Snakes in the Desert -- A Lenten Lectionary Reflection
Snakes in the Desert – Thank God for the Cure
We seem to live in a world of scarcity. We feel as if there simply isn’t enough to go around, and as a result we either cry foul or hoard. When there is scarcity we tend to focus on ourselves and find little room for others. But when it comes to the grace and mercy of God, do we truly face a reality that is marked by scarcity? Or, is the mercy of God available to us in abundance?
As we continue the Lenten journey we’re reminded on occasion of Jesus’ journey in the desert, or as in Numbers, the desert journey of the people of Israel. In both cases provision was made, but in Numbers, at least some of the people weren’t satisfied. They were impatient and they despised the provisions given. Is this true of us? Are we patient when it comes to the things of God? Are we willing to take the long road or are we determined to take the short cut? Our texts this week focus both on the reality of sin – disobedience, resistance to God, etc. – and of course the abundance of God’s grace.
There is a very clear link between Numbers 21 and John 3, but all three texts speak of the means by which God heals and redeems. In Numbers 21 we read another account of the seemingly fruitless journey of the Hebrews through the desert toward the Promised Land. In this case they are marching from Mt. Hor toward the Promised Land. They take the Reed Sea Road and take the long way around Edom, but as the journey continued, they got tired and began to complain. They began to criticize both Moses and Yahweh. Neither God nor Moses seem to have fulfilled the promises they had made earlier, and so the people were ready to cast off both of them and find a new candidate who could give them what they wanted. Obviously they had been lured into the desert on pretense so that God might kill them. It’s clear that this group of people didn’t really trust Yahweh. Despite the parting of the sea and the provision of food, this had on long enough. Perhaps the earlier “miracles” were done to gain their confidence so they might go where they shouldn’t.
There’s a side of God that gets exposed here that’s not pretty. We’ve been told before that God is a jealous God, and sometimes God, in this telling anyway, can get impatient as well. So, God sends poisonous snakes into the camp that bite the people and many die. It’s not Satan that does this; it’s God. How do you feel about this presentation of God? Does it fit with how you view God? I’m not comfortable with it, but here it is for us to make sense of. We can, and probably should, chalk this up to a developing understanding of God. But, maybe we can take this as a reminder that living with a dualist understanding of reality where we’re pawns of two powers seeking to control our lives has problems of its own.
However we resolve the tension in this presentation of God’s actions, the people get the message and go to Moses and seek his intercession with God. Despite the fact that they had been criticizing him and rejecting his leadership, they seem to believe that Moses is the one to go to get this thing stopped. They tell Moses – we admit it, we’ve sinned by speaking against you and against Yahweh. We repent, so tell Yahweh to send these snakes away. And so Moses prays, and the Lord says – okay, here’s the deal. You make an image of a poisonous snake, put it on a pole and when people who’ve been bitten by the snakes see it, they’ll live. And so Moses does what Yahweh prescribes, and we get the symbol for medicine, and the people who are bitten look upon it and live. It’s that simple – look at the totem and you’ll be healed. But keep this image in mind, because we’ll return to it.
In Ephesians 2, the author of this text (whether it’s Paul or someone else is really irrelevant at this point) tells the readers that they were once dead in their sins – they’d been bitten by the snake. They had done the wrong things. Their lives had been characterized by disobedience. As a result they were heading toward punishment (the snakes again?), but things had changed and all of this was now in the past. Why? The reason why things had changed was because “God is rich in mercy.” We read: “He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of his great love for us. You are saved by God’s grace!” (vss.4-6 CEB). God then lifts us up to the heavenly realm so we might sit alongside Jesus and with God so that future generations will know of God’s grace and goodness.
In Ephesians there definitely is the hint of judgment – we’re dead in our sins after all – but we don’t hear anything about God sending snakes to kill us, nor do we have to look at a bronze snake to be delivered, nor do we need an intercessor. We simply need to trust in God and receive the grace that God offers, in apparent abundance. Salvation, this freedom from death, is a gift that we receive by faith. It can’t be possessed, just received. We can’t be proud of this accomplishment – there’s no place for self-righteousness, no place for moralism. We can’t go into the public square and tell the people they we have the truth and that we are righteous – no we can’t do that, we can only recognize our own need of God’s grace so that we can be present in the world in a way that is redemptive. If we recognize our need for grace, then we’re in a position to engage in the good works that God has provided for us as a way of life in the world.
In this gospel reading we have before us one of the most famous of all texts. It’s so famous that one need only put it on big piece of paper and hold it up in the end zone during the Super Bowl and everyone will get the message – God loves the world in Christ. Yes, I’m talking about John 3:16. But our passage doesn’t begin and end with this one text. No, we start with a reference to Numbers 21. Even as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One, the Son of Man, be lifted up. This is the one we must look to be healed. Believe in him, and you will have eternal life. That eternal life needn’t be limited to the “sweet bye and bye,” it can include living into the abundance that God’s grace, mercy, and love – now and forever. Everyone who believes in this one through whom God expresses love for the world, will know this grace. God, we’re told isn’t interested in judgment. Oh judgment happens, but that’s not what God desires. No, God desires to reconcile all things and all persons. There is a dualism here, though. There are those who believe and those who don’t; there are those who walk in the light, and those who walk in darkness, those who live into the works of God and those who inhabit the works of evil. Christ’s presence brings light that exposes this evil. Those who embrace the light that is Christ, their actions will express the nature of God.
I return to the question of scarcity and abundance. Too often we in the church believe that God’s grace is a scarce commodity. We want to control it. We want to own it and make it our own. We set the rules and the regulations, but it’s clear that this is not the truth. The mercy and love of God is one of abundance. God can work with us and through us so that this grace gets expressed in the world, but we don’t control it. It flows abundantly. When we try to dam it up, God’s grace just breaks through our meager dams, like flood waters breaking through a levee.
As we continue this Lenten journey toward the Cross and from it to the Resurrection, may we receive this sign of God’s love and lift it up that it might be the means of blessing to all. As for the snakes in the desert – they’re no longer a problem, unless we let them be a problem!