Numbers 21:4-9 March 4, 2018
The Israelites were tired. They had wandered for almost forty years and they could see the end of their journey, but there were still a lot of obstacles before they got there. Some of them had mutinied against Moses and tried to convince the people to return to Egypt. They had run out of water at Meribah causing Moses to lose his temper and disobey God’s instructions. Now as they prepared to pass through Edom, the land of Israel’s brother, their cousins refused to allow safe passage and mobilized their army to fight if Israel tried to enter their land. Going around Edom instead of through it added months, maybe years, to their journey. They were so close to the end of their wandering, but still so far away.
So they did what came naturally to them. They grumbled. They continued to question Moses’s leadership and they even began to doubt God’s power to take care of them. They grumbled against both Moses and God, not realizing that it was only because of the grace of God and the intercession of Moses that they had survived throughout their desert journey. They grumbled against everything. They grumbled about the long journey. They grumbled about the Manna God provided. They grumbled about their lack of water. Once again as they had often done before they convinced themselves that things were better in the slavery of Egypt rather than in the freedom of their journey to the Promised Land.
God responded to their grumbling by sending fiery serpents-- the word used is seraphim the same word we use for angels-- to bite and kill the Israelites. Again, as they had done so often, Israel repented of their grumbling and turned to Moses for the solution.
As I reflect on this story, I realize that we are not much different from the Israelites. We grumble. Most recently, many of us grumbled about our loss of power as we forgot that in many parts of the world electrical power is only available for a few hours a day if at all. We grumble about the economy even though we are all rich by the standards of the rest of the world. We grumble about the direction our nation is headed. We openly grumble about our governmental leadership. We grumble about the future of the church, we grumble about our church leadership. We grumble because our long held beliefs are being challenged. We want to go back to a place and time where we were comfortable in our beliefs and we avoid going forward into the place God has prepared for us.
We grumble just like Israel did, so where are the snakes? We might believe that they are not there, but our grumbling is just as deadly as Israel’s and for the same reason. When we grumble, our dissatisfaction has a deadly effect on the world. When we complain about what we don’t have we betray our trust in God to provide. When we complain about the future, we deny that God is with us now and forever. When we complain about our leadership we tear our community apart. When we turn to go back to our old ways we refuse to trust that God is in control and we fail to do God’s will. All of these complaints bring with them the threat of the deadly poison that comes from the snakes. Remember the serpent in Genesis? He did his evil work not by fighting against God, but by making Adam and Eve doubt God’s power and love. Lack of faith is the source of all the snakes in our lives.
When Israel came to their senses and chose to trust Moses and trust God, God told Moses to make a bronze model of the serpents and place it on a pole so that whoever was bitten could look at the serpent and live. I can hear you asking, “What about the commandment not to make a graven image?” Don’t confuse this with a graven image. There are two reasons it is not. First, God commanded Moses to make it (this is a whole other sermon about when God tells us to do something that appears to go against God’s commandments). Second, the serpent was not created to be worshipped. In fact, later in Israel’s history, King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent because some people were worshipping it instead of God. The purpose of the bronze serpent was to make the Israelites look up and remember the power of God who was with them and provided for them throughout their journey. When they looked at the serpent, the people were forced to look beyond their problems and see the bigger picture of God’s love and provision.
In chapter three of John’s gospel Jesus says that like Moses raised the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus must be raised up (on the cross) so that all who look on him will not perish. So there is the solution to our grumbling: Look to Jesus and remember the love that God has for us. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to be our savior. We don’t need to grumble against others or against God. We don’t need to fear our future because we can say in faith, “God’s got this! I can trust God!” Amen