Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Numbers 21:4-9
4Lent, Year B
At first reading, our Old Testament lesson today seems filled with ancient thinking, so much so that any prudent preacher would be advised to go directly to the gospel lesson. For example, our Old Testament lesson has:
Complaining Israelites, ones who seemingly invented the word KVETCH. “We were better off as slaves,” they complained. (There’s gratitude for you!) “We’re starving.” “We’re thirsty.” Here’s my favorite: “We’re starving AND we don’t like the food you have given us every day since the last time we complained about starving. Manna again! And, by the way, are we THERE yet?”
But at least, in this ancient thinking, they believed that God was paying attention to them and their plight. So they blamed God for those pesky, poisonous, painful snakes that bit and kill many of them. Their “ancient thinking” was that they believed God sent the snakes to punish them for their complaints. Now, we modern progressive Christians just KNOW that the snakes are random agents following their own will, not vengeful acts of God, don’t we???? So what WE encounter such vipers today, we don’t think to wonder what we might have done wrong. As a result, we neglect to do what came so naturally to the Israelites. Seeing the connection between their kvetching and the snakes, they examined their lives. What they discovered was that their kvetching had strayed beyond complaint into blame, had gone beyond murmuring against their leader and had turned into blaming God. In the Navy we used to say, “a happy sailor is a, um …. murmuring … sailor.” But there was a clear line between everyday “happy murmuring” and disrespect. These Israelites had strayed far beyond murmuring, and God was both disrespected and not happy.
Not only does our Old Testament lesson have kvetching Israelites, killer snakes, and an unhappy God, we learn that, with the help of the snakes, the Israelites realized they had gone too far and they begged their leader to intercede for them with God. “Excuse us, Rev. Moses. We may have gone way too far in our complaints against you and God. Could you talk to God for us and tell him we’re very sorry. Oh, and while you’re at it, please ask him to do something about his snakes.” And, of course, Moses did talk to God. And, of course, being merciful, God relented. BUT God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he provided an antidote for their bite.
See, we want the bad things eliminated, but instead God gives us a remedy for the bad. We modern believers want at least a rational cure, a cure that makes sense to our brains. Instead, what we get (what THEY got) was bizarre, almost magical instructions: make a metal cast of the snake and put the fake snake on a pole. Those who look on this snake will live.
I warned you that there was ancient thinking, didn’t I? We expect anti-venom. In fact, we want to hear that ancient healers used this fake snake as a means of administering a medical cure. But the reality is much more complex. The reality is, this bizarre antidote—just looking at the fake snake—worked. I know, you may be thinking, “Well, just looking up at the snake might have calmed them, which would have slowed the rate of toxin flow so that their bodies could …” No!
What actually happened, I think, is that the people looked at the metal serpent, high up there on that pole and said, “Thank you, God, for reminding me to be thankful for you.” In other words, they gave thanks to God every day in every way (even for the snakes, can you believe this?) And, while we are giving thanks, thank you God for life, even if there are illnesses and fears and food we don’t like and even snakes that bit. I’m sorry I blamed you.”
This cure that God provided doesn’t sound so magical anymore, does it? This cure that God provided—contemplating thankfulness while looking at a representation of the very thing that was vexing them—proved wildly successful. So successful that when we next hear about the metal snake on a pole, 500 years have passed and the snake had a name, Nehushtan. We read about Nehushtan in 2 Kings 18:4, when King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent because he believed that the people were no longer giving thanks to God when they looked at the snake. King Hezekiah apparently believed that the people had ascribed magical properties to the image. In short, they had made the metal snake into a beloved idol.
The story of Nehushtan didn’t end with the idol’s destruction, either. We heard Jesus refer to the metal serpent in today’s gospel lesson. There Jesus told a man named Nicodemus that, just like the serpent had been lifted up in the wilderness, so too must he be lifted up. Leaving us to figure out how Jesus on the cross is like Nehushtan on a pole.
On one level, the answer is easy. Philosophically, metaphorically, Jesus told one Nic—Nicodemus—that his death on a cross was the answer to another Nick—Old Nick, what wily old snake himself. Jesus said that if we look upon him on the cross, and take stock of our kvetching and give thanks to God, we too will live. Jesus himself named two caveats, two footnotes, to the comparison. Jesus said, in effect, that we can’t just look at him on the cross; we have to believe in what he accomplished there. And then, Jesus said, the life we gain will be ETERNAL life.
There are plenty of people around today who would dismiss this as ancient thinking, magical thinking. But if you look closely, they don’t seem to have a better answer for their own snake problem. In fact, most deny the very existence of these metaphorical snakes, even while there are a passel of them attached to their ankles, biting them to death. For people who deny the existence of these snakes, they seem to be trying to various antidotes to dull their pain: alcohol, drugs, pornography, overwork, a frenzy of fear and anxiety, or just plain complaining.
Our lessons today turn out to contain very useful information—ancient thinking or not, maybe more like ancient wisdom—about how to deal with the things that are killing us in this life (and the antidote is very Lenten):
- Step One: Examine our lives.
- Step Two: Identify what’s marring our relationship with God.
- Step Three: Elevate that defect to prominent and daily reflection in our lives, giving thanks to God for the reminder to be in relationship with him.
- Step Four: Don’t make an idol out of the reminder.
There are additional steps, of course, but these are enough for today, enough to get us started or re-started. I urge you this Lent to take these four practical steps, and to look on Jesus and believe.