Focusing on God – March 14
A sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 14, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott
On our first date Nancy and I went to a park with miles of trails in the densely wooded foothills near her home. We pretty much had the park to ourselves and stopped to sit and bask in the beauty of the serene wilderness so close to our big city San Jose neighborhoods. Not far from where we sat we saw what we thought was a twenty foot, pretty thick, branch of wood across the path up ahead. When we got up to hike and walked toward that branch it moved, the entire branch. It was a gopher snake. A huge, long thick one. It was by far the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. And it is probably the only snake I hesitated to approach to get a closer look. It was not venomous but it was a giant and as a city boy out in the wilderness I found a new appreciation of the fear of snakes many people have. But I also found in that encounter awe and wonder. We were lucky too because there are also diamondback rattlesnakes in that park.
Out in the wildernesses of the world there ARE plenty of dangerous snakes . . . plainly the Israelites encountered them. Snakes are a primary feature in a few Bible stories. In fact, right from the start Adam and Eve encounter the most famous one in the Garden of Eden, its danger was it talked against God and God’s ways. Today’s lesson doesn’t have a talking snake, but it is an odd lesson all the same. It’s long baffled Bible readers, preachers and theologians.
In today’s story the people are the ones talking against God and God’s ways. The Israelites are strangely complaining both that they have no food and that the food they have tastes bad. They forget all about the food complaints when God sends poisonous snakes among them and some get bit and some die. When the Israelites pray to have the snakes taken away, God’s answer to that prayer is for Moses to place a bronzed replica of a venomous snake on a pole and have the bitten “look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
The story is odd and mysterious, it is 3400 years old from a very different place and culture, SO on one hand the strangeness should not surprise us. On the other hand, as a Sacred story in our Sacred text it seems like we should be able to glean lessons from it, even if we don’t fully understand it. I do think the story was intended to provide a sense awe and wonder at creation, as well as a sense of the fear that often comes with difficult encounters in life; and a lesson for us to turn to God in such times.
I think too the story was intended to have some humor. And I want to start with what’s funny, or was meant to be funny in a “Ha Ha” sort of way. First of all, I have to report there’s a pun in Hebrew. The words for serpent and bronze are a sound alike pun “ne-hash” “ne-hoshet” kind of like saying diamondback diamond. One slithers. One’s shiny. Opposites. Kind of funny? But, obviously funnier is humanity’s broad spectrum of complaints about difficulties. Since the rescue from Egypt the people had previously whined – a lot. In the lesson they are still whining about the rescue and this time they’re whining incoherently about food (“We don’t have any and it tastes bad”).
Up to this point God had worked the seemingly impossible to rescue the Israelites from the terrors and injustices of oppression in Egypt. A part of the rescue required them to be in the wilderness – God did not snap fingers and have them instantly in the Promised Land. God did not send in 747s to airlift them out with a mid-flight meal before they landed in Israel. God did not send trucks to drive them out with packaged food either. They had to walk in the wilderness and look to the wilderness for necessities and they had to also look for dangers to avoid out there. The Bible tells us they complained about the walk and the work and the provisions. They were alive and free but life with liberty was not perfect. It never is. They weren’t as comfortable as could be. We never are. It’s kind of like they wanted fine cuisine, but got something like Ramen noodles – and instead of being grateful to have food and life they grouse about it.
The text tells us they are impatient and spoke against God and Moses over this We-don’t-have-food-and-don’t-like-the-food-we-have craziness. And then we are told God sent snakes. Notably the text does not actually say the causation of the snake’s arrival was the complaining. The Lord just sent snakes. Poisonous ones. Creation does that sometimes . . . not punitively, naturally. Just as God sent that gopher snake among Nancy and me, so too venomous snakes arrived among God’s people.
In the midst of their complaints about food, they now had something to really complain about. Serpents that bite and kill are on a whole other side of the spectrum of complaints than food you do not like. Life is like that. We complain about small things, like the flavor of life-giving sustenance that we’re lucky to have. And then those relatively small complaints are put in perspective when threats that really do matter show up. And they do show up. Covid 19 of course is a stark and present example.
The laws of nature, Creation’s way, what the Creator has provided us with, is full of awe and wonder and positive things, love and babies and rainbows, flowers and mountains for sure; and they also mysteriously provide us with life and sustenance, and the means to survive. That’s positive stuff. There’s lots of it. But The laws of nature, Creation’s way, what the Creator also provides includes what we consider negative things: famine, venomous animals and diseases like Covid for sure; and mysteriously death and threats of death and harm. The combination of positive with negative means overall life is not easy.
We can pray to God to magically snap Divine fingers to rid of us of the negative venomous aspects of life, but God does not appear to violate the laws of nature, God does not do magic, in that way. Death and threats of death and harm to us and others exist and at some time they will come and bite us in one form or another. What we can do is suggested by this story. When the negative arrives, we lift the negative up and see God despite it, and through it. We work on seeing the Creator there in the midst of creation, see the shiny diamonds of creation even in the deadly diamondbacks– real and metaphoric. The bites of the poisoned parts of creation will still hurt, but the negative effects are lessened when we know God’s in all of this – the negative and positive.
I didn’t read other commentaries suggesting this, so this is just me talking, but I see this story as having a very similar message as the Book of Job, that when bad things happen we are to turn to God and do our best. In all of life – in ups and downs and level ground our call is to focus on God (even through the snakes) – and we are to do our best from where we are. We have seen so many people doing just that during this pandemic. Medical and essential workers, governmental leaders and the mask wearing, social distancing masses. Think about it, those human actions create good in the midst of the bad. Complaining and blaming can’t do that. Looking to God and doing our best can. While those actions may not magically instantly rescue us from deadly snake poison or Covid 19 or other negative happenings in life, they do rescue us. They add good. And God. Is. Good. All. The. Time. And. All. The. Time. God. Is. Good.
Focusing on God and doing the best we can do, when all is said and done, is the most the Israelites, and all the people of God, can do. It makes diamonds out of the lumps of coal in life, and the diamondbacks too.
1. I found a “Working Preacher” article by Cameron B. R. Howard helpful on this difficult text. The article is titled “Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9″ and I found it at this URL: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-numbers-214-9-3. I also found insight from Barbra Brown Taylor’s piece on the Lectionary text in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 2 p 99-103. There was also a good discussion on this text during the March 4, 2021 Pulpit Fiction podcast (see, pulpitfiction.com) .
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