4th Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2018

4th Sunday of Lent

Passage: Numbers 21:4-9

Okay. So the Old Testament story today is just weird. It starts with the Israelites out wandering in the desert. They’re getting tired of it. They’re impatient and start complaining:

Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food. There’s no water. We hate this nasty food you give us.

The food they’re talking about is the manna – that mysterious substance that God provides for them so that they can survive. Later generations will venerate the manna as the “Bread of Heaven.” But they’re not so impressed by it. They’re tired of it all. Earlier in the book their complaints on this front are even better:

If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at (Numbers 11:5-6).

The Israelites are just plain worn out.

And to tell you the truth – I’m not exactly sure why this story is included in the lectionary this week. Every other week of Lent this year focuses on one of the covenants that God makes with the Israelites. If we were following that sequence, this week should be the covenant with David. But that’s not what we get. We get these complainers.

And there’s part of me that wonders if maybe this isn’t directed at all of us who have made Lenten disciplines. Our initial zeal and good intentions have worn off and now we’re discovering what Cream Puffs for Jesus we really are and we’re starting to get whiney:

I just wanna drink a beer at the end of the day.

Or, This whole praying thing isn’t working right. I’m tired of it and I’m mad at God for not making me a good pray-er.

Our little foray into the Lenten wilderness tends to get wearisome around Week 4.

And if we struggle with our little Lenten disciplines, how much worse must it have been for the Israelites? For, in their defense, their plight was frightening. They’re escaped slaves, totally vulnerable in the wilderness, it’s been a long time. And any reading I’ve done of people living in concentration camps or things like that where food is scarce, it is easy for fear and hunger to join forces to create some pretty desperate behavior. And they start to complain against God and against Moses. Again.

And how does God respond? Well, this is a little disturbing. God sends poisonous serpents into the camp that start killing people. The actual Hebrew word used here is “Fiery Serpents.” That’s an even more terrifying visual. But once the snakes start wiping them out, they recognize that maybe they shouldn’t have been such whiners and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf.

Then this is where the story goes from disturbing to just plain weird. God tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent and to hoist it up on a pole so that whenever someone is bitten all they have to do is look at it and they’ll be healed. And that’s what Moses does. He makes a bronze serpent, sticks it up there, and it works!

Now, apart from this being strange, it actually seems pretty idolatrous. Doesn’t it seem to stand in direct opposition to the Ten Commandments that they’d just received from God? Commandment number 2:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath it (Exodus 20:4).

Now, technically, God wasn’t telling Moses to make an idol. And he didn’t tell them to worship it; just look at it. But it sure seems awfully similar. In fact, jump ahead several centuries and see what happens during the reign of King Hezekiah when the Israelites were totally given over to idolatrous worship:

He (that is, Hezekiah) did what was right in the sight of the Lord …. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehustan (2 Kings 18:3-4).

Nehushtan?! They’d even given the blasted snake a name.

So what was God doing?! Why on earth, when the people repented from their complaining, was this the solution God came up with? Why make something that reeks of idolatry and would, in fact, become a source of idolatry in the years to come?

Here’s what I think. Let’s go back to where in scripture the serpent first appeared. It was Genesis 3, the Garden of Eden, where the serpent deceives Adam and Eve. And the heart of his deception is to make them believe that God is not good, that God is not to be trusted, that they’re better off without God, taking matters into their own hands.

And in this ancient story, one of the consequences for this is that God curses the serpent.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers,” God tells the serpent; “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

So when God sends the serpents into the camp of the complaining Israelites, it’s as if he’s saying, “I have done nothing but provide for you, delivered you from slavery and given you everything you need. But because the circumstances are still difficult, you’ve chosen the lie instead – to call me untrustworthy and worthy of condemnation. You prefer the deceit, and so I give you the deceiver.” And into the camp come those fiery serpents, with their cursed enmity.

And how much are we like the Israelites? are we like Adam and Eve? always poised to believe that God is letting us down or is unreliable. Things aren’t going the way we want them to: We don’t have the marriage we want or the prayer life we want or the happiness we want or the freedom from cancer we want or the new hardwood floors we want, and so we conclude that God isn’t good because life isn’t as pleasant as we would choose. Things aren’t as secure as we would prefer.

And so we grumble – either outright at God, or just in general. But the spirit’s the same whether we’re calling God out by name or not. If our hearts are set on whining and feeling hard done by, we have already given ourselves over to the serpent. So why should we be surprised when the serpent starts to bite? I’m not saying that God is punishing us. I am saying that we’ve taken our eyes off the truth and chosen a deceit and a deceit will never love us. There is no falsehood that desires our good.

Except! (you may ask) except – what about that bronze serpent up on the pole, that false god (as it were), that actually does save them from death? What on earth was God doing there?

Here’s what I think. Even when we turn from God, even when we denounce God or (as is most often the case) simply disregard God, and turn instead to false promises and false gods, God in God’s mercy will allow those falsehoods to preserve us for their season. Our lives are filled with these kinds of falsehoods – these survival skills or coping mechanisms we’ve learned to trust:

It may be status and all the accolades we get at work for being so smart and indispensable. That’s enough to keep us going for a long time. What need have we actually got of God when our life and our skills and our reputation are so immensely satisfying?

It may be wine. That’s a different kind of coping mechanism, that – to its credit – can be fairly effective. For a while.

It may some kind of sex addiction – affairs or pornography. They offer plenty of excitement and thrill and anticipation.

It may be gossip – that’s a thrill of another sort – of having the latest news, of wielding a kind of power and authority over your victims.

It may television of Facebook – no sin until itself – yet still the destination we turn to for comfort and commentary on what this life is all about.

All of these things, and countless others, actually work. They do give us a kind of meaning and purpose and refuge and comfort. And all the while, God is there – waiting, watching, loving. And God – who knows our beginnings and knows our end – says, “Have your serpent for its time. The day will come when the lie is revealed for the lie it is. And when that happens I am here. I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Our serpents work. They really do. Any number of things sustain us day after day, yet all the while without loving us. They are – in fact – destroying us. And, mystery of mysteries, the day arrives when something else is lifted up upon a pole:

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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17).

When you are ready to be done with your serpents and false Gods, God in Christ is ready for you, to turn your eyes and gaze on the one who does love you, who does save you, who does offer you life of the truest sort. It is a life filled with mercy – a mercy to be received, and a mercy to begin sharing – for if we are truly turning to Christ, then we are joining with Christ as those bringing healing to this broken, venomous world.

Now to be sure, there will remain consequences for the destructives lies we have chosen. Our serpents do not give up easily, and will always be there, hissing in our ear, seeking (and sometime succeeding) to lure us away again.

But we belong to Christ, whose love will never tarnish or expire. He has been raised on the cross of this world, as one bitten by many and all of our fiery serpents. He has died with us and for us and because of us. But because of his great love and mercy, we and all this world are being saved through him. This is the truth that will never die.