Snakes on a Stick

The scripture text for this sermon is Numbers 21:4-9.

So there were these slaves in Egypt, who had been enslaved for a couple of hundred years or so. They were the Israelites. The one and true God had a special heart for these slaves. Don’t ask me why, they looked like you and I, acted just as bad as you and I, nothing really special about them, but God thought they were special. God heard their cries in Egypt and decided to free them from slavery.

God got a guy named Moses involved, unwillingly at first.  Moses’ job was to convince Pharaoh, the king of Egypt that it was in his economic interest to let them go. Moses had a tough job. Grasshoppers, frogs, gnats, boils, locusts, hail, all sorts of things happened before Pharaoh agreed with God that the Israelites should be freed.

You would think the story would end here with everyone happy, but once freed these slaves had to find a place to go. From what I can tell of the real estate market in the Middle East in the fifteenth century BC, there weren’t a lot of worthwhile places to buy. The best plots of land already had people that didn’t want to move. So, it took a while for the Israelites to find a place to call home, a long while, like over 40 years. And during those 40 years it wasn’t like they were staying at a Hyatt resort inMyrtle Beach, either. 40 years living in tents in the desert. Water was a problem. Food was a problem. Complaining was a problem.

It was the complaining that seemed to rub God the wrong way. Complaining is a funny thing isn’t it?  When we complain we do so because we think life could be better if only…if only I had been an only child, if only I had only had one child, if only I hadn’t worn tight hats when I was in my 20’s I wouldn’t be bald today, medical fact, Google it.   Complaining is when we regret something that we had trusted. In an alternate universe we picture a lot better life, if only…

Complaining irritates God, I suspect, because it implies that God is not trustworthy. God why did you lead us out of slavery, couldn’t you see how bad it was going to be in this desert, living in tents for 40 years? We trusted you and now you let us down. Oh, if only we had continued to trust Pharaoh, he wasn’t so bad. The work was hard, but at least you had three squares every day.

This is where the story gets…weird.  There are all sorts of odd stories in the bible. For those stories, I take Martin Luther seriously and look for Christ in them. Luther taught that the purpose of scripture is to reveal Jesus. In some scripture it is easy to find Jesus. In other stories, like this one, you might have to do some digging, but I believe there is a nugget of gospel to be found.

Scripture says that God got so irritated at these complaining former slaves that God sent poisonous snakes into their tent city. The snakes started doing what snakes with big fangs and venom do best, biting and killing people.  The people got scared stopped complaining right off, and then begged Moses to do something. It was this part of the story that caught my eye. They confessed to Moses that they had sinned against God.

Sinned against God, we think of sin as the wrong things we do. God wants us to behave ourselves and when we sin we are not doing that. Most of us have a pretty good idea what wrong things we have done, but let’s face it is a lot more fun to name other people’s wrong things than our own. So usually when we talk about sin in the church it is about other people’s sins, telling the rest of the world the wrong things they are doing.

Yet, if sin is the wrong things we do, than the only wrong thing the Israelites did was a little complaining.  C’mon, 40 years wandering around in a desert, living in tents, always hungry, always thirsty, always dirty, always in danger of attack by someone who claimed the land you were wandering upon. Slavery in Egypt was bad, but they have a point, this isn’t a vast improvement.  And for a little complaining, God sends venomous snakes into their tents?  God seems dangerously impatient in this story.

If we complicated the idea of sin a little bit, we end up with a clearer picture of what has God so ticked off. Sin isn’t the wrong things we do. Sin happens when we trust the wrong things. This doesn’t mean that there are no right or wrong actions. Our actions indicate what we trust. We sin when we trust anything or anyone other than God.

Trust is the heart of any relationship. The Israelites trusted God to free them from slavery, and God was worthy of that trust. Now, as they were wandering in that desert, they were beginning to wonder whether God was still worthy of that trust. By complaining to God the Israelites were signaling their growing lack of trust in God. The complaining indicated they had stopped trusting God.

Maybe a quick story can help us out. When I was 17 and had been dating my wife Paige for over a year, my best friend DJ started dating Ann, a good friend of Paige’s, too.  Paige trusted me completely so she thought nothing of Ann and me playing tennis together after school. One evening when I drove Ann home after a tennis match, I lingered just a little too long on her front porch and ended up kissing her, briefly, for a second, hardly even a peck.

When the story gets retold, it is always Karl kissed his best friend’s girlfriend and that was why we broke up for a couple of months when we were 17. While this is true, there was more to the story. Frankly, the kiss was brief and passionless and I regretted the moment after it happened.  However, that simple kiss revealed what was already going on in my relationship with Paige. The relationship was already in trouble. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been kissing another girl. One little kiss indicated that I was open to trusting someone else for my high school happiness. The kiss didn’t break up our relationship, just pointed to what was already true. Our relationship was dying and could not be revived until I trusted Paige was the one for me and she trusted that I wouldn’t be shopping for a replacement.

People really died when the venomous snakes entered the tent city in the desert wilderness. This troubles me about the story but trusting something or someone other than God with your life brings death. There is only one way to live a whole and full life and that is to live life in relationship with God. Sin is when we fall out of that relationship with God by trusting another way to live, even when we are hungry, even when we are thirsty, even when we are tired, even when there is a cute girl in a tennis skirt next to you on a front porch in West Toledo. Sin is death because there is only one way to live and that is trusting God. The venomous snakes that killed the Israelites were a sign of what was already going on; the relationship was dead because of sin.

So the Israelite realized they had sinned by trusting someone, something other than God to make their stay in the desert worthwhile or bearable at least. God may be the jealous type, but he is a sucker for a good apology. Believe me God needs a lot less convincing that we have changed than my wife did when we were 17. God is always willing to trust us again. So God had Moses make a bronze snake, put it on a stick and raise it up among the people that God loved so much. They were told to stare at the snake and the venom would leave them and they would live.

Again, this sounds crazy to our 21st century sensibilities; but let’s play with it as metaphor for a second. The venom killing the Israelites is like their sin, their lack of trust in God. It is killing them. The only way to live is to get rid of the venom. To do that, the Israelites needed to focus again on God. If they keep their eyes on God, they will find life.  If they focus again on God, they will trust God again.

Back to Paige, she forgave me, too. I confessed and asked for forgiveness that night, literally that night. She thought the best way for me to trust again that she was the girl for me and for her to trust that I wasn’t out interviewing new girls in cute tennis skirts was to make me focus on her for a while. I was kept on the proverbial short leash. To rebuild our relationship, I needed to give her my full attention again.

Jesus used this story of snakes in the desert, venom and sin when he was talking about the cross he would be raised up onto. Just as God saved the Israelites whom he loved so much by raising a snake on a stick among them, God would save us, the rest of the world, whom he loves so much by raising his son on a stick. The command for us would be the same as the one Moses gave those ex slaves, stare at the cross and the venom, your sin, will leave. The venom of a life lived without God will kill you. It is only by staring at Jesus lifted up, and not let our eyes wander, will we find life.  Amen

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