Numbers 21:4-9

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

         This is a classic example of an ungrateful people.  At least as the story goes, God had displayed enormous power on behalf of his people.  The Egyptian Pharaoh was not about to listen to Moses when he said: “Let my people go.”  God sends 10 plagues in a display of power that ends in the Passover—the night the angel of death struck down the first-born Egyptian children but ‘passed over’ the Hebrew children.  God declares through Moses: “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again.” (Exodus 11:5-6) Don’t get sidetracked into literalism.  Hundreds of pages have been written to explain them.  But that focus misses the point of the story.  God acted on behalf of his people.  This is a deeply satisfying narrative for any underdog.  How the bully is knocked off is beside the point.  What is important is the bully finally gets his comeuppance.  

And God isn’t done.  Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in hot pursuit.  But again, God intervenes, parts the Red Sea and drowns the Egyptian pursuers.  You would think such dramatic acts would evoke everlasting gratitude.  But not so much. In spite of their unlikely and unexpected freedom, the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness bemoaning their hardships. “‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’  What kind of savior-God does such grand things for us and then lets us wander in the wilderness?   He could have at least made sure we had some decent food! 

The complaints of the people, however, are very ordinary. Over and over, we seek to decide how the world (and God) should be. They had a vision of what salvation and freedom meant. When they escaped Egypt, they had ‘proof’ of God’s special care and providence.  Once saved, it made no sense at all that their life could include the hardships of the wilderness.  The ancients expected special dispensation. After all they were the chosen. Freedom was supposed to bring relief.  They were supposed to live in a land of milk and honey. What they discovered is that God’s saving acts did not protect them from uncertainty, hunger, or poisonous snakes. Then, when they finally got to the ‘promised land’, it was inhabited by giants. It took years for them to call the land their own and even that did not last long. They were defeated, scattered, and exiled. With friends like that, who needs enemies?  

Unfortunately, freedom is like that.  Be careful what you ask for. Remember as kids, how much we wanted to be a grown up.  Then it meant being able to stay up late and eat ice cream.  Then as adults, it is an unreachable dream to be free of adulting. We often imagine a future we think ‘ought’ to be true but rarely is.  We share that predicament with the ancient Hebrews and the first century Israelites. 

We ask ‘Why do bad things happen to good people? —-as if the question made sense. It implies we should get special treatment if we are ‘good.’  But that is simply our creating God in our image. And contrary to our deepest yearning that has never been the way God acts. We all too often want God to operate on our terms.  Typically, we call what we like ‘good’ and what we don’t like ‘bad’.  But that is a very human and very egocentric view. Such thinking is the core of the ‘prosperity gospel.’

But if Jesus taught us anything about how God works, it is that the ‘good’ can, and often do, die young. Jesus taught that God joins us—-not that God fixes us or immunizes us from pain and suffering. That is not a popular revelation. Jesus was killed for it. 

This is the unexpected Lenten message embedded in this Old Testament passage. The human predicament is the same. God is the same. But it took several thousand years for us to see what God has been trying to communicate for centuries. With the eye of retrospect and the lens of Jesus, we can see the same God revealed in Jesus was present in the earliest biblical stories. 

If you are in the wilderness and either pretend there are no snakes or equally foolishly believe there ‘shouldn’t’ be snakes, I promise you are in for a rude awakening. The world, and certainly the wilderness is a dangerous place.  In our story the presence of poisonous snakes is explained by God’s action against his sinful and ungrateful people. It is a common coping device to say, ‘God did it’ and we deserved it, rather than face a world in which, no matter how blessed we are, we can be bitten by poisonous snakes.  That is a very hard lesson to learn about life. Lamenting that it is not fair or ‘should not be so’ is a dead-end use of our energy.

The paradox is, though you cannot guarantee you will not be bitten by poisonous snakes, knowing they exist gives you a better chance to protect yourself. We have a better chance at survival and life if we face reality squarely in the eye.  God wants us to see life as it is instead of trying to live as if it isn’t so.  He tells the people to make a copper snake and lift it up on a pole.  It is not that different from contemplating Jesus hanging on a cross.  It is a dramatic confrontation with hardship and suffering.  Both are part of life.  God does not remove such pain, God shares it.  

In real life there are all kinds of things we would rather not face—even when we know they are true.  We are aging. No amount of faith, exercise or surgery will change that fact.  To be a creature is to age, become increasingly frail and die.  That is not news, but such knowledge is hard to live with. I’m seeing a relatively young woman whose stamina and energy have been severely compromised.  Her first reaction was to ‘power through’.  She could do that for a day or so, but it would cost her days of recovery.  She is angry and keeps telling me what she ‘used to be able to do.’  There is great grief in giving up ‘what I used to be able to do’ but paradoxically facing that reality will allow her to maximize her energy by living within, instead of denying, her limitations.  It is not easy.

The same thing happens when we must decide we can no longer drive or that we must move from the familiarity of our own homes.  Few of us make those transitions gracefully. It takes great courage to face life as it is and it takes great faith to trust God’s presence when we are threatened and in the wilderness.  

You will notice that even the faithful in this story were bitten, but their best chance of survival was facing the reality that snakes are part of life in the wilderness.  Every minute spent saying it isn’t fair or it shouldn’t be so, is another minute of delay.  God didn’t ask us if we liked or approved.  God simply said, face what is, I will be with you. You can be more mindful of the danger.  And if bitten, it is more likely you will have a snake bite kit and/or will waste less time finding one.

God’s saving act in Jesus was to hold up the reality of pain and suffering in the world.  God’s saving promise is that no matter what happens to us, a life of care and mindfulness cannot be destroyed.  God is with us in all things. Think of these things when you look at the cross.  Let it be so.

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