Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Do you like snakes? Not many do. I can think of no other creature on the face of the planet that so universally brings forth a sense of revulsion and disgust. When we used to live near Boston there was a woman named “the Snake Lady” She adopted sick and crippled boa constrictors and brought them on tour to schools and other groups for education where she would cuddle them and tell the stories of their previous abuse. She came to one of our church picnics once, causing one of the older members of the church to have a panic attack. True or not, many think of snakes as slimy and nasty. And as our Old Testament lesson reminds, snakes can also be dangerous.
It seems that the children of Israel, in the midst of their wilderness wandering, stumbled to a location south of the Dead Sea that was infamous for its lethal snakes. “Big deal,” they no doubt thought. “Why should we expect anything different? This trip has been one big fiasco from beginning to end.” In the Hebrew Bible, our book of Numbers is more accurately entitled, “In the Wilderness.” The account begins about a year after the Exodus. God tells Moses to take a census of the people to determine the NUMBER of men available for combat (thus the name “Numbers”). After the census, the children of Israel set out for the Promised Land.
It did not take long for mutinous muttering to begin. Their diet of manna was becoming stale. God has supplied those small round grains that appeared around the Israelites’ camp each morning. They were ground and baked into cakes or boiled into a bread called manna. But now they were weary of manna . The mumbled, “How about some MEAT, Moses? Egypt may not have been perfect, but at least we had some fish every so often...not to mention cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions, even garlic. Give us some meat.”
So Moses said to God, “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.” (Numbers 11:11-15).
Poor Moses. God says that some help would be forthcoming Quail. God says, “Oh, You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.” (Num. 11:19-20a). So there!
The wilderness wandering continues. They arrived at the border of Canaan and were instructed to send in a spy squad for a 40-day reconnaissance run. The spies reported a land “flowing with milk and honey”, but also populated by menacing giants. Again, the weeping and wailing winds up. “All the People of Israel grumbled against Moses. The entire community was in on it: “Why didn’t we die in Egypt? Or in this wilderness? Why has GOD brought us to this country to kill us? Our wives and children are about to become plunder. Why don’t we just head back to Egypt? And right now!” (Num. 14:2-3) They wanted to choose a new leader to replace Moses, someone who would take them back to the Pharaoh.
By now, God is getting steamed. The LORD says to Moses, “How long will these people treat me like dirt? How long refuse to trust me? And with all these signs I’ve done among them! I’ve had enough—I’m going to hit them with a plague and kill them. But I’ll make you into a nation bigger and stronger than they ever were.” (Num. 14:11-12).
Once more, Moses steps in on the people’s behalf, calms God down and promises not to wipe Israel out. But there would be a price: the wilderness wandering would continue for 40 years.
The story doesn’t end there. More grumbling. One outright mutiny against Moses’ leadership ended up costing the lives of almost 15,000 people in a plague. And still the people complain. In today’s reading, the end of the long journey is near. The children of Israel have encamp in this desert region that is infamous for the snakes. The bellyaching begins: “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 manna.” Their venomous tongues would be repaid in kind... with more venom. And people began to die. The Israelites come to Moses, finally admitting that they have done wrong: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Aha! All the twelve-step programs tell us that the only way to correct a problem is to recognize that you have it. They agree that their mouths have gotten them into this trouble. “Now Moses, please, please, please pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.”
So he does. Moses prays and receives this strange command about making a bronze image of a serpent and hanging it on a pole in the center of the camp. Then he is to inform the people that anyone who is bitten will survive if he or she will just cast their eyes toward the snake. Strange. Why not just get rid of the snakes? Was this God’s way of saying that healing will not come until we recognize the disease? So, the prescription was given - Look and Live - and they did. And the grumbling finally stopped.
Jesus recalled the story one night in a Jerusalem garden in a conversation with Nicodemus. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It was a wonderful word of love and grace. One might wish that this encounter in the desert with serious venom would have marked the absolute end of venomous complaining and criticizing among God’s people, but we know it did not. Complaining continues, even to this day, despite the fact that it does no one any good. Sometimes we might NEED snakes.
There is a story of three men who live on a ranch out West, the father John, the sons, Jake and Joe. They never had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. When he arrives, the parson is asked to offer a prayer for Jake: “O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen.”
Some years ago, an insightful watcher of the church by the name of Mike Yaconelli, wrote an article called “The Tyranny of Trivia.” Some of his observations remind me of our ancient desert wanderers as well as our own situation. Listen:
There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong -- drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church - with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence -- tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What IS wrong? I think I know . . .The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness.Pettiness proved a problem for ancient Israel. Yes, they focused on the brass serpent when they were supposed to and found healing. They actually held on to that brass serpent for hundreds of years. And, as the years wore on, that brass serpent became an idol to which the people brought sacrifices. Finally, the practice became so outrageous that King Hezekiah smashed the thing to pieces. It’s easy to lose focus.
Visit any local church board meeting, and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness. The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn’t check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Women’s Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend, and now the lawn needs extra work.
I can understand each and every one of the gripes mentioned above. I also understand that the same general argument is always made for each one of these gripes: “If you don’t have order, you have chaos. It sounds like a little thing, but if everyone was allowed to do ‘...,’ think what that would mean.”
Ah, yes, think what it would mean. What WOULD it mean? Probably nothing. And yet, in every church in this country, boards, ministers, and church members -- in the name of “what would this mean?” -- are running around trying to answer that very question. In other words, churches are so preoccupied with the petty, they can’t spend the time required to do what does matter. So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: there is no excuse for pettiness in the church. Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason. Petty people are . . . people who have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn’t matter...
Time for the church to get the focus back. To Look and Live. And to remember how contagious that sort of thing is: look up, and everyone else wants to look up with you. What’s the point? This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
Look up and live!