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Sermon on Numbers 21:49, John 3:11-17
4th Sunday in Lent, Year B
The book of Numbers has some of the oddest stories in the Bible. The book itself is something of a hodgepodge, a mixture of ancient poetry, census data, cultic regulations, and folktale-ish stories about talking donkeys and magic snakes. Today’s story of the plague of snakes that beset the Israelites in the wilderness is especially weird, as it seems to involve sympathetic magic, or a kind of voodoo that seems completely out of place in the Bible. As far as I can tell, the reason we have this text in the Sunday lectionary is that our reading from John 3 would be unintelligible without it.
The story is the last of the five so-called “murmuring” stories in Numbers, those stories about the Israelites complaining and rebelling against Moses and, in this case, even against God. It also contains one of the funniest lines from the wilderness stories: “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” It’s like a reversal of the restaurant patron who complains that “the food was terrible – and such small portions!”
The setting of the book is the wilderness experience of the first generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt in the exodus. Our translation says the people had grown “impatient” -– the reality is that they were “short of breath,” worn out, running out of stamina. The boringness of the manna they had to eat may have been the least of their problems, but it was a convenient focus for their discontent. Keep in mind that the Bible is not romantic about wilderness, as we are – the wilderness was a place of harshness and terror, the abode of demons.
It is made even more terrifying by the poisonous snakes, literally “fiery” serpents, or seraphim, a word used elsewhere in the Bible for a kind of angel. Seraphim, or “burning ones,” flew around the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem when Isaiah got his call from God. The snakes were probably not on fire themselves, but the poison in their bite made their victims feel like they were.
In the wake of this calamity, the people repent of their ungrateful behavior, and as a remedy for their suffering God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole, so that whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the bronze serpent and live.
What kind of story are we dealing with here? It’s disturbing for at least a couple of reasons.
For one thing, the bronze serpent seems to be in direct violation of the major prohibition of Israelite religion: the prohibition against making images and then trusting in them to do things only God can do. But here is God ordering the fashioning of a bronze serpent on a pole; every victim of snakebite is to look at it and be healed, God says. This sounds like some creepy, magic, pagan stuff.
The second, even more disturbing aspect of the story is the information that God sent the poisonous snakes in the first place. This is disturbing because it points to something that anyone who has truly suffered suspects at one time or another: that God is implicated in our suffering. Our text today doesn’t shy away from this suggestion: it really does say that the biting snakes – the real, slithery, moving ones, not the one on the pole – are sent by God, and that is a terrible thing to consider.
“Suffering is one of the deepest mysteries of life with God.”[i] It is hard enough to observe that God allows suffering, almost unbearable to think that God has caused it. The snake attack on the Israelites was a response to their descent into faithlessness, perhaps meant to sting them into spiritual consciousness; but we know from our experience that faithful people suffer just as much as faithless ones – maybe more, because the faithful are also struggling to figure out where God is in their suffering.
Consider this, though: The people of Israel were instructed to gaze upon the very thing that had terrified and harmed them. They lifted their eyes to look at death on a pole, and those who looked unflinchingly upon that strange totem lived. The forbidding, alien, terrifying thing, the thing they most wanted to avoid, was the agent of their healing. There was no magic there – the bronze serpent was simply a sign given by God to let them know that by fearlessly entrusting their hurts and afflictions to God they would find the medicine they needed.
Let’s listen to John again: “…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.” What an alien, forbidding, extraordinary thing: that a crucified man, a horrendous spectacle of pain and death, should be the agent of our healing.
Luther used the expression “God’s idiom” to describe the paradoxical way of God in the world, what Paul called the “foolishness of the cross.” “God’s idiom,” God’s strange language of grace, is spoken whenever healing happens in the midst of suffering, power is revealed in weakness, and death brings forth life.[ii] Christian faith has never been about the removal of suffering: it is about the transformation of it.
East of the Dead Sea there is a Franciscan monastery that marks the site where Moses is believed to have died. At that place today stands a tall, hammered-metal sculpture that depicts Moses’s serpent on its pole; its configuration also evokes the cross of Christ.[iii] The path to redemption is paved through a wilderness of suffering. In God’s idiom, suffering and salvation, pain and love are mixed up together, and healing may come in the presence of the thing that hurts us the most. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so [is] the Son of Man …lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Look up to him, and live.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 11, 2018
[i] Ellen F. Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 224.
[ii] James Arne Nestingen, “The Lenten First Lessons, Word & World Texts in Context 5/1 (1985), 95.
[iii] W. Sibley Towner, in Feasting on the Word: Lenten Companion, eds. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 13.