Preached online to All Saints Church, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 13 March, 2021. Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B: Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21.
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. (Numbers 21:7)
A few years back, a film appeared with the rather squirmy title, “Snakes on a Plane”. I never watched it. I find air travel arduous enough at the best of times, but the idea of a confined plane cabin infested with snakes simply too unappealing. One can imagine even scarier films today: “Covid on a Plane”, or “The Passenger Behind You Putting their Bare Feet on Top of Your Headrest”. Much more terrifying.
In today’s first lesson, from Numbers, could be titled “Snakes on a Journey”. At the time of this reading, which is about two thirds of the way through the book of Numbers, the Israelites have been in the wilderness for many years since being led out of Egypt. It has been so long, and the journey so difficult, that they have forgotten that their time in Egypt was actually a time of slavery. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”, they complain to Moses. From their perspective, slavery now looks like job security, food, and shelter. At least they had a good place to live.
The Israelites are so cranky and so hopeless that they cannot recognize their blessings. Not only have they forgotten what God did for them years ago, they’ve forgotten what God has done for them recently. Manna from the heavens? Are you kidding? “We detest this miserable food,” they tell Moses. Get us something better to eat! Get us someplace good!
There is something more profound going on here than just a bunch of whining. For those familiar with the Old Testament narrative, the misbehaviour of the Israelites in the wilderness is part of a larger pattern. Forgetting God’s promises, making idols and trusting in them, breaking God’s laws, turning against and killing his prophets — God’s chosen people do all of these things, even after they reach the promised land. The story of God’s love and faithfulness is always counterpointed in scripture with the chronic persistence of God’s people in going off course and screwing up.
Any parent who has tried to keep driving the family car on a long road trip, with querulous and cranky voices coming from the back, may sympathize, if not with God, then at least with Moses. Poor Moses is the guy who has to hold the whole journey together, even pleading with God not to wipe out the whole bunch (Num 14:13-19). Moses is just gripping the steering wheel, hoping that they are indeed “there yet”. God, in contrast, “sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (Num 21:6).
This passage raises the challenging question that many of you may be thinking, namely, what does the business with the snakes say about the character of God? To return to my analogy of the family car trip, no parent, however frazzled, would toss a poisonous serpent into the back seat to punish the cranky kids. However, God’s punishment is not arbitrary; it is rooted in the covenant that God makes with his chosen people, as we heard in last Sunday’s lesson from Exodus 20:1-7. That passage begins with the words “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me”. It was followed by the ten commandments, which as we saw were the boundaries within which the Israelites were to live out their freedom. God gave them as a space within which they would be free from hostility and murder, lies and envy, adultery and all the other hostile forces that destroy community and relationship. The Ten Commandments were the space within which God’s people could be live their lives in freedom.
Seen in this context, the Israelites complaints to Moses are not mere kvetching; they are a radical denial of God’s work of liberation and of God’s faithfulness. God’s punishment is not in fact arbitrary, but comes from God’s desire to return the Israelites to the covenant that is their life and freedom. But why choose snakes to do it? I mean, God could have punished the Israelites with scorpions, or lightning bolts, or even falling pianos, but God chooses snakes. Why snakes? I think because there are patterns to scripture, and here we are meant to think of the place back before the journey started, the garden, where humanity was free and in perfect relationship with God. The snake in Genesis is a symbol of evil and disobedience that breaks human relationship with God our creator and with one another. It was a snake that set the Israelites on their long journey to find their freedom again.
In the story from Numbers, the people bitten by the snakes have a remedy, if they want it. In life, it’s more complicated. A friend tells a story of his boyhood in South Africa, where there are poisonous snakes. One day he was climbing with some friends, and most of the way up a mountain he put his hand in a hole and was badly bitten by a snake, which pumped his hand full of venom. By the time he got back off the mountain his arm was quite painful, but being a boy he didn’t tell his parents, until later that night, when his hand began to turn black and he had to go to hospital to get the antivenom.
I think that many people are like my friend, in denial about their spiritual snakebites and hurting as a result and resembling those in John’s gospel today who “have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18). And yet, just as God provided a remedy for the Israelites, so does Jesus. When Jesus predicts at the beginning of our gospel passage that he will be lifted up like Moses’ snake, he is predicting his own death, as he did in last Sunday’s reading about Jesus comparing his body to the Temple (Jn 2:13-22). The bronze serpent on the staff was a symbol of human sin that God turned to cure. In replacing the bronze serpent on the staff with his broken body on the cross, Jesus goes one step further, taking our sin and disobedience into himself, becoming sin itself in a way that only God’s love could do. But if we want to be cured, we need to see the cross for what it is, and to make a full reckoning with it.
The preacher Timothy Keller says that most people, if they actually found themselves judged by God, would bargain, saying in effect “yes, I’ve done some bad things, but I’ve also done good things that should count to my credit, so I don’t need a lot of help”. Whereas Keller says, a Christian and someone becoming a Christian recognizes their full dependence on God. We know that we are bitten, we want to be free from the snakes. As we approach Good Friday, we have an opportunity to see the cross for what it is, our only source of help. By taking the serpent out of the picture and replacing it with himself, Jesus points to the new order shortly to be inaugurated with his resurrection. In this new order, which we get a foretaste of after Easter, there is no room for snakes, or sin, or death. After Easter, we see the beginning of the road back to the Garden.
That post-Easter road is still a long one, to be sure. It is a road as long as the history of the church, as long as the span of our lives, as long as the longest moment of crisis and despair we may experience. Redemption, salvation, resurrection, call them what you will, may seem like the promised land to Moses’ people, a thing spoken of but so far away as to seem impossible to believe in. I don’t want to say that you just have to believe in the happy ending, for that would seem trite. What I would say is simply to remember the cross. In choosing to become the cure for all that is wrong with us and with the world, Jesus chooses to stand with and to become one of those who suffer. The famous promise of John 3:16 needs to be seen within this context, that Jesus is God’s answer to a world that suffers and disbelieves. The cross is not a short-term answer to suffering. Like the people of Moses who looked to the bronze serpent after they were bitten, we will still be wounded and hurt. But we will not die. The cross is the promise of that, and the promise that, at the end of this road, there will be no snakes.