There are several types of sermons that a pastor can preach: encouragement,
education, challenge to action, condemnation of sin, and so on. But all of my
sermons do have one thing in common, they start from a scripture passage or
two, and I let them set the tone. So in other words, sometimes the bible
passage seems encouraging and lends itself to a sermon that is encouraging. Sometimes
the scripture passage challenges us and it leads to a sermon that is
challenging. When I read the first of today’s scripture passages though, I was
not initially encouraged or challenged. In fact, if anything, I was left with
lots of questions. This may not be a passage you are familiar with. The setting
is that the Israelites have followed Moses out of Egypt. They have crossed the
Red Sea, they have been fed with Manna, they have made a golden calf and had
God get angry with them about it, they have been given the 10 commandments, and
through it all they have bellyached and griped, groused and whined.
Today’s passage is no different. Listen to Numbers 21:4-9
They marched from Mount Hor on the
Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road.
The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to
kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this
miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit
the people. Many of the Israelites died.
The people went to Moses and said,
“We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that
he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a
poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and
live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit
someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.
As I said, my first reaction to the passage was not encouragement nor
challenge, but questions. Perhaps as you listened, you may have had some
questions too. If not, I will share mine with you! You see, we have this
passage where the people of God have escaped slavery and are now marching
through the wilderness complaining with great gusto. So God sends poisonous
snakes to bite them.
Now, as a human being I get that. Complaints are annoying. Although I can’t
say that there has ever been a time when I was frustrated enough with someone
that I wished for a poisonous snake to bite them, I might wish for a
non-poisonous snake to bite them. But this is God. God is supposed to be above
that kind of petty emotional response. And yet God sends poisonous snakes.
I was watching a show on Dangerous Animals on TV this week, and it was
talking about the bite of the Fer-de-lance in Central America. Its bite is
seldom fatal anymore because of anti-venom, but people who are bit still
experience severe pain, oozing wounds, swelling, internal bleeding, gangrene,
amputation, and usually post traumatic stress. When fatal it is due to internal
bleeding and kidney failure. This is no fun way to die. So what kind of God
does this? This does not sound much like the loving Father that Christ talks
And then, the very same God who ordered them not to build idols, who in
fact nearly killed all of the Israelites for making a golden calf, now orders
them to make a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who looks at it will
be cured from the poison. So bull idols are wrong, but snake idols are okay? Doesn’t
this all strike you as a bit odd?
So as I read the passage, I had many questions. What do we do with passages
like this? What do they tell us about faith in our time, faith in our life?
Should we be worried that God is going to send a poisonous snake to bite us if
we complain too much? Should we build a golden snake idol in each church for
people to look at and be healed?
Probably not. In the end this passage reminds us that there is a
complicated relationship between sin and suffering, between blame and shame,
and between God’s love and redemption.
We live in a world were love is real and pain is real, where cancer is
real, and healing is real, where war and abuse and brutality are real, and
where compassion and friendship and peace are real. And God is working within
that complicated web to bring about our healing, wholeness and redemption.
So sometimes it is hard to tell whether God is punishing us or the world
around us is just unfair; sometimes it is hard to tell when God is rewarding
us, or we are just lucky. And the biblical writers struggle with that too. They
try to interpret events of their lives from God’s perspective. So when a rash
of snakebites happens, they wonder if their complaining caused it. Just like
you might wonder when you are diagnosed with heart failure if a sin in your
life led to God’s punishment. That is part of being human trying to make
connections between what is happening in our life and our faith. We ask, is it
my fault? And if so, what did I do?
Most of the time though, when bad things happen to us, although we might
have a little responsibility (like we forgot to check for poisonous snakes
before we reached into that woodpile), it is probably not true that God is
punishing us. For example, the flooding recently in Buchanan and Niles. God
wasn’t punishing us. There was no particular sin that the people who had houses
closer to the river had done that others had not. Rather, bad things happen,
that is part of what it means to live in an imperfect world, a world that is
still in need of God’s redemption.
So in general, while the answer to the question of “does God cause us to
get snakebites because we have done something bad” forces us to think seriously
about our responsibility – that isn’t the answer to the problem. The real
answer always comes later, when God reaches out with ultimate healing and
restoration. God does not leave the people in the predicament of suffering but
offers them a way out. You see, while we may question what we have done to find
ourselves suffering, God is busy saying to us, “Stop worrying about that, and
come to me for healing and protection.”
So in this passage, although people are being bit by snakes, God gives them
a way out. God wants them to know that God is the answer to their problems. In
other words, when we worry about what we have done to deserve this, when we
wonder if we are being punished we are caught up asking questions when we
should instead be looking to the answer – God.
Now, I admit, this is a weird passage, but Jesus actually talks about this
passage at one point in his ministry. In fact, he talks about it right before
he utters one of his most famous of teachings. This is fromJohn 3:14-17
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in
the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who
believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his
only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have
eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but
that the world might be saved through him.
What do you think of that? So Jesus says, that he is like the snake idol,
being lifted up before the world so that they can find healing and restoration
when the snakes of the world bite them. If they feel like they are being
punished, or they are suffering, rather than looking at the cause, rather than
trying to figure out what they did or didn’t do to deserve this – they should
look to him and they will find eternal life.
God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, not to punish
the world, not to send them all to hell, but that the world might be saved
through him. He is there to offer a way of healing for our hearts, minds and
The one who suffered is ultimately the answer to our suffering. The one who
died is ultimately the answer to our death. He shows us that innocent people do
suffer, innocent people do die, and yet there is also a way to overcome that.
By looking to God through Jesus Christ, by opening ourselves to the healing of
God, we are saved. Snakes may bite, their poison may actually kill us; but they
cannot destroy our soul. And we know that through our trust in our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ, it is well with our souls. He has made sure of that for
us. We need not worry!
So today’s passage started out as one that was full of questions, and yes,
it is even a little disturbing, because it deals with people striving to make
sense of suffering (when life is a little disturbing).
What we learn through Jesus’ teaching, is that God cares about our
suffering, and in fact, God cares so much that God does something about it. In
Moses’ day, it was a golden snake, but then later, it was the gift of God’s son
who came to show the depths of God’s love, who is willing to reach into our
world and bring us help and hope. In other words, the passage ends up being one
of encouragement! Who would have guessed that from where we started! I surely
didn’t. But God did!