God has made. But they don’t trust. They lack faith. They look to idols. They say Egypt was better. They complain; because they’re worried. They’re anxious. I can’t blame them. I probably would have been, too. You’re out in the middle of the desert. Of course you’re going to worry where your next meal is going to come from, or if there is going to be protection from others.

So maybe these snakes and the staff are God’s way of giving them, as I said, a dose of their own medicine. God’s way of saying, “Okay—you want something you can see and does magic. Something you can put your trust in, then fine. Have this staff with a snake on it. If that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you. But notice that it can only help you after you are bitten. It is not going to make the snakes go away. It is not going to keep the snakes from biting you. It will help after you are bitten, but will do nothing to help you before then. Compared to me,” I think God is saying, “It really doesn’t do anything. It isn’t worth putting your trust in, but if you want to, then fine.”

I don’t know if the people got it. Probably not; they continue to complain so I don’t think they figured it out. Their repentance is not enough to convince God to remove the curse of the poisonous snakes. The curse remains. We don’t know for how long. Days? Week? Months? We know that at some point the snakes did disappear, but the text does not say how long that was. But the text does say that the staff remains.

The staff remains for a long time. About 600 years. It gets mentioned one more time, in the book of Second Kings (2 Kings 18:4), during Hezekiah’s reign. He was the king of Judah, the southern kingdom. Judah contained Jerusalem, which had the Temple.

So if you imagine this Moses story happening circa 1300 BC and Hezekiah becomes king in the early 700s BC, about 600 years later. The northern kingdom was invaded by Assyria, conquered, the people sent into exile. Hezekiah sees what is happening around him and he institutes a lot of religious reform. The people have strayed so far from God, and strayed so far from God’s law, that Hezekiah institutes a lot of religious reforms. Brings the people back to following the law. Implements Moses’ law. He tore down all the high places, the altars to other gods. Even the altars to God that had been placed in many places in the land he tears down because the Temple was to be the only place of worship. He got rid of all idols. And he also gets rid of the staff of Moses, it says in the text. He gets rid of the staff of Moses which had been hanging in the temple for 250 or so years, and to which people made offerings! So odd that it would be in the temple and the priests would let it happen. It had a name, too: nehushtan, a mix of Hebrew words “nahash” which means serpent, and “nehoshet”, which means bronze. Hezekiah destroys that staff. If God was being sarcastic in giving them this staff, then God was also correct. They did want something physical and magical, and they even put it in God’s home, the Temple.

And then Jesus references it another 700 years or so later when he says, “As Moses lifted up the snake, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Certainly a reference to being lifted up on the cross. But maybe also a reference to Jesus being lifted up to heaven in the ascension after the resurrection. And Jesus being lifted up every time that we gather here and read the Gospel, talk about Jesus, that’s all lifting Jesus up again. Lifting up Jesus and remembering God’s acts of salvation. And as the next verses say in the Gospel of John, that are so central to our faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God did not remove the snake from the Garden of Eden. God did not protect Adam and Eve from the power of the snake. God did not remove the snakes from the people in the wilderness. At least not immediately. But God gave them something to look to to be saved from the effect of those snakes. God did give them something to save them from the effect. And God does not remove the snakes from our world: the evil, the hurt, the sin, the violence, the warring madness, the disasters, the death, of our own world. God doesn’t take those snakes away either. But God has given us Jesus to look up to to be saved from the power of the snakes. To be saved from the effects the snakes of the world have on us. To find healing in hurt, to find a way to stop hurting others. To find hope and light and life in the face of unconditional love. Faith in the face of Jesus. That’s a love that no bronze serpent or any other idol can offer, not any idol of our own making whether it’s our careers, our family, the brand names we wear, the places we go to, the people we hang out with, our accomplishments, money, whatever idols of our own making. None of that can provide that the unconditional that God can provide.

The face of unconditional love can never be found in those empty and dark places of our fiction. But can be found in the face of Jesus Christ. In the lifted up face of Jesus. And therefore in one another. Unconditional love is the face of the One who goes with us, who travels with us, who even sometimes carries us, let’s us lean on him, drags us perhaps at times through this snake-filled wilderness journey that we call “life.” The unconditional love in the face of Jesus, the one who was lifted up for us.

Let’s pray: Merciful God, Holy Jesus, Saving Christ, Loving Spirit, you gave the snake staff to a rebellious and complaining people to save them from the effects of their sin, and you gave your only son, Jesus, to us, who are also a rebellious and complaining people who so often prefer to trust real and tangible idols instead of trusting in you. You gave us Jesus to be lifted up as a sign of your unconditional and infinite love to save us, not to condemn us. Continue to save us we ask, from the snakes of our own making, and the snakes that others create for us, so that we may know and enjoy the abundant life you offer us, free of worry or anxiety, free of pain, and full beyond measure with your unending and unconditional love. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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