March 15th, 2015
Lent IV, Year B
The Rev. Rob Fisher
St. Dunstan’s, Carmel Valley
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; John 3:14-21
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
I have heard that sometimes Native American storytellers will say, at the end of a story that they have told, “Now, I don’t know if this story happened exactly the way I described it or not. But I know that this story is true.”
We can read this rather incredible story about the Israelites in the desert this morning and say the same thing. It may or may not have happened exactly like this, and yet on a deeper level there is truth here.
The story finds the Israelites traveling through the wilderness—led by Moses and protected by God—and for some reason, in spite of the fact that God has already done some wonderful, miraculous things to save them, they are not so calm and trusting of God.
The words here in the Book of Numbers are as much a record of what happened as they are a clear damnation upon the people. We hear them speak against God and against Moses saying:
“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.”
OK, now wait a minute. They just complained to God that there is no food or water. And in the same breath they complained about how awful the food is!
If you recall what happened earlier on in the desert, they needed some food to sustain them through the wilderness, and God sent them manna from heaven. It was miraculous food that fell like dew which they could gather every morning, just enough for a day’s nourishment. It was their daily bread. Apparently it did not taste good or bad. It was unexciting, and obviously they got bored with it after a while.
And this is why they now complain like spoiled children.
What happens next is not a very nice thing.
God himself gets fed up, and he responds by sending poisonous serpents to bite the people, causing many of them to die.
This is surely the dream of any chef who has perfectly good food sent back to the kitchen.
It’s like God saying, “Well, you didn’t like my miraculous bread? How about I just give you poisonous snakes instead?”
On a Sunday like this, when we get the poisonous snakes in our scripture reading, I think it’s a good time to acknowledge that the Bible can indeed be a very confusing book.
In fact, the Bible is not really one single book, but rather a whole library of small books. It is a collection of these really diverse books, written in different languages by people of drastically different cultures and over the course of many centuries. Some books of the Bible are more like poetry, some are like philosophy, and some are like historical record. Often you get a mixture of all of the above.
It is also true that some parts of the Bible are at odds with other parts of the Bible, including in what they say about God. I think of these different views as a little bit like hearing in stereo. You can hear what is coming out of the left speaker, and you just get part of the whole. You need to hear about what is coming out of both speakers to get the full sound.
Or, like with a symphony, you can’t just hear the trombones and think you’ve got the whole thing. You need to hear what the violins are doing, as well as all the other instruments.
Some of the individual parts of the Bible can actually be very dangerous when read in isolation. We have to look at the whole work to understand all of the parts within it.
Like with a symphony, the very dissonant parts ultimately can make the harmonious parts all the more sweet.
And so I believe this moment with the snakes is a moment of deep dissonance.
I do not actually believe that the true and living God who loves you and me would actually send poisonous snakes to bite and kill the people, and yet I believe that this story says something very honest and true about the pain God felt then when the people would not trust him.
This story also tells the truth about the pain God must feel today as well, whenever his beloved children turn against him and betray his trust.
There is a very important thing that happens after the snakes, and it points to the healing of the cross.
As soon as the people realize that their complaining results in poisonous snakes, they are suddenly very sorry. (Again, they are like little children. Are they actually remorseful? It’s hard to say.) In any event, now they admit that they have been wrong. God then tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a serpent and raise it on a pole above the people.
Interestingly, God does not actually take away the snakes. But now when people get bit by them they can look up at the bronze serpent lifted on the pole and not die.
All of this comes together in John chapter 3, when Jesus actually refers to this very passage:
“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.”
The dissonance becomes harmony.
The truth is that where you set your gaze matters a lot.
Jesus invites us to lift our gaze from the dirt at our feet, which may be filled with snakes, and instead to look up at him.
If we look upward, we will not dwell on our fears or our wounds or even our hunger.
If we raise up our eyes, we will raise up our whole selves.
Looking up we will fill our hearts with the glory of God, which will be our bread for the journey, and our salvation.