Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sermon: Snake Bites

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

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 about.

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.[1]

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 from  John 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 souls.

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!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2018

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