Last week I looked ahead to the lectionary passages for the next program year. Our Christian Education Director and I are trying to coordinate my preaching with our childrens’ curriculum, finding people and themes that could easily translate into a Sunday School lesson. So, with that in mind, I dug through several months’ worth of Bible readings. I stumbled on this passage from Numbers which is meant to be read during Lent.
4 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. 5 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous[b] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[c] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 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. Numbers 21: 4-9
I have to admit that I laughed as I read it thinking simultaneously that 1) it would be a great story to preach but 2) I wouldn’t do that to our children! If they sat listening to that story being preached in our sanctuary their view of God might be forever changed! So I decided I’d grab onto it for our on-line worship during the summer when our families are on the move. My disclaimer for those reading with children: There are graphic images of snakes biting people—but it can’t be much worse than most video games they’ve been playing during this ongoing time of COVID limitations! So off we go on a wilderness journey!
Context always matters, right? So let’s review some of the details. If I were a journalist with a little notepad for my facts here’s the cryptic details I would jot down:
**The enslaved Israelites cry out to God for liberation. God hears their cry and appoints Moses as leader.
**Moses goes into this job position kicking and screaming but falls in love with this God and does a bang-up job with a stubborn people.
**God parts the waters of the Red Sea so the Hebrews can escape from the enslaving Egyptians. No sooner do they get to the other side and they start complaining because life isn’t comfortable.
**God gets so sick of their whining that the decision is made that these folks aren’t ready to enter a land of their own. God decrees that they will wander the wilderness for four decades so that only their descendants will make it into the new land. Maybe that generation will have learned to have faith?!
**In this passage the massive crowd of Hebrews gets a little too close to another nation who starts attacking them to protect their boundaries. Moses’ people pray for God to grant them victory over these foreigners and God honors their prayers.
That catches us up to the passage that begins at verse four. The Hebrews continue their aimless migration through the desert and grow impatient. So they resort to what comes naturally to them: they complain against God and their fearless leader, Moses. It’s always easier to take pot shots at those at the top than to scrutinize our own behavior! The translation for their impatience in this text could be something like this: “The spirit of the people became short.” When I read that textual explanation, I knew we would easily connect to their emotional state!
Remember how we felt when the quarantine first started? When meat wasn’t around; when toilet paper couldn’t be found; when we couldn’t eat out on a whim; when we couldn’t work out at the gym; when we couldn’t hug our loved ones; couldn’t leave our homes for a quick run; when we couldn’t meet for worship; when grocery shopping was a feared trip…our spirits became short.
One older woman was so tightly wound that she staged a literal sit-in on the floor of Costco nearly two weeks ago because she was asked to wear a mask. She sat down in the middle of one of the aisles proclaiming that, as an American, she has her rights. And that includes not wearing a mask in a store where they are required. With that rebellious act, “Costco Karen”, as she’s become known, launched her own 15 minutes of fame. Our spirit grows short with the many pressures put upon us and our reactions are so rebellious that Europeans have banned Americans from entering their newly-opened countries. We act as spoiled children who pitch a fit when demands for the greater good don’t sit well with us.
When our comfort level is challenged, we are not at our best.
The last time there was a pandemic was 1918. On the heels of that terrible plague we read about “the Red Summer.” White mobs attacked African Americans in six different cities, the violence lasting sometimes more than a week. With tensions high from the suffering that the nation had endured with the Spanish Flu, white folks lashed out. They sought to drive black folks from industrial jobs and from their neighborhoods. In all six riots that summer of 1919, local authorities either were not able to contain the violence or actually aided the white aggressors. Sound familiar?! Though initiated by whites, the violence was blamed on blacks since they armed themselves to fight back. The very worst attack happened in rural Elaine, Arkansas where federal troops joined with local whites to fight blacks. The headline in the Arkansas Gazette read, “Negroes plan to Kill All Whites,” a thinly veiled, truly “fake news” effort to blame the black population for the violence. But the numbers tell the story: five whites died while more than 200 blacks were killed.
At the tail end of the last pandemic our country has endured, the spirit of the people became short. Just as we are seeing in our cities this summer, deadly race riots broke out that crushed the life out of hundreds of black citizens, some of whom had recently returned from fighting in World War 1.
When our physical needs are unmet and threats loom, we readily murmur against God and our leaders as did our ancestors in the faith. Rather than remembering how beautifully God has cared for us particularly in hard times, we hang the blame for all that ails us on God and walk away. It’s noteworthy that Moses’ people, in their wilderness discomfort, point back to their days as slaves with fondness! How soon we forget the hard-earned victories God has given us!
So, as the Jews whine in the wilderness, God unleashes a horrifying version of “snakes on a plain.” Not on an airplane but on the flat, wide-open plain of the wilderness! Perhaps this story conjures up images of Harrison Ford in a pit of snakes when playing the character, Indiana Jones? It’s as if God proclaims to these impatient people, “So if you thought life was bad yesterday, just look at what’s slithering toward you now! I’ll show you what can happen when you live without gratitude and think only of yourselves!” The snakes bite some of the people, some of whom die, and the whole camp is, understandably, terrified. They run to the very leader they had just been maligning over their dinner of roasted quail and beg him to intercede for them. They knew Moses had the connection because of his deep faith so they demand, “Pray that God will remove the snakes from us.” They do preface that with a confession of guilt—for having spoken badly of God moments earlier. But their primary concern is for immediate, personal rescuing. So they simply ask for the snakes to be taken back to whatever pit they had come from. They would happily get back to their usual level of discomfort and their love for complaining. They didn’t ask for God to renew their spirits or to heal their hearts. They prayed for relief from their physical afflictions without giving a thought to their spiritual well-being. Fix it, God, and let me get back to the way things always were.
I wonder if we’ve ever done that—when the chips are down and disease looms and relationships are broken and politics are heavy and money is tight? Do we want the quick fix that the Hebrews demanded? Or are we ready to confess our guilt at a deep level and submit to a holy makeover? We have a glimpse of that in King David’s prayer from Psalm 51. His raw confession gives us an insight into why God loved David so much in spite of his sinfulness: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Moses did as he was commanded. He made the image of a snake out of bronze and wrapped it around a stick that he held up for the people. This has become the symbol for the medical community today. The Hebrews on the plain were told to look at the snake and they would be healed of their snake bites. I wonder how many of them thought the restorative power came from the metal sculpture as opposed to the God who had provided the healing? When we look for a quick way out of our problems, we tend to give credit for success to the wrong person or power. There are times we need to sit in our unfortunate circumstances long enough so that we can give God our undivided attention and prepare our hearts for a spiritual reboot.
Whining seems easier…but it’s deadly.
The Corona virus has knocked us down. We never imagined this would be a marathon as we closed our doors when the quarantine was decreed. While nearly four months of limitations have passed, our patience has worn thin. Garrett and I were doing a crossword puzzle recently and the newly minted word was used: “hangry.” We are hungry and angry and scared and hot and tired. We are looking at others with suspicion. We are focusing on the categories people fall into and ignoring the sorry state of our own hearts. We are at our worst when the snakes are unleashed against us and it becomes each person for him or herself. This is the time that we need to sit in our present circumstances, as uncomfortable as they are. God will sit there with us. God will turn our heads to face forward when we’re tempted to look back on times of slavery as “the good ol’ days.” If we have lashed out at others, God will correct and forgive us. God meets us in the healing and, when that happens, our whining ceases and we give God the glory.