The Burning Serpent – Lectionary 03/14/2021

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Sermon Text

            We have seen today’s scripture before during our Sunday services. I confess as a preacher that it is one of my favorite passages to preach on. It contains multitudes and in Jesus’s use of it in John 3 it takes on still greater depth. This strange story of snakes in the wilderness, and the bronze serpent which was made to save the people from them, carries a gravitas all its own. Here in the fourth Sunday of Lent, so close now to Easter, we return to the mysterious occurrence which took place on the edge of Edom.

The story opens with the people leaving Mount Hor. There they had buried their head priest, Aaron brother of Moses. The community, fresh off of their period of mourning for one of their core leaders, is naturally upset. They have been wandering for some time now, but they could take courage in the fact that, just over the horizon, was the land of Canaan. Their very own, Promised Land.

Yet, when they are lead forward, they suddenly find their path trending toward the Red Sea. In their previous wandering, they had gone directly from the shore of the Red Sea, north through the Wilderness of Zin, and came near to Canaan. They had then turned south once more to arrive at Mount Hor, something that to them would have likely seemed like a brief detour. The plan, however, was to enter Canaan across the Jordan, and to do so by traveling around the land of Edom first.

This detour would eventually result in the people traveling to the point on the Red Sea that they had previously departed from. The people had been traveling for years at this point, and while we cannot be sure of the exact timeframe that this detour had resulted in, we know the distance it set them back. The people who were once within spitting distance of Canaan, now had to backtrack what was essentially the last two hundred miles of their exodus.

The people, in their frustration, now begin to turn against Moses and against God. While we read their complaints as though they were simply that, complaints voiced to one another, we should see them in their full context. To say that a sentiment like this was spoken of by, “the people,” is to suggest it was shared by the thousands upon thousands of Israelites who were following Moses in this journey. Previously such a large group of dissidents had encouraged acts of rebellion. This unified stance against Moses and God as heads of this journey were more than simple complaints, they were a threat of insurrection.

The people no longer saw God or Moses as beneficent. In fact, they again tried to accuse them of outright malice. “Why have you brought us out here to die!?” They had claimed something similar to this before. This accusative question brings to mind the other that was once paired with it, “Were there no graves in Egypt!?” The people saw God as a trickster, promising freedom but only giving them a slow death in the wilderness. Even the Manna which had rained from Heaven, God’s daily provision to them, was given as evidence. “We detest this miserable food.” Miserable here meaning deficient. They were not content with their fill of Manna, they wanted more.

God looks upon the people, and their rejection. God looks upon the prospective rebellion they are forming and resolves to punish the people. The people are sent, “הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים”, (ha nechashim ha seraphim,) “the serpents of fiery being.” What this means exactly is unclear, although many translate it to mean the snakes were merely poisonous. Strangely, the word used to describe these snakes, “seraphim,” is also used to describe God’s angel attendants. No mater what they were, or how we describe them, what is clear is that the people could not face these serpents alone. The people came to Moses and begged him for relief.

Sin and repentance, two polar aspects within our life, often spring up from similar causes. They often spring up as a result of us responding to pain. When we feel that we have no control over our life or that our needs are not met, we begin to seek comfort anyway that we can. Sometimes we seek out to fix the problems that we face and sometimes we seek to chase after a momentary sense of relief. Acknowledging our pain, acting against evil we see or experience, even complaints are not sinful responses to trouble. However, when our intent moves away from a restorative purpose to a destructive or selfish one, then we begin to err.

Within our scripture, the people did not sin in voicing their concerns about food or water. They were wrong in that they did not bring these complaints before God or Moses, nor did they seek to understand the situation they found themselves in vis a vis their detour around Edom. Communication had broken down between the people and God, and with that communication breakdown came a breaking in trust. Trust, once eroded, is a very difficult thing to rebuild. The hardship of the Wilderness had worn the people down, down to the roots of their being. Now, they found that the journey had not built in them anything new. Sinai had not instilled them the skills they needed to be holy, they had not internalized the teachings God had given.

It was only when the serpents came that they people saw their mistakes. As dull as Manna was, it was nourishing rather than fatal. As long as the road to Canaan had been, it led to life, whereas the serpents only brought death. In the shadowy light of suffering, the stark contrast between a life with God’s provisions and a life without God’s provision became clear. The people saw that they needed to repent, to turn away from their present course toward destruction. They looked to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned!” and Moses in return interceded to God on their behalf.

I’ll be the first to say that I do not know much about God’s wrath. In my experience, good and bad happen to the wicked and righteous with the same regularity. There is seldom an apparent rhyme or reason to it. I do not think that most of our suffering is initiated by God, and quite honestly, we here on earth cause more than enough for ourselves and one another without outside help. We are seldom visited in this life by seraphim, but we often find ourselves visited by bad luck.

What hardships shows us, regardless of its source, is what hides beneath the image of ourselves we project outward. When we are in distress, whether that be sorrow or anger or fear, we will do things we would not do if we had all our decorum about us. Yet, beyond the impulsive act of someone caught off guard, is the habitual action of someone once the shock of trouble has left them. If I, because of any number of circumstances, am short with someone, there is hope for me if I realize my sin and make amends. However, if I continue to do harm to others in the midst of troubles, then it is not the trouble that made me err, it was something deep within myself that must be either worked out and healed, or rooted out and done away with.

In the latter case, we may not see the way trouble has exposed our habitual tendencies until something else bad comes of them. When our grief has exposed a hardness of heart we were previously covering, and that hardheartedness alienates us from those around us. Only when we first begin to see people leaving our sides do we understand that we have let one evil birth many more. This second bout of pain, born from the first, is what can inspire us to repentance. For the Israelites, tedium and desire led them to distrust God and Moses – pain eroded relationship rather than strengthened it. It then took the introduction of another source of pain, the serpents, to wake them up to just what they had let take over their lives.

We are blessed by the example of the Israelites before us, not because we are so much wiser or better than them, but because we can learn from this incident. When we are caught off guard by suffering, we can choose whether we will let it consume us or if we will find our way through it together. We have the gift of one another and of God to help us in this difficult calling. We can see the ways that our difficult life tempts us to all manner of evil, and then by leaning upon one another escape the snares which we might prepare for ourselves. Heartbreak need not destroy us, not if we have each other.

More than this, whereas the Israelites had Moses to lead them and a bronze serpent to heal them, we find our leader and our cure in a single person. Jesus, through his life of suffering and suffering death on the cross, knows the pain we face. Taking on the image of sinful humanity, Christ broke sin’s hold on us, and opened the door for us to truly know what it is to be Godly – to be pure in heart and in Spirit. We look to Christ, and we are healed. We follow after Christ and we are made whole. God’s grace at Mount Hor continues on even till today.

Let us then not compound our suffering. When we sin, let us repent of our evil quickly. When we are in pain, let us look to God and one another rather than lashing out or covering up our wounded heart. Whatever comes our way, we must love one another, support one another, trust one another. This is a high calling, not only for those of us who share our pain, but those who help one another through it. A helper cannot be a judge at the same time, nor can they seek gain through the help they offer. We must be selfless in our love for one another, in all things.

Life is hard, let us not pretend otherwise. Still more, God is good, let us not forget. Now let us take the love of God as our example. Where pain is found, may love abound even more, and may the merciful God of Israel rain blessings upon us. Let us find that same blessing, most abundantly, in our service to one another, that none may fall to sin because of the pain of this world. – Amen.

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