Martha M. Shiverick
From Mt. Hor they set out by the way to 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 on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent and live.
“And 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. For god so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that there may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
We all know this passage from the Gospel of John. The verse “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ is the most frequently quoted verse in the New Testament. It is a fundamental statement of our faith. And you have heard sermons’ on this text every third year on the Sunday when it appears in our lectionary reading for the day. And this afternoon when you go about the rest of your day and meet with friends who attend other churches whose ministers preach from the lectionary, they too will have heard a sermon from this text. Part of the reason I can be certain of this is that the assigned Hebrew scripture, one of the other choices for the lectionary preacher is just so peculiar. Snakes biting people and Moses saving them with a snake on a stick! When I read it again this year, as I had other years when it is the assigned text, I thought that the only reason it could have possibly been put into the lectionary is that the first verse of the John text refers to it when Jesus says, ‘And just as Mosses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must he son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ That mention of Moses and the serpent in the wildernesses must be the only reason that the funny text from Numbers was placed there. So, as I have before, I started my sermon research, fully expecting to preach on the text from John. But then the peculiar story from Numbers began to haunt me. I kept on thinking about it. Clearly there was a message there that needed to flesh out. So here goes…..
The Israelites have been traveling in the wilderness now for a long time. Remember they were out there for 40 years! This was the next generation from the people who crossed the Red Sea with Moses and began the journey to the Promised Land. Sure, Moses is still leading them, but he is older too. And this new generation, complains just as the older one did. Whereas the first group complained because they were really hungry and afraid they were going to starve and God sent them manna to eat for their bread; this new group complains that there is no food and water too, but when they qualify their complaint it isn’t that they do not have food, it is just that they detest what they have. This group is the whiners! They have been drudging through this wilderness for years and all they have to eat is this powdery white substance called manna. They want a diversified diet that matches their palate. In fact they complain to the same God who provided the manna from heaven that they DETEST this miserable food! They scream out to God, ‘God, we are sick and tired and WE WANT SOMETHING ELSE!!!!’
And, well, this must have really angered God because his response was to send poisonous snakes or serpents to bite the Hebrews and many of them died. My mental image of this is somewhat scary with all these snakes snapping at the poor Israelites who were dropping like flies from poisonous snake bites! I know this seems a little harsh until you remember that our God of our Hebrew Scriptures was one that dealt out harsh vengeance and punishment, not the warm fuzzy one we learn of from Jesus calling him daddy in the New Testament.
So, God was angry that his people had a lack of trust that God would provide and a punishment was inflicted upon the Israelites. The Israelites realized what they had done that angered God and they repented and they approached Moses confessing their sin of speaking against God and Moses. They asked Moses to pray to the lord to take the Serpents away. And Moses does. And the Lord answered Moses’s prayer. But the answer they got was not exactly what they had asked for. The serpents were not taken away. They remained. Moses is instructed to make a bronze snake on a stick and the people would be saved from the poisonous bites if they looked at the stick. All commentaries I read on this passage stated that it is important to note that the danger facing the Israelites has not gone away. God has provided a means for healing in the midst of danger. And what is equally important to note here about the solution to the snake bites was that the healing power was not in the serpent but that the people turned their thoughts to God and when they did, they were healed. Nowhere in the passage does it say that the serpent on the pole was magic. God is in control and God will save the people. It was the faithfulness of the people who believed in a God that would save them that indeed allowed for their salvation. Because of their belief, they did as God told them to do, they looked at the bronze serpent Moses held in his hand and lived.
We refer to the season of lent as our wilderness journey. Just as Jesus went to the wilderness for 40 days to reflect and build his mission plan, and they Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years before reaching their promised land, we too, as Christians are to spend this season before Easter in preparation for what is to come. We are to spend this season building our faith, our character, and making right our relationship with God. We go on these journeys, to prepare for what is to come, to prepare ourselves for what lays on the other side of the journey.
And in many ways we here at Fairmount are also in a wilderness journey that will continue until what we call this interim period is over. We are in a period which is preparing us for what will come later. I heard Bishop Tutu preach once on the importance of the wilderness part of the journey as it is where we grow and ready ourselves for what is to come. And what I want to mention here is that in all journey’s things do not always go according to our plans. We might set off on a road, in which we agree to travel, and then we find that there are roadblocks that occur and we need to reroute our path to proceed to our goal. I think of the GPA systems that rework our routes on our car trips when we take side trips or end up taking the scenic route instead of the highway. The route is reset but the destination is the same.
And the other thing we should say about journeys and all trips that we take is that things do not always go according to the way we think they should. I am reminded of several family trips I have planned. The key in our family to going on a family vacation is that someone has to plan it. AND, in our family that responsibility lands on my shoulders. If someone did not plan it, it would not happen. And to be honest, I have enjoyed studying about and planning the trips so it has not been a terrible burden! However, the one thing I found that I must do, is after I plan it, I must step back and not own it. Journeys are always interrupted and unplanned events always occur. Baggage is lost, reservations are not kept, and the experience you thought would be the highlight is eclipsed by something unexpected that you came across. And often on our journeys it is these unique changes from our schedules and challenges along our journey which end up as the part of the trip you remember the most. Whether it is the car trip where you stopped to see where a famous historical battle was fought or the car trip where you actually stopped at Wall Drug to see the jackalope on your way to the Grand Tetons, clearly the side trip cam be the most enjoyable part to the trip.
And dear Fairmounters, we are on an uncharted part of our interim journey right now. This Interim period between permanent senior pastors is not going according to the books! However, rest assured that we are still on track, we have not lost our direction, and we are merely taking the side road to our destination that we had not previously thought to take. And my hope for all of us is that this will be a most enjoyable route together where we will experience our faith journeys in such a way that at the end of the trip, we look back and say, ‘that was a great experience, we are better for it and God definitely worked with and through us during it.’ And please know that Pastor Eric Dillenbeck and I are happy to be on this journey with you.
So, let’s go back to the story of these poor traveling Israelites and the serpents. What can this story tell us about our faith at this time in our journey? Well, their journey was not going at all as they had planned. In fact some of them did not want to be on the journey at all. And they complained. Things were not good, and then with the serpents things just got worse! And what is important for us to glean from the story, is that God did not take away the problem. What happened is that God gave them a way to cope with it. Their faith in God was what saved them and most importantly God did not abandon them.
And in our life journeys, whether they be your personal spiritual life journey or the journey we take as a church, things are not always the way we planned or the way we want them to be. Jobs are lost. Cancer develops in those with whom we love the most. Families have strife and conflict and some marriages do end in divorce. Even though we cry out to God, God does not take these things away. Just like the Israelites we are stuck with the poisonous things that attack our lives and can kill us. However, God does offer a way for us to handle the bad in life. Through our faith in God, God does offer us the knowledge that we are not alone, that we are never abandoned, and that in the end God is truly in control. In the end , it is our faith in God which saves us as it gives us the security we need to continue our life’s journey in the sure and steadfast knowledge that at the end, we will be with God. In the end, the message is all about being saved our faith. For as it was written in the Gospel of John, “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.