Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17
My sister is an excellent educator and has dedicated her life to the development of young people. Presently she teaches very young children in a Head Start Program. Like it or not she is teacher, mother, confidant and protector to a group of children who are too young to fully appreciate how much my sister loves them. For some of these children my sister might be the only person who truly cares and works toward the possibility that one day these children might have a chance to compete with other children their same age. I don’t know how she does it. I would not last a day in her situation and yet she has done this for years. Like many children, they have short attention spans. Like most children, have minds of their own. And like every child, sometime they whine, just to be whining.
God probably picked Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt because at some point in his life he was a Head Start Teacher. The second half of the Book of Numbers seems to be a continual story about the moaning and groaning of the children in the wilderness. They whined about everything. God gave them manna and the next week, they demanded meat. God gave them quail, and they demanded something with four legs. God gave them water and they said it tasted bad. God gave them water that was sweet they said it wasn’t cool enough. Sometimes when reading about their travels through the wilderness, it appears all they do is whine. Once they had been slaves in Egypt, crying out for mercy; now they were free, heading for a land of milk and honey, whining all the way.
They complained so much even God got fed up. Moses on more than one occasion had to intervene and pray for their deliverance. One of my favorite stories is when God wanted to let them die in the wilderness and Moses said, “God, you can’t do that. If they die, the people in Egypt will say that even you couldn’t handle such a spoiled group of kids.” So the grumbling continued until we come to this strange and disturbing story about snakes and the salvation of God.
It began once again with the people whining. “God, why did you bring us out here in the wilderness? There is no food or water and what food we have taste awful”. So God sent snakes into the camp.
I realize in some parts of the Middle East snakes are seen as wise creatures. I have read where snakes are a symbol of healing. That is all well and good, but as far as I am concerned, any mention of snakes is enough to make my skin crawl. I know certain snakes eliminate the rat population, certain snakes make wonderful pets and any snake with a rounded head is not even poisonous. That hardly matters. To me a snake is a snake and if I spot one I start looking for a hoe rather than the geometric circumference of its skull.
Sending children to bed without Manna is one thing. But infiltrating their camp with snakes seems down right nasty. And yet, if I am able to set aside my own inhibitions and view this story through the mindset of this ancient people, there is some really good stuff here that plays well even today.
Karen Joines, in her book Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament, writes, “Snakes represent both life and death. Their fangs are strong enough to puncture flesh, yet their eyes flash with wisdom. Furthermore, they annually discard their old flesh, signifying a reoccurring youthfulness. The snake became an object of both intense animosity and reverence.”
Snakes fillled the camp. According to the writer of Isaiah they were fiery snakes that spewed death. Everyone bitten died. The people cried out asking God to intervene and once again God decided to rescue them. Moses was instructed to fashion a snake on a stick and hold it high above the people. Those who looked up at the snake were healed.
What a perfect vehicle for the writer of the book of Numbers to symbolize the plight of the children of Israel. On the one hand they are mired in the Wilderness, a place of death. You might remember, because of their unwillingness to trust God only two of them make it to the Promised Land. And yet the wilderness also represents the opportunity for the transition from slavery to new life. The second generation, those born in the desert, those who shed their skins of disbelief, looked up to God, and found life.
From the perspective of those of us living in the 21st century this story probably would have been lost in the annals of Jewish folklore had it not also been strategically placed in the third chapter of John. Here we find that intriguing story of Nicodemus, a learned member of the Sanhedrin, who quietly spent time with Jesus to reap the wisdom of this young teacher. The conversation began with Jesus informing Nicodemus that in order to fully comprehend what he was saying, Nicodemus must be born again. This notion astounded the learned scholar. In jest, the old Jew spoke of the impossibility of reentering the womb of his mother. Jesus smiled and responded, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.”
Nicodemus’ mind flashed back to the wilderness. He knew this story of death and life. And I suspect he was beginning to understand that the person in front of him was more than a learned Rabbi. Before Nicodemus could speak, Jesus spoke words that many of us learned as children, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son, and whoever believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.” (stop)
There is a wonderful story that many of you may have heard, but it is worth telling again. Arguably the greatest theologian of the first half of the 20th century was Karl Barth. Certainly his commentary on the Book of Romans radicalized the modern approach to biblical scholarship. Barth spent much of his life writing “Christian Dogmatics”, a twelve volume tome on the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Creation and the doctrine of Reconciliation. If you would like to read it, it takes up nearly one shelf of one of my book cases. Having completed an extensive three day lecture on his Dogmatics, a student asked if Barth could briefly summarize his faith. The audience gasped at the absurdity of the question. Dr. Barth raised his hand to calm the crowd and then said, “God so loved the world”.
Of all my favorite scriptures it still remains the one that many folks cling to. “God so loved the world.” When you think about it, it is an absurd statement. Why should God care about me? Where is it written in the Manual of Gods that the Almighty is obligated to respond to my needs and desires? And yet here is Jesus, late at night with one of the best and brightest the Synagogue has to offer, comforting Nicodemus with the very words that have comforted hundreds of millions.
God knows we whine. God knows we find reasons to complain. God knows we often look up to heaven and say, “Is this all you got?” And yet Jesus still says to us, “Look away from disappointment; look away from momentary tribulation; look away from death and look to me, the giver of life.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.