Grace and peace to you my friends, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Oh, those poor Israelites! Here we go again. They are the whiniest, most unappreciative people God could have chosen. I can’t imagine that there weren’t times during their 40 years in the wilderness that God didn’t think, “Maybe I should have chosen the Babylonians instead.” Here God has led them out of slavery in Egypt and is taking them to the land promised to their ancestors Sarah and Abraham. God could have left them back in Egypt to come under Pharaoh’s bigger and bigger demands: “Make more bricks, use less straw, and remember your lives are in my royal Egyptian hands. One step out of line and you’re done for.”
They all knew exactly what conditions had been like. And they knew the miracles of the plagues, the death of the first-born, and a walk across the sea that God had used to set them on their way to freedom. But to them it wasn’t enough for God to show his own gracious hand for them to believe him. They moaned about having to eat trail mix three meals a day. But God was patient. God sent quails to eat in the evening and manna in the morning. Now even the food God sent to keep them alive was good enough. “Oh. We had it so much better in Egypt. Yeah, we were enslaved, but at least we had better food than this tasteless freeze dried astronaut food we pick up every morning. There isn’t even any water to help it slide down our gullets. Alas and alack. It sucks to be us.”
God usually has a pretty long fuse in these situations. But apparently not this time. God let loose a herpetologist’s poisonous dream: snakes like in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Scaly, slithery, hissing snakes. And not just garter snakes or bull snakes, either. These were snake with fangs and venom: real killers who could shut down your nervous system or make your flesh go necrotic. The Israelites were right to shut their whiny traps and turn to Moses who had God’s ear.
I don’t think today we’d dare place the blame on God for sending fork-tongued adders and asps as his impatient response to our carping. We wouldn’t to consider for a moment that God, our nice, soft-spoken God of American affluence, would respond with venom. But the Israelites did. They had the willingness to look at their own actions and the presence of mind to see God’s hand in it all. And they knew they were in trouble. This was God biting the mouths that bit the hands that fed them. They called out, “Hey, Moshe! Folks are dying here. Go tell God we’re sorry. And for everyone’s sake, make it stop!”
Isn’t that just how it goes with sinners like us? Captive to ourselves, our will is bound, and we can’t help wanting to micromanage God’s affairs. It’s been true for us since Adam and Eve thought they should put together an Edenic supper menu that included fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – even though God had expressly told them death would be the result. Nope, we just have to be Burger King patrons who always want to have it our way. And we don’t leave it at choosing lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mayo on our cheeseburgers. No, we think we can tell God where and when disease, disasters, and the doofuses around us should trip up the well-laid plans of mice and men. Trouble rears its head, and we say, “Here’s a hint, God: not now and not here. Try it on those people over there at some time when were far away.” We suspect that God may not really regard us with kindness. We’re certain that, at the very least, our intentions are good.
We’re convinced we know what’s best for us and how God ought to treat us. His options are 1. Create pastries that won’t go to our hips and bellies, 2. Keep us going healthy and strong until we say we’re ready to be done with life, and 3. Stop acting like you’re God or something (we know you are, but, God, give us a break already). The Israelites wouldn’t look to God for food in due season. They wouldn’t open their eyes to see God moving through the wilderness with their every forward and frequent backward steps. They refused to acknowledge the one in whose palms their lives and their futures lay.
When the whining started up this time, the fangs came out. On the surface it seems like God was inflicting retribution and punishment for their faithlessness. But something more is going on here. God, who’d been keep them safe without the Israelites knowing or acknowledging it, now pulled back the hand that had kept danger at bay. God let the world loose. In this case it was snakes, but it surely could have been letting government corruption have its way or an antibiotic-resistant microbe or bad sitcoms or countless other awful things we’d rather not encounter. But the wilderness snakes were not the end God was after. Mere punishment is the move of lesser gods like Baal, Astarte, Odin, and the American god of popularity who runs passing time in any middle school. Cross the gods and the old karma will kick in. You’ll get what’s coming to you.
But God is after something way more important: The Greek word for it is metanoia, which we usually translate as “repentance,” but really means “turning around.” God wanted the Israelites to turn to him and see just who had created them and had given them their bodies and souls and all their members and who had preserved them all along their journey. In short, God wanted their relationship with him to be one of trust. He wanted them to see what his essence was. The problem was that, for the Israelites just like it always is for sinners like us, God is the last place we’ll think of looking.
During Lent we get rid of the alleluia we sing before the gospel reading in worship and trade it for the Lenten verse: “Return to the Lord your God, for his gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” How are to return? How are we to look to God when there are so many more tangible things that might do the trick? God has to literally grab our heads and physically turn them for us to look where he wants, to gaze upon a gracious God.
So he told Moses to cast a bronze serpent, put it on a stick, and raise it up for everyone to look at. If the Israelites wouldn’t look to him for manna, quails, grace, and mercy, he’d give them something that would force them. Getting bitten by a Middle Eastern asp is a sure head-turner: Snakebite, ouch, oh no, what’ll I do, turn toward God behind the bronze serpent, and ah, new life. The vipers and the bronze serpent wouldn’t have had to happen. God was happy to guide and protect them, but the Israelites wouldn’t have it. So by standing behind the sign of the bronze serpent in a time of deep trouble and danger, God made himself unignorable. The Israelites wouldn’t be able to look anywhere else.
If not for one thing, this story would be just one among many cool stories for my inner twelve-year-old in the Old Testament, right up there with Jael putting a tent stake through an enemy general’s head, King David dancing naked, and the prophet Isaiah siccing bears on some boys who were mocking his bald head. Just another Bible story too dangerous for Sunday morning, except for the fact that Jesus apparently knew and loved it. The bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness took on ultimate meaning when Jesus brought it into his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus who’d come to him under cover of night. Jesus told Nicodemus that what he’d eventually see in him was exactly what happened with the Israelites, the snakebites, and the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness.
You’re bound to encounter snakes in your lives. I grew up in western South Dakota and am entirely familiar with prairie rattlers. Every year we’d go out to my grandparents’ cattle ranch, all of us aunts and uncles, cousins, hired hands, and neighbors to go rattlesnake hunting. We’d park the pick-ups and station wagons around a rattlesnake den, and the men folks would pull out their .22’s and shot guns and blow away. We kids would hop out of one pick-up box and run across the prairie grass to another pick-up, making sure we were dodging anything slithery and heading to another safe steel island.
That’s great fun-and-games for western kids like me, but a couple fangs in a calf or through a cowboy boot would have ended the fun. Then the emergency would have begun. The snakebite kit would have been pulled out of a glove compartment. An X would be sliced with a razor blade across each fang mark. Blood and venom would be sucked out and spat on the ground. A blazing fast car ride the 60 miles to the closest hospital would happen. And prayers, deep fervent prayers, would be begun.
It doesn’t take an actual snake for this to happen. You’ve experienced it in your own lives: something happens where life get away from you, where you lose your grip, where suddenly it’s all gone haywire and you don’t know where to turn. Up until that point, it’s so darned easy to slide through your days, assuming you’re the one controlling and concocting your future. But now you’re helpless. God is certainly not the author of evil, but God isn’t above using its appearance in our lives to draw you away from the danger and into his embrace.
Twelve years ago, my wife’s older sister died suddenly and unexpectedly from a prolapsed heart valve. Her son who’d just graduated from high school found her dead in bed in the morning. Her husband was out of town and wasn’t answering, so my nephew called me for help. To make matters worse, the day of that phone call was the day we were moving a truckload of stuff out of storage and another truckload from our apartment into the first house we ever bought.
We were absolutely paralyzed with grief and didn’t know how to make the move or the trip to the Twin Cities for a funeral happen. I tell you, that’s one of the few times that I prayed when it didn’t feel like a chore. It was a time Mary and I prayed wrapped up in each other’s arms under the covers at bed time. “God help us.” It was a day when our eighth-grade son said, “Mom and Dad, we need to pray,” and the proceeded to be the mature and trusting one in our family, leading us in calling on God to be not just very present help in trouble, but our very present help in this trouble.
That’s your story, too. Your captive will and clouded-over eyes let you think it’s all copacetic. And then the bottom drops out, and you discover prayer. You can attempt some chemo or radiation for the glioblastoma in your brain, but you know it’s all in God’s hands. You stand accused because the truth you’ve hidden comes out, and you’ve got no way out. You face the stark unavoidable fact of a cold body in a coffin and hope against hope for a coming resurrection. I could go on and on and on, because the serpents in our wildernesses are countless.
We can’t ask Moses to help. He’s been dead for thousands of years. But we have something better, we have a Lord, God-in-the-flesh, who was nailed to a tree, crucified, died, buried, and raised. And we have proclaimers like Pastor Curtis, who raise Jesus up week after week after week. Have you ever noticed that when he says the Words of Institution before communion he lifts up the bread and wine for you to see? Sound familiar? God has seen fit to send us more than a bronze serpent. He’s placed himself in the way of human wrath and violence, to take on the punishment we deserve. He’s given us the church and its pastors to put before you Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life, so that you might look to him and live.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the start of the Reformation. If we’re going to remember and celebrate anything about it this year, let’s have it be this gospel promise that stood at the center of all Luther preached and taught: Christ emptied himself of all divine power to be lifted up on Golgotha for you, so that your serpents in the wilderness would have no more power over you, so that you might be delivered from sin, death, and the Devil, so that, baptized into his death, you might be raised with him to an eternity where death is no longer a fact of human existence.
If today, life’s bitter fangs have sunk into you, then you may already know Christ lifted up for you, and can look to him. But if you don’t yet know that he is determined to fully be your savior and antidote to venom, then I know a pastor who’s ready to tell you about the gifts of baptism. If you’re hungry for mercy, Christ’s body and blood will be lifted up any moment now. If you ache for a community, you’ll find it in those surrounding you who will provide you the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.
And when you hear the Devil’s hiss at your feet, you can crush that old adder with your heel and say, “Don’t even bother with me. I’ve been vaccinated against you by the blood and water that flowed from my Lord’s side. Go try attacking someone with weaker gods. I’ve been given new life and I’m going to go live it. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” You may not have ever wanted to be in a situation where you have to look to your lifted up Lord for life, but that what he has for you. Both today and the next time the snakes slither in. Amen.
And now may the peace which far surpasses all our human understanding keep turning our heads to the risen Lord. Amen.