We’re halfway through Lent now, coming up on Rose Sunday, and I haven’t even been to worship since Ash Wednesday! Of course, that’s because I went to an out-of-town funeral and then spent two weeks very sick with all manner of -itises, but I’ve missed it. It’s so wonderful to be feeling like myself again. Thanks be to God!
So last Sunday, we heard the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament reading. The second sentence said You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. Now in this week’s readings, our Old Testament reading still comes from the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it relates a story about the complaints of the Israelites.
From Mount Hor the Israelites 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.
There are several troubling things about this story. First of all, are we really supposed to believe that God sent poisonous snakes to kill God’s people? Why would God go to all the trouble of freeing them from Egypt — all those plagues, not to mention the parting of the Red Sea — only to kill them off with snakes? And if God really did do this, then how can we talk about God’s love for us? For heaven’s sake, the Gospel reading for Sunday includes the famous John 3:16: 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. How can we reconcile this God who sends poisonous serpents into the midst of God’s people, with this God who loves us so much that God gives us eternal life?
Something else troubled me when I read this story, too. In answer to the prayers of the Israelites, God has Moses make a graven image of a serpent from bronze and hold it up high in the air so that all the people can see it. And whenever someone gets bitten by a snake, they have only to look up at this bronze serpent to be healed. Now, when we hear or read this story, we understand that of course, it is God doing the healing, not the bronze serpent. But if we were there, in the dust and dirt of the wilderness, low on food and water, and plagued with snakes all around us… we might forget that subtlety. Especially for a child, it would be very easy to associate the bronze serpent high on the pole with the healing. Did God command the Israelites to make no idols, and then instruct Moses to create one for them? What is the difference between the golden calf and the bronze serpent?
I admit freely that snakes give me the heebie-jeebies. Even “harmless” pet snakes make me anxious. This is one of the curses that God levied when evicting Adam and Eve from Eden, that snakes would forever be our enemies. I’ll also admit that I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I like my air conditioning, thankyouverymuch, and my refrigerator and my microwave and my indoor plumbing. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to make that trek through the desert. Is it any surprise that the Israelites were complaining? I mean, yeah, we need to trust in God, but that trip had to suck. I’m sure I would have been bitching and moaning before even getting to the Red Sea!
In this case, the sin is not simply complaining but speaking against God. It wasn’t that the people said, this trip sucks, and I wanna go home, but that they said, God sucks, and God’s killing out here. By speaking against God, the Israelites separated themselves from God and the blessings that God was giving them. The result of this separation is that the people became vulnerable to the snakes that were in the desert. Perhaps it is not that God actually sent the serpents to them, but that God simply withdrew God’s protection, allowing the snakes to harm them. Regardless, once the Israelites repented and turned back toward God, God used the symbol of the serpent to bring healing to them. So the serpents brought death, and the one serpent on the pole brought life.
In the gospels, Jesus tells us that the things of this world bring death, and that only the things of God can bring life. The thing is, Jesus came into this world; Jesus became a thing of this world. Jesus became a person, a human being, subject to pain and anger and frustration, able to experience hunger and thirst and temptation, having to satisfy the needs of his body just as we do. And yet, despite the fact that Jesus ate and drank and burped and peed and all those other human things, he was more. Among all the things of this world that bring death, only Jesus brings life.
And that is the promise for us in the readings today. Just like Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole, the Roman soldiers lifted up Jesus on a cross. And just like the Israelites had only to look at the bronze serpent and believe to be healed, we have only to look to Jesus and believe to live.