If you could see into the minds of ministers this past week, you’d have seen all of us opening the lectionary texts and noticing that we had this great choice. On the one hand, the Gospel reading offers one of the most loved promises in Christian life: God so loved the world, that God sent the only son, to save us all. On the other hand, there is this weird, hard to explain story about snakes and a pole the obvious solution to which was offered by my daughter May when I told her about it: “Wouldn’t the easiest thing have been for God to just not send the snakes in the first place?” Just like all those others, I looked at these texts. And the easiest thing would be to just talk about God’s love, I suppose. But something in me wants to know about those snakes.
Jacquelyn’s comment was simple: “What is it about God and snakes?” Right near the beginning, in the garden, it’s a serpent that suggests to Eve the ideas that lead to the original disobedience of God’s command. Later, both Moses and Aaron have staffs that turn into snakes and we have this story in Numbers about dangerous, poisonous snakes; we'll come back to that in a moment. In Christian scriptures, both gospel and Revelations, the serpent is identified with the Satan, the tempter. Just like Eve in the garden, Jesus meets a serpent/Satan in the wilderness; unlike Eve, he makes the right choices.
The story Numbers tells is scary if we take it seriously. God’s people have been traveling through the wilderness and the journey is difficult. Numbers 20 has them thirsty, without water, quarreling with Moses, so that Moses and Aaron have to go to God who provides water from a rock. But Moses gets too enthusiastic; he doesn’t quite trust God to do the miracle alone and proceeds to beat the rock with his staff. For this faithlessness, God says that Moses won’t get to enter the promised land. Things aren’t going well. They ask the king of Edom to let them pass through; he says no. Moses’ sister Miriam died back in the wilderness; now Aaron dies. There’s a battle with the Canaanites. They have to go the long way around Edom. You can see what a mess things are.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when we read, the people became impatient on the way.
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.
I love this last line: “there is no food…and we detest this miserable food.” so there is something to eat but they don’t like it. Bad food makes a bad life and it makes them resentful and mean.
Then it gets worse.
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” [Numbers 21:6]
I was telling someone about this story and their reaction was, “This is why I don’t like the Old Testament God.”
It’s bad, isn’t it? I have a wonderful niece who, along with her family, have kept a huge boa constrictor for years in their house. It’s white and yellow; it’s a pet and apparently harmless but on my brief and infrequent visits there, it scares me.
My mother feared and hated snakes. One day when I was home, I heard my mother’s startled cry, “Eddy!!!” My dad was named Ed and no one called him Eddy, no one would have thought to call him Eddy, but when my mother was scared or angry that one word would sound out like a fire alarm. “Eddy!” It turned out she had gone out the front door and there, on the front porch, in the middle of the front porch, there was, according to her, “A huge snake that could have bitten me.”
So my dad was summoned to do his husband duty. My brothers and I, of course, not wanting to miss this, also gathered. Right away I noticed my dad didn’t seem at all surprised and I suspected something was up. He got a rake out and sure enough, after a little messing around in the shrubs and tomato plants in front o the house, he lifted up a garden snake about three feet long. We made a procession as he gently placed in some raspberry brambles on the side of the yard, mentioning that the snake had been there for three years. My mother had demanded the snake’s death but my father had an old farm boy fondness for wild creatures. For several years, despite my mother’s complaints, he tolerated a family of raccoons raising their young in our garage. He let it go, with an ancient invocation of male privilege: “Don’t tell your mother.” Then he went and reported, truthfully, but carefully, “The snake is gone.” We didn’t tell her the truth until years later after they moved out of that house. We weren’t sure mom would have ever walked out knowing a garden snake that size was looming in the bushes, just waiting.
Snakes are scary. The ancient near east had asps and other types of poisonous snakes and they figured in all the ancient religions, both as symbols and as realities. They are the death that comes in the night, the surprise of danger in nature and yet a strangely attractive danger. Out west, where I-94 crosses the Columbia River, there’s a beautiful overlook with asphalt paved walks where you can stop and rest and see the river wind for 20 or 30 miles. But the asphalt warms and rattlesnakes like to come sun themselves there. The park service that runs this place had to close the walks because people, with all the sense of a two-year-old, wouldn’t leave the snakes alone and the snakes, of course, responded the way rattlesnakes do: they made a little noise and then struck. Snakes are scary in a special way. So this story reaches down into the dark species memory of all of us and conjures up a demon: poisonous snakes all over, biting, hurting, killing. And here’s the worst part: God sent them.
I suppose at this point I could act like a presidential press person and try to explain away this bad thing. I could be moralistic: “They deserved it!” I could try a naturalistic explanation: God didn’t really send the snakes, they just happened to be there, like the snakes by the Columbia River, and if these people had left them alone, all would have been well. I could try a literary swoop and talk about how traditions take experiences and misinterpret them, endowing events with a meaning God never intended. Maybe those would all make good sermons but the truth is, the text is quite clear: God sent the snakes. God put them there: they are not an accident, they can’t be explained away.
Why is the world so dangerous? Why are there things out there that suddenly derail our lives, things that kill us or paralyze us with fear and trembling? The truth is: I don’t know; I have no idea. I used to think it was my job to explain these things when people asked, as they always do but I’ve come to realize there is no explanation, there is no understanding, there is no reasoning with the darkness. But I take some comfort in the fact that when Jesus was asked that same question, why do bad things happen, he also doesn’t explain it. In the 13th chapter of1 Luke, Jesus is asked about the death of a group of Galileans slaughtered by the Romans as they were worshipping. The questioners invite him to make a moralistic argument, that they were worse sinners, but he refuses. He goes on to mention one of those senseless construction accidents where 18 workers were killed when a tower collapsed. “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”[Luke 13:4f]
This is what he says: the issue isn’t why the dangers or the darkness is there but how do you react? How do you live knowing the snakes are out there?
The people in the story in Numbers do repent. "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.” [Number 21:7] God takes the very thing that has so frightened them, the image of the snakes that snared them, and has Moses make a pole with that image for them to come to and cling to and remember who they are: God’s covenant people. They stop their complaining, at least for the moment; they remember who they are and that they have a future with a God who cares for them.
We’ve been talking about covenants throughout this season and it may not seem that this has much to do with that. But at it’s heart, it is a story about how covenants work. Along the road to the promised land, there are some bad moments. There’s bad food and not enough of it; sometimes you get thirsty. It can be hard to remember why you started out and who got you going, why you ever left in the first place. But our covenant is a vision of the future. When I joined this church, just like many of you, I made this promise:
Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will; that you will strive to enter to the full into those blessed relationships which Jesus himself realized and enjoined upon all people, the relationship of love to God your Creator, and love to all people; and that you will give yourself unreservedly to the service of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Now the truth is, I am not sincerely repentant for my sins every day. I am not humble every day and there are days when I beep at annoying drivers in a less than loving way. I whine and fuss just like the people in this story some days. I get busy and forget about loving God; I get bruised and forget how much God loves me.
But the covenant brings me back. Just like the compass on a boat, I look at that promise and it puts me back on course. You help me get back; you bring me back. Because I’m not alone and this covenant helps me know that, believe that, live that. So when things get snakey, I have a place to go and something to cling to. Sometimes people ask me, “Does joining the church—making the promise of this covenant—make any difference?” I can only say that there are days when I’ve gone off course and it brings me back, days when I need to repent, as Jesus said. Because of this covenant, I’m not on my own; I’m part of a people, this people, and we have promises to keep.
Trying to explain the meaning of Jesus life, the writer of the gospel of John imagines Jesus saying,
And 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.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. [John 3:14-17]
Our covenant is an invitation to walk this road, to faith that the God who brought those complaining people in the wilderness back to covenant faithfulness is still here, still inviting, still hoping we will walk the path of covenant love. Jesus is leading the way: won’t you come along?
Worship Service is held at 10:30am every Sunday and is followed by our Coffee Fellowship
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Albany, New York 12208
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