Fourth Week of Lent New Cure
March 14, 2021 Numbers 21:4-9
We are in our fourth week of Lent, and I hope by now you’ve figured out that this season is more than a time for self-reflection. It’s also a time where our faith can feel vulnerable or like it’s being put to the test.
And what a test it’s been. Yesterday was the one-year mark since COVID pretty much shut down the entire world. With nearly 530,000 American lives lost, it’s hard to think we’ve done well on this exam.
What I do know is God has been present through it all - delivering on the covenant promises not to destroy the entire earth again - be it a flood of water or disease.
We’ve spent the last three weeks in the Old Testament, looking at the covenants God has made. Today we’re going to examine at how the covenant plays out as we look at a passage from the Torah that Jesus quotes when he reveals something important about the covenant God made through him out of God’s love for the world.
It comes from the Numbers 21:4-9.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] 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.
As our Lenten journey moves closer to the High Holy week, this odd and down-right icky story reminds us to always watch our step. You never know where snakes will pop up.
This story reminds me of my least favorite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is led to a dark tomb that holds a clue to the treasure he’s seeking. When he drops a torch down in the cavernous hole, Indi discovers thousands of slithering, slimy snakes!
I can’t tell you what happens after that because my eyes are always tightly closed. But over the hissing sounds, I hear him complain, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
I imagine the Israelites were saying the same thing during their great exodus from Egypt. I’m not sure exactly how long they had been searching for the land that God had promised them. But the longer they wander, the crankier they become. By this point in the story, they began to get restless and whinny. They’re tired walking and sick of camping. They k’vetched about the lack of food and water. And many wanted to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.
For a while, God remains steadfast, putting up with their incessant complaints; sending them food and water, and a fiery light to guide them. But when they griped about these gifts too, God just seems to snap. And sends them something to really complain about…deadly snakes!
You might be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God.” But I get it. I’ve taken many road trips with a minivan full of restless kids kicking the back of my seat screaming for snacks and asking over and over again, “Are we there yet?” If I didn’t hate snakes so much, I too might be tempted to let a few loose in the car.
But I too can be a bit whiny...so I too can sympathize with the Israelites. Their complaints seem legit. They’re stuck in the wilderness – with no clear direction or end in sight.
The only choices they have are to follow this God who pushes their faith by challenging everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked. Or return to the brutality of slavery in Egypt which offered some semblance of consistency and predictability even if it was sure to kill them.
If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the only thing certain is how uncertain life can be. It’s a truth that makes us all uncomfortable. And only puts us on edge.
This uncertainty is too much for God’s people and they begin to crack. They want the way life used to be. They’d rather face the devil they know than to do the hard work of faith that God is requiring of them.
Who could blame them? How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait to go back to the way life used to be.” We want our churches open, our restaurants teeming with people, and our streets gridlocked with commuters. We want the old normal, the devil we know how to navigate.
While COVID has made us feel a bit lost in the wilderness, I believe God has given us this time not to test our faith but to show us a way to rely on it so that we might begin to see the world differently. Through God’s loving eyes.
This pandemic has also shown us how little control we have in life. We like to pretend we do. The problem with this is that when things don’t go as we want them to, we make sure God gets an earful. And in return, we get a bunch of snakes.
I’ll admit, it seems like an odd way to show love, but so too are the covenants God has made. But again and again, God is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with us. God continues to come into our mess in the most unusual ways to rescue and redeem us.
There was something about being bitten repeatedly by venomous snakes that helped the Israelites see the error of their way. They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. If there is one thing they’ve learned about their God – and we can take this to heart too – is when you cry out, God listens. And God reacts, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. “Everyone who looks upon it shall live.” Because of his faithfulness, Moses does what God asks. And immediately all the Israelites who died are given new life, and all who were bitten are instantly healed.
It makes me wonder if the American Medical Association adopted this image as their logo to reminds us that sometimes our flesh and bones have to be ripped open or broken before we can be made right again.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” He knew all too well, how hard life can be. Sometimes it feels like the snakes are getting the best of us. But this Jewish story reminds us that no matter how bleak life might seem there is always hope. Because out of great love for us God never gives up on us.
Which takes us to Jesus, who in the Gospel of John says: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up.” You see, Jesus is God’s covenant promise, incarnate, meaning in the flesh.
By setting our eyes on him, we are healed and given new life. Like Moses, Jesus is one who intercedes for us...even when it feels like we don’t deserve it. And the reason for this is stated in the next verse when Jesus famously declared God so loved the world, that God was willing to give his only begotten Son to die for us, just so we can live. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
Think about it, from death comes life. From the cross of Christ we set our gaze on comes our healing and salvation. And boy do we need it now! It’s been a hard year of suffering around the world. From businesses to homes to schools, COVID has affected everyone. Compounded with the toxic and venomous attacks we’ve endure socially, politically, and even spiritually…it seems like the snakes have won.
But here’s the good news. God gave us the antidote in Christ Jesus. His cross is our assurance that the snakes don’t win. God does. For God so loved you and me that God was willing to risk it all on a cross to save us from the deadly venom of violence, self-doubt, jealousy, greed, addiction, and the deadliest of all venom – fear.
Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death – nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear’s venom. It corrodes faith; cuts off our pathways for loving God and one another; and when left untreated, it hardens the heart and soul. Fear tempts us away from God’s promise and tries to return us to the devil we know.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, now is time to take inventory of all the ways fear afflicts how we live God’s love in the world. Ask yourself how fear is stopping you from loving others. Or standing up for justice and equality. How is it keeping you from forgiving a friend, or caring for someone who is unable to care for themselves?
In Christ, God casts out all fear and puts love on full display. Jesus taught us how to live God’s love faithfully and fearlessly; in a way that pushes us to see the world differently.
From death comes life. As we fix our eyes upon the cross of Jesus, may we never forget that the cure for the snake was a snake. And the cure for all of human life is the sacrifice of one man’s life. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
As you go out into the world, facing the uncertainty of life, remember this wherever God’s love is displayed, the snakes can’t win.
For God so loved the world...
Bartlett, David L., and eds. Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Helmer, Ben. Snakes. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2018/02/11/snakes-lent-4-b-february-18-2018/ (accessed 03.09.2018).
Jolly, Marshall A. https://modernmetanoia.org/2021/03/01/4th-sunday-in-lentb-god-so-loves-the-world/ (accessed on 03.11. 2018).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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