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


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

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.

0 Responses