What's God to Do? Become a Savior!

Posted 3/11/2018

Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9

We have been tracing God’s covenants with humanity over the weeks of Lent. We began with God’s covenant with Noah and all creation — the promise that God’s grace, not God’s judgment, would be God’s final word on evil and our sin. We then moved to God’s promise to Abraham — a promise that chose Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people. Last week we looked at the giving of the Ten Commandments — the guide God gave to enable his people to live in the way God calls them to live. 

Today we are looking at a Scripture lesson that is, to put it mildly, strange and difficult. It is a passage we (or at least we preachers!) would perhaps prefer to ignore. What in the world are we to make of this odd story of a bronze snake on a pole? As we begin to look at this passage we need to begin by honestly admitting it is a strange story.

And yet it is also the story of humanity. Israel, wandering in the desert, becomes impatient. The long trip to the Promised Land is delayed once more as they must detour around Edam, who has denied them permission to pass through their land. Like little children in the back seat of the car, the Israelites have had enough traveling. They have gone from the constant “Are we there yet?” to “We’re NEVER going to get there!”

And their impatience leads them to express their discontent with this whole process of traveling through the desert to get to some “Promised Land.” That this is what is going on becomes clear when we pay attention to what they say. “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food,” Israel complains. Through these words we discover we are not dealing with a failure of God to provide food and water, but with Israel’s own attitude and heart. It is not that they are without food, but that they “detest” the food God has given.

And does that not describe our very human responses to God’s provision? God promises us good, but as we wander through the desert we become impatient and begin to detest and distain the provision God gives as “not enough” or as “miserable.” Like Israel, we want the journey to be over. We want the Promised Land now — or better yet, yesterday.

It is noteworthy that while Israel complained repeatedly about lacking food and water during their wilderness journeying, this is the only passage where they are said to complain directly against God. Their constant dissatisfaction with their present journey toward the Promised Land and God’s provisions during that journey have finally lead them to open defiance of God. They constantly are longing for “the good life” they had in Egypt, where they had fish, and cucumbers and melons and leeks, onions and garlic. They remember with nostalgia the time before God interfered with them, bringing them out of Egypt; and that nostalgia has finally drawn them into open rebellion against God. 

Up to this point the story seems to be rather ordinary. It is a story that is, in truth, very much the story of all our lives — our impatience and nostalgia that leads us into rebellion against God…. But at this point the story takes a turn and becomes “strange.” What are we to make of the fiery snakes and the bronze serpent?

Perhaps it is helpful if we recall that the serpent was a symbol of both the gods of Egypt (and thus Egypt) as well as of sin (the serpent in the Garden of Eden). The people of Israel, who have been longing all along for the “fleshpots” of Egypt has been poisoned by their longings — poisoned to the point of rebellion against God that leads to death. They have entered into sin — which is primarily a lack of trust in God. Like the poison of the serpents which entered their blood and caused death, the poison of their longings has entered their lives and is causing their death. 

Yet in the lifting up of the bronze serpent and the looking toward it — that is, in their acknowledgment of their sin and in repentance — Israel discovers the healing, life-giving power of God. It is not so much that the bronze serpent heals, but that the bronze serpent becomes the visible emblem of their sin — of the poisonous longings that are leading them to death. And in admitting this sin, in turning to God in obedience, they discover the grace of God which saves. 

It is in this story that we see the journey of Lent — the promise of God despised by our longings for “the good times that were.” Our rebellion against God’s leading in the desert — the hard times of our life. Our lack of trust in God’s provision in the barren places in our lives. Our sin. Our need for repentance. And God’s gracious gift of salvation. Here in this strange story we discover God becomes not just our guide but also our savior. God becomes the one who offers us saving, life-giving grace.

And, as the gospel of John reminds us when Jesus says, “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,” we too experience God’s saving, life-giving grace as we repent and look to the one God has provided for us.