Numbers 21:4-9 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-2
The short answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God sent poisonous serpents to kill people. I’d like to say that that’s not the God that I know. It is a slippery slope of thinking that says that God sends bad things to people who speak against God. Such logic has been used to punish whoever we consider to be “the other,” and in reality, such human punishment is not in the realm of God’s will.
Some scholars have written that the only reason the passage is still in the bible is that John mentions it in his gospel. I think that the “lifted serpent” has more to tell us than the mention in John’s gospel suggests. We are a rich and complicated people, we wanderers in the desert, and our God is no less complex.
We are given manna every day, and must obey God’s “instructions,” for God provides only enough for the one day in front of us. We cannot horde manna, stockpile it to eat on another day. But, oh, we like to have “too much” instead of “just enough,” don’t we? Well, I do. I have books that I haven’t read, food that I’d rather not eat, and how did all those things get in here, anyway? Perhaps there is meaning in the fact that it takes work to get rid of the things that we accumulate, whether food or things or bad habits.
I am reminded of our humanity in this portion of the story of desert wandering. How many times have you opened the refrigerator or cupboard door, looked around, and shut the door, proclaiming to yourself or to whomever is within earshot, “there’s nothing in here to eat.” Hmm. To me that sounds like the same humanity from which the Israelites declared: “There is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.” (If anyone asks, that must be on my “top 10” favorite bible passages.) How we love to complain!
So how is your Lenten discipline going? :)
Back to the desert: after the people went to Moses, declared their ill will and asked Moses to pray for them, what happened? Right. Moses prayed. God answered Moses’ prayer …
but not in the way that the people requested. The people’s prayer request was for God to take away the poisonous snakes (oh, I can hardly take about those slithering creatures!) and God did not do that. What God did was to provide a way to live even after having been bitten by a poisonous serpent. There is a strong message in the answer to Moses’ prayer: God answers prayer, yes. And:
God might not take away our problems/pain/illness/trials/trauma, but God promises to be with us in them, and God gives us a way to live. In fact, God has given us a way to live in this life and in eternal life, but during the time of the book of Numbers, we don’t know that. Jesus isn’t alive yet. God is alive, is providing for the people’s every need, and gives them a way of living even with adversity. That is very important. With God we can live with – and maybe through – adversity. God is with us always.
The portion of psalm 107 retells the story from Numbers.
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
17Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
19Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
20he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.
The Lenten (lifetime?) question I ask to myself in these two pieces of Scripture becomes: in what ways am I sick through my behaviors/ways? What are we doing that keeps us from the love and grace of God.
For it is by grace that we are healed and saved. We have not stopped complaining, or else we would not relate to the refrigerator/cupboard story. Fast food business would not be successful, frozen and instant meals would have little appeal, for certainly we would be sated with what we have. Food is enough, being filled is about filling our selves, our souls with God. Our souls would not be faint from lack of food. Our hearts would not be hungry when our bodies have been fed. Because those moments in front of the refrigerator aren’t always about food; those moments are about being fed.
Ephesians lets us know about our condition in pretty strong words: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world.” Not sick but dead, dead from being bitten by this world, by our complaining and hunger. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love in which he loved us … lifted us up with him through Christ.” “Christ” is the risen Jesus, resurrected into new, unending life.
God is rich in mercy – not hungry at all.
God loves us.
It is God alone who fills us.
John tells us more about eternal life. And there are many, many people who can come up with one of these bible verses, not the words, but the citation. We’ve heard it: “John 3.16!” “John 3.16,” spoken like manna fed to a wandering people. There is more to God’s grace and mercy than John 3.16. There is, for example, the much less frequently quoted John 3.17:
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
When we complained in the wilderness, God loved us. God saved us. That is our history with God.
God loves us.
God saves us.
Jesus came to save us.
We will experience in the coming weeks, through ancient liturgies of the church, our response to that presence of Jesus among us. I encourage you to make Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter part of you and your family’s plans for the coming weeks. Walk a bit more through Lent: two more weeks of giving up what you have given up, or adding what you have added in order to know Jesus the Christ in your life. If your Lenten practice is not helping you spend time with Jesus, there is still time to change up what you are doing. Lent is not about self-punishment, but about self-knowledge, or giving up self, “in favor of,” for the pursuit of the One who waits for us, Jesus, God’s son.
God, we are hungry. Fill us with you.