Chaplain Mel Baars
March 18, 2012
Each week, when it is time to start preparing for Sunday, I begin by reviewing the lectionary texts for whatever Sunday it is. I have four scripture passages from which to choose: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel. To keep things “exciting,” I attempt to choose from different parts of the Bible each week, not always sticking with one area of scripture. Yet, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, it seems that I can’t drag myself, or any of the rest of us, away from the Old Testament. There is something just Lent-y about the Old Testament. Perhaps this is because, by-in-large, its stories share some common themes: desert, exile, waiting, and suffering.
There are very few reprieves from the perpetual “wilderness” in which God’s people find themselves. Sure, at some point, the rain ceases, the flood dries up, and God paints a rainbow in the sky. Eventually, the Israelites cross over the deep river Jordan into their land flowing with milk and honey. The temple stands, at least for a while, and even after it is destroyed the first time, there is a movement to rebuild which, if nothing else, is a sign of hope, a sign of arrival. Mostly, though, the story of Israel and God is a saga set in the wilderness with darkness as its primary color and complaining and disobedience as its soundtrack.
Today’s passage from Numbers fits this “wilderness” stereotype well. It also has to be one of the more bizarre texts found in the Biblical cannon and is certainly a little jarring, at least at first glance, especially after last Sunday’s encounter with the Ten Commandments. Wasn’t one of them something about not making false idols? Doesn’t a bronze serpent up on a pole upon which the people look for healing sound a little idolatrous? Yet, this was God’s own instruction to Moses for that Israelite’s salvation, not some human hatched plan for being saved from the poisonous snakes nipping at their feet. If you are at least a little confused, you are in good company. This passage has presented its share of mystery over the years, and I am not so ambitious to think that I have unlocked all of its secrets.
None of us should be surprised to hear that “along the way, the people became impatient.” For a fifth instance in a series of “grumbling” stories just in Numbers alone, the people are complaining. It seems they are always complaining about something. In fact, they had barely cleared the Red Sea when their complaining began. After just three days in the wilderness, they cried out to Moses, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat around eating meat and our fill of bread, for you brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger(Ex. 16:3).” If they are this whiny on day three, imagine their protests after a year or ten or even forty years of desert wandering. I feel sorry for Moses and even more sorry for God, having to listen to all grumbling.
Despite their impatience and distrust, God hears their complaints and responds to their needs by sending down manna and quail. It’s not the food of choice, but it is food nonetheless. Their hunger is satisfied, at least momentarily. Their faith in God’s provision doesn’t last long, however, and they are back to complaining in no time at all. They grow tired of the food which God provides. It’s repetitive and lacking in any real flavor or imagination. Does this sound familiar? I must admit, I can’t help but hear myself complaining of our food. After all, the literal meaning of manna is “what is it?” Here, I have asked this question many a meal. Often, what God provides is just not what we are expecting or hoping for. When others are on the complaining bandwagon, it’s easy to follow suit, instead of simply being grateful.
Because, of course we know that impatience and doubt are not only the story of the Israelites lost in the desert between Egypt and Canaan. This is our human story-- past, present, and future. How quickly we forget God’s faithfulness in our lives, the moments when we have seen and felt God working in mighty ways. How easily they forgot just how powerful God was springing them out of Egyptian captivity, parting the Red Sea, ushering them to freedom. Logic might even argue-- Why would God have gone to such an extent to set them all free and then turn around and abandon them when they were only halfway to safety?
A very short memory ensured that logic and reason were NOT always present in the wilderness. It seems, after all the times that God came to their rescue, proving again and again just what true faithfulness looks like, God throws them a little wake up call-- in the form of poisonous, biting snakes. They had no idea just how bad things could get in the wilderness until this point. Bitter flavored water and repetitive food was one level of hardship, but killer snakes are in a league of their own. Suddenly, people are dying, which helps those still living regain their senses. What did they have to complain about before, just some bad tasting water and bland food? That was nothing. These snakes are for real. So, the ones not yet keeled over from snake venom, repent and throw themselves before Moses, begging forgiveness. They are hoping that Moses can intercede before God on their behalf and get rid of all the snakes.
God does respond to their prayers, yet not quite in the way that the people envisioned. The poisonous snakes don’t disappear as they had hoped. They don’t even stop biting or suddenly morph into snakes more of the “garden” variety. The die has already been cast. The poisonous snakes are now a part of their wilderness existence. There is no undoing the results of their incessant waywardness. However, God doesn’t leave them alone, suffering the consequences of their distrust. God empowers them with a way to survive this new and deadly challenge. It’s definitely an odd solution to the problem. Nonetheless, it works. Whenever a person gets bitten by one of these deadly snakes, he or she is supposed to gaze upon this bronze serpent replica. Somehow facing their fears head on saves them from what they fear. Perhaps we should remember this.
On one hand, this makes little sense. Looking at a bronze serpent is the anti-venom for the snakebite? I am no expert, but this does sound a little like magic. There is also still the issue of them teetering dangerously close to having made an idol. But, on the other hand, the passage doesn’t say that the bonze snake does any real saving at all. It is the action, their looking up at the snake, which seems to make all the difference. If looking at the bronze snake was what God told them to do in order to live, then every time they follow God’s instruction, they are actually practicing faith, demonstrating trust. I mean, who is to say that the Israelites didn’t also see the absurdity of the situation. Of course, a fake metal snake on a poll can’t do much to save a victim of a viper bite. But, this was what God instructed, as strange as it may be, and everyone who listened and acted, found life instead of death post the poisonous bite.
The act of looking up gives them the strength that they need to get through a deadly encounter. Looking up reminds them that God is still with them, that God is their guide. Looking up helps them refocus on what God has promised. Looking up reminds them to pay attention to all that God has done and is doing all around them, even in the midst of the wilderness. The act of looking up reminds me of words found in Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth(Psalm 121).” I have found that these words resonate, especially here in Bagram, surrounded by some of Afghanistan’s most dramatic mountains. Every once-in-a-while, when the sky is clear and I am not so intent on focusing on the rocks beneath my feet, I happen to look up. Almost always when this happens, I have to catch my breath. Looking up at those hills reminds me that even here, especially here, God’s presence looms. It is real and sure and good. I shouldn’t need mountains to remind me from where my help comes, but on many days, looking up at them sure helps.
This passage is about faith in God not faith in magic or any other kind of idolatry. It is not the object upon which they gaze which saves them, but it is the act of looking up which becomes a sacrament in itself. When they do this, they confirm that it is God in whom they trust and from whom they have their lives. In the same way, when we come to this table, to eat this bread and drink this wine, it is not these objects which give us life, but it is the God who they represent who ultimately saves us. In the darkness of Lent, when the wilderness in which we find ourselves is also filled with many poisonous snakes, threatening to bite with deadly force, may we, too, remember to look up, up to the cross. The cure for death ends up being death, death on the cross. But, when we look up, we are reminded that life will surely follow. Amen.