Yr B ~ Lent 4 ~ Numbers 21:4-9
Ok, let’s say it right from the start. The scripture reading this week is horrific! I mean it’s awful. It’s in a book we almost never look at: Numbers 21:4-9 – and it’s all about snakes. Except it isn’t.
It’s a story that never happened – and it’s a story that ALWAYS happens! In fact, it’s happening right now! (No, not the snakes part. Well, kinda.) Once again we’re bitten (pardon the pun) by our tendency to read the bible as some sort of objective, historical record that takes the place of a documentary video camera. So when we come across stories like this – where the people whine and complain about God so God seemingly sends poisonous snakes to punish them, and then when they convince Moses to intervene Moses comes up with a magic trick that miraculously cures them – well, what do you do with it? You say to yourself – “Hey, wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like God at all. God is Love. And faith isn’t magic. The story must mean something other than it appears.”
And you’d be right. Truth is, it’s a great story!
And by the end of my sermon I’m going to make you love it! (I hope.)
Let’s start with some context. Numbers is the fourth book in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament). It comes right after Leviticus, which follows Exodus. This is the story that shapes the identity of the people of Israel. They escape slavery and servitude under Pharaoh and find themselves wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Numbers continues to tell that story. I’m not sure exactly when this is supposed to have taken place but it seems to be describing a time near the end of those 40 years of wilderness wandering.
I hope you remember that in the bible the wilderness is usually a metaphor for a time of transformation. That’s certainly the case here – being transformed from Pharaoh’s slaves to God’s children (which, of course, they always were – but they didn’t really understand themselves to be so).
40 years in the desert. A generation is generally said to be 20 years so we’re talking about 2 generations worth of time. Folks back then didn’t live as long lives as we do now – so the harsh reality is that many of the people who escaped from Egypt would die before they reached the Promised Land. And that includes Moses, by the way. The people who arrive in the Promised Land will be a whole new people! That’s a great image – unless you’re one of the old people!
The book of Numbers was written down during the Babylonian Exile – when the people of Israel once again found themselves oppressed and displaced. So this snake story is actually most likely referring to the Exiles and their situation, and calls back to their archetypal identity story for inspiration and guidance. From the beginning this was a teaching story to help people in trouble.
Do you love it yet? Ok, I’ll keep trying.
In the story God’s people are frustrated and complaining about the horrible and seemingly hopeless situation they’re in. They’ve been in the wilderness for generations, and people are dying. The snakes in the story are ‘time’. Time is what’s biting them, and killing them. They take their exasperated grievances to their religious leaders, who do their best to pray about a way forward – a way through the hardship. Moses fashions a symbol to give the people something to focus on – to remind them that if they keep their eyes and hearts on God that they will get through the calamity. It’s not magic – it’s steadfastness. Faithfulness. Trust.
It’s important to notice that the ‘snakes’ don’t actually stop biting them.
You can’t stop time.
But they get through it all because of their great faith and steadfastness.
Whether it’s about the Exodus crew in the wilderness, or the Exile gang in a foreign land, the message is the same. “Yes, things are not great – but God is with you. God loves you.” It never says that God directly sends the snakes, but it does say that the people understand their trouble to be caused by their mistakes, their ‘sin’. So God offers God’s Loving Presence in the midst of their trouble – because God remembers God’s covenant love – that God is their God and they are God’s people – and if the people can stay focused on that truth they will find their way through. In the story Moses makes God’s Presence tangible. Time still marches on, people will still die of old age and illness, but the people KNOW they are not alone. We are not alone.
Do you love it yet? Closer? How about this?
I said at the start that this story never happened but that it always happens, and that it’s happening now. Let me explain.
Consider the North American mainline church in the early 21st century. Us. A couple of generations ago we were flying high – millions of members, new buildings springing up everywhere, full churches with hordes of kids, and a societal expectation that church was a good thing and you really should go. I’m not saying folks were more faithful or more spiritual back then – I’m just saying there were lots more folks!
Fast forward to today. The snakes of time are biting us again. Our denomination went from a few million to a couple hundred thousand. We’re closing about one church every 10 days or so. Churches are for sale everywhere. Empty churches teeter on the edge of survival, with no kids, and no societal expectations. In fact, there’s a general societal prejudice that churches are irrelevant, or at best quaint.
And what is the reaction of God’s people?
They grumble. Oh how they grumble!
They grumble about finances.
They grumble about having too few bodies to do their work.
They grumble about the good old days and worry if their church will be around for their funeral.
And the snakes continue to bite them.
Did God send this calamity of empty churches to punish unfaithfulness? Of course not. But an argument could be made that the general attitude of mainline churches over the decades was laissez-faire, assuming folks would keep coming because that’s how it had always worked.
Who needs evangelism (or faithvertising!) when you’re building new churches all the time?
“If you build it, they will come.”
We built. They came.
They ain’t coming anymore!
Over time the world changed, and the church didn’t, and now we’re left with grumbling.
So we look to our religious leaders for help, and guidance. And those leaders pray fervently, looking for inspiration. How will we escape from our calamity?
The answer is the same as it has always been.
Remember God’s covenant love. God is with us. We are not alone.
Focus on God’s Presence – love God with steadfastness, with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength – and God will guide us through.
The snakes will still bite. Churches will still close. God isn’t magic. But the journey will feel less calamitous. And who knows, maybe all that steadfast loving of God that we’re doing will transform our hearts, and people will see that, and wonder where our glow comes from. (And then we have to be ready to tell them!)
Do you love it yet? Almost? Here’s one last thought.
As you are no doubt well aware, today is the 1-year anniversary of our last in-person worship gathering before the Covid-19 pandemic forced us into reinventing how we are as a church. A disaster has befallen us. A calamity has struck. The snakes are biting, and people are dying. Many people are grumbling and complaining: “I don’t like wearing a mask. I’m imprisoned in my home. My business is failing because people can’t come and buy things. The vaccines are too slow. I can’t see my friends, or even some of my family. I can’t do anything. I can’t even go to church.”
I’m not dismissing those grumbles – they’re real, and they’re valid.
And so in our lamenting and frustration we lash out, and reach out – both at the same time – praying for anyone to help us – to relieve us of our calamity – to make the snakes stop biting. But we know there aren’t any magic wands. There are precautions, and masks, and hand sanitizing, and vaccines, but none of them are fast enough, and none of them are stopping the snake bites today.
I have no magic.
All I have is what people of faith have always had.
A steadfast trust in the loving presence of God.
And I can point us to a tangible symbol too.
Not a snake on a staff.
Followers of the Way of Jesus look up and focus on two sticks of wood, fastened transversely.
And most importantly, an empty cross.
As our Lenten journey proceeds we are getting closer and closer to Holy Week – and the cross looms large on the horizon. The cross stands as a sign for many things, but today it can remind us that no matter what calamity, or trouble, or hardship we land in that God’s Love never abandons us.
The snakes may still bite – Jesus still died on the cross – but God’s Love enfolds and envelops us, here in the midst of our hard times – when we most desperately need it.
Surely, God is in this place, in this pandemic, in our pain, in our struggle, in our frustration, in our midst – holding us, encouraging us, inspiring us, and loving us – steadfastly.
God has promised to do so. It is our covenant together.
And our part is to look to God, to trust, to love – steadfastly.
And as we receive God’s love, we in turn love – neighbour, friend, one another.
Calls are made. Notes are sent. Groceries are purchased. Errands are run. Driveways are visited!
Love, and care, and support, and community are expressed in myriad ways. And we tangibly experience God’s loving reminder that we are not alone.
It’s not magic – it’s love.
And love is what will see us through these times – through a year of Covid – through a few more months of being discombobulated – through a time like none of us had ever before imagined living.
One year of Covid is not 40 years in the wilderness, but some days it feels that way. There are days when our grumbling reaches epic proportions. That’s ok. Vent away.
And then take a deep breath – and look for signs of God’s love.
They’re all around you.
You’re experiencing one right now.
We are not alone.
We’re together – through this and whatever comes next.
See. I told you you’d love it by the end.