“Biting Ourselves to Death”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, March 11, 2018, FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Text: Ephesians 2:1-10; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Our reading from Numbers 21 this morning, one of the most peculiar readings in the Old Testament for its odd details, is also one which gives many Christians some discomfort to read—at least it does me. For every time I read it I wonder about the particular method of discipline that God employs here with His restive children of Israel in the wilderness. This is certainly not the first time they have become dissatisfied with their wandering lot and the discomforts that come with it—they have done so many times. But this is the first time God has acted against them in such a harsh way, sending, according to the text, poisonous—some translations say “fiery” serpents among them to bite them and even kill many. As I say, this makes me uncomfortable, not that it’s God’s job to make me comfortable with His actions. But I still always wonder, couldn’t God have achieved the same ends in a gentler and less fatal way?
But perhaps not. In the book of Numbers, this event marks the seventh time that the people have risen up in angry rebellion, and this time a rebellion more intense, their anger directed not only against Moses, but against God Himself as well, both of whom they accuse of “bringing us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness!” They have obviously, at this point, forgotten about their slavery and the brutal way the Egyptians treated them—all they seem to recall now is that there was a lot of food available back there, and food better than “this miserable” manna that God has been feeding them with. So perhaps the rebellion of the people is so great at this time that only equally drastic measures on God’s part is able to deal with it, lest the whole intention of God to make Israel a nation be put in jeopardy.
Of course, one can also read this story in another way, one in which the poisonous serpents aren’t directly sent from God at all—they just happen to appear at the same time the rebellion is under way. However God uses their appearance to touch the consciences of the rebels, and the people, recognizing what they are doing as sin, interpret the snakes as punishment, and repent. Whatever the case is in this particular story, one thing that has always occurred to me every time I’ve read it with all its odd details about serpents, fiery and biting and bronze, set up on a staff. It seems that we can also read it as a parable, an account in which physical events are employed to help us think about things going on at another level—the spiritual level—in the lives of these people themselves, and perhaps, at times, in the lives of all people.
There can be little doubt as we hear this story that the people of Israel are frustrated and angry in it, with anger that derives, in all likelihood, from a deeper kind of hurt in their hearts—a fear—or really, many fears—fears of being lost, fears of going hungry, fears of being abandoned. And when someone—at least someone in a biblical or faith context—is afflicted by fear, they have two choices in how to deal with it. They can, if they are wise, look to God in their fear and seek God’s help, as Peter wrote to the church in 1st Peter, “Cast all your anxiety—including your fear—upon Him, for He cares for you.”
However, this can be a tough thing to do, especially if one of your fears is that God doesn’t really care about you, which seems to have been the case sometimes for the Israelites. They appear to have had a consistently difficult time believing that God was really all that concerned about their good. In that case, if you will not, or can not, look to God, you can only look to yourself—and often, if not always, this is not enough of a resource to get real relief. So rather than having the anxiety lifted, it becomes more deep-seated. And as it become deep-seated, one reacts with anger—or bitterness—or by trying to secure one’s self, make one’ self safe from threat, by any means necessary no matter what it might mean to someone else. And when these things begin to occur, especially in a whole community—a society—humans often become themselves like stinging fiery snakes. Our angers and fears and anxieties begin to manifest in our attitudes and actions as we start to bite others and devour them, striking out like animals caught in a trap or cornered in pursuit. And in that process, we begin to bite and devour ourselves, from the inside out, like an acid slowly eating us away.
And perhaps this is something of what this story in Numbers is trying to convey—that when these people in the wilderness lose sight of God—lose faith in God, they became serpents themselves and began stinging and burning and biting themselves to death from the inside out—spiritual death at a minimum, with perhaps physical death to follow as well.
And this kind of a reading makes a lot of sense out of the remedy that God gives Moses to relieve His people’s hurts—the bronze serpent on the pole. Read as a simple physical detail, it seems like something out of folklore, almost smacks of some kind of magic, certainly an odd kind of thing for God to tell Moses to rely upon. But if he people have become their own worst enemy because of their fear and anger and defiance, then it make perfect sense. For when they take a moment of pause in their rebellion, and look up at the serpent on the staff, what they begin to see there is themselves—what they have become. And as they see what they have become, and admit it, in their hearts and in their prayers, they also come to discover what they need as remedy—to again depend on God—to throw their fears on Him and know Him as their Creator and Lord and Savior, and thus find in God the healing and care only God can provide. Such an understanding makes a lot of sense in Numbers, and such an understanding also makes clearly appropriate the use Jesus makes of this story as He talks in the third chapter of John.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” Jesus asserts there, “that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” The plight of humanity before Jesus came into the world was very much the same as that of the rebellious spirits of Numbers 21. Over years of history, sin in the life of humanity had eroded our relationship with our Maker. It was not completely gone—God had continued to work toward in through Abraham and Israel and the Law and the prophets, had continued always to stand against sin’s incursion into the world. But so weakened had our sense of life become under sin that the drift away had continued, robbing most, if not all humans of their sense of truth, of any real sense of the love of God, and any realization that we needed God. And in that continuing drift, humans and human society suffered, often devolving into our becoming a stinging biting ball of snakes, attacking each other in panic and terror and in the process attacking our own souls. Or in the words of John’s gospel, finding ourselves in darkness, unable to find a way to get out of it, out of the wilderness we had become lost in.
But it is into that darkness, in these last days as scripture calls them, that God sent light—a light, as John says in his opening chapter, that would shine in the darkness so strongly that no darkness, no sin, could overcome it, a light that God put in our midst for us to see and be saved. However, for that light to open blind human eyes—for that love of God made flesh in Jesus to heal hurts we had inflicted upon ourselves for years untold, there was one necessary step—we had to look—we had to do what the Israelites did in Numbers—to look up at Jesus and at Him lifted up on the cross and see there two things—our need for God, and God’s love for us given fully in response to that need to whomever would accept it. And what became truest tragedy, the greatest grief indeed to God’s own heart, was that some would refuse to do so. Some who struggled in darkness would refuse to see God’s light, refuse to accept God’s relief, refuse to understand their need. And “this is the judgment” writes John—“that the light has come into the world—the cure has come into the world—and people loved darkness more than the light—refused to give up even their own self-destruction to turn and look and be healed. But of course, some would—they would believe and take it as truth that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes will not perish.” And it is to these and of these that Paul writes in Ephesians 2.
Paul minces no words as he appraises the former state of those to whom he writes—“You were dead,” he says—not just hurting, but dead, dead to God, dead to your own best good—“through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived”—we were, as he says, “children of wrath”, those in whom the course of the world as sin steered it drove us daily further and further away from God and closer and closer to our own hurt. And we could do nothing about it. We could not halt our own lemming march—we could not heal our own wounds, and be cured—we were blind and lacking understanding of what was even wrong in us—we needed something more than we were or had or could have. But then, says Paul, “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us—even when we were dead in our trespasses—even, “as he says in another passage, “when we were still enemies of God”—even then, God “made us alive together with Christ—for by grace, you—we—have been saved!”
This is an epic moment in Paul’s letter, this announcement of our salvation. But lest we congratulate ourselves on achieving such an end, Paul goes on—“But it is a gift of grace, a gift of God, not our own doing that we might boast.” But it is nonetheless our gift to claim because God in Christ has given it and will not take it back—and no other power, no darkness, no sin, no human frailty can separate us from this Christ, turn this gift away from us, stop us from looking at the cross and seeing there the love of God and to be healed from our self-biting ways, set alight by the unconquerable light of Jesus.
And in that light—as we look up to the gift of God for healing—we are changed. Or rather, we are remade—we are remade into what we were intended to be from the start, not reptiles, not blinded eyes, but God’s children. For as Paul writes as he concludes this passage of Ephesians, when we have been brought from death to life, darkness to light, injured to whole, we become “what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life.” We were never made to be hissing, biting serpents, hostile to God and to each other. This world was never made to be the ball of confusion and anger and enmity that we too often see about us. And as our healing comes to us, we become agents of healing to the world, made for good, made for good works, made to tell the world of God and God’s gift of love raised up on the cross to restore us to life and bring life into us.
There is, in 2 Kings 18, an odd biblical postscript to the story of the bronze serpent that God had Moses make back in Numbers. Apparently, according to that text, the serpent on the staff, in memory of what God did in Numbers, was saved as an artifact by the Israelites and given a place in the Temple. It was even given a name, Nehushtan. However, human nature being what it is, it seems that some folks forgot what the serpent was supposed to represent and began treating it almost like a god—they “had made offerings to it,’ 2 Kings tells us, causing one of Judah’s more faithful kings, Hezekiah, to destroy it, breaking it into pieces.
This is an instructive look into the unique talent sin has to get its way with us—it is able to take even what is good in the world, even the gifts God has given us, and make them into idols—warp them into things they were never meant to be, pulling us away from rather than toward God—the thing that was to save the serpent-bitten became the bite of the serpent itself. And if sin can do this with good things, think what it can do with our fears and doubts and hurts and anxieties. And only the appearance of the truest gift, the gift of God Himself in human flesh, lifted up for all the world to see—and if they would—believe—can defeat that—can change us—can counteract the poison that runs through the veins of human life and bring us to healing. This is what God has done—what God is doing. This is why Jesus came—not to condemn the world for its sin, but to save the world from it. For God did so love the world that He gave His only Son to be lifted up even on a cross that all who looked and believed would find life—and not just life in its most minimal definition, but life abundant, life worthy, life eternal—good for us and good for reaching out to others with—life that God has always intended. +++