Look Up and Live!

Sermon Preached March 18, 2012
Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; John 3:14-21

Today we mark the mid-point of our Lenten Journey.  We have been in the wilderness for 22 of the 40 days.  For many of us, Lenten promises to fast or to spend more time in prayer, to intentionally seek opportunities to serve our neighbors or to be more diligent in our study of Scripture have been neglected, if not forgotten altogether.  We may be looking back fondly at Christmas when our songs were filled with good tidings and cheer, when our priest didn’t stand before us and make us think about Lenten “spiritual disciplines.”  Remember how good it was then?
 “. . . but 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.’”[1]  At first glance, there is something quite comical in the people’s complaint – we have no food and it’s miserable besides!  It reminds me of being a teenager, opening the refrigerator door, looking in at all the food and complaining, “we never have anything to eat around here!”  The assumption being, of course, that “anything to eat” would include foods that I want and like not the food that’s been set before me.  In fact, an earlier complaint narrative in the book of Numbers describes the Israelites misery in more detail, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”[2]  Ah, so it’s not so much that they are hungry, but that they want that food.  Professor Eliezer Segal of the Religious Studies Faculty at the University of Calgary comments on this passage:
“I have never completely succeeded in stamping out that little voice from within that emerges from time to time and whispers (with intonations that sound uncannily like Tevyeh the dairyman in "Fiddler on the Roof"): O Lord, it is an honour to be the ‘chosen people,’ but why can't you choose somebody else for a change?!”[3]
But as comical as the Israelites’ complaint might seem, it is serious business indeed.  By this time, they have been wandering in the wilderness for nearly 40 years.  And that land they’ve been promised – that land filled with milk and honey – seems no closer today than when they were slaves in Egypt.  And so, they begin looking backwards, not forward.  
“Better we should have died in slavery,” they grumble, “than here in the wilderness.”  After so much time, it is understandable that they should become impatient – after all, many of us (clergy included) have arrived at that point in our wilderness journey after only 22 days, not years!  But, that word – impatient – doesn’t really do justice to the plight of the Israelites. The Hebrew word here is related to the word for life or breath – nephesh – and so quite literally the word means “short-lived” or “short of breath.”[4]  And the Israelites are, indeed, running out of life, out of breath. The first generation of wilderness wanderers is beginning to die.  Miriam’s death is recorded in just one chapter earlier in the book of Numbers.[5] And, before their journey ends, before they enter the Promised Land, Moses and Aaron will die as well.[6]  So, as comical as the story-teller has made the complaint of the Israelites, the situation is, in fact, a matter of life and death and their grumbling is quite understandable.
Now, to make matters even worse, the narrative tells us that, as punishment for their complaint against God, “the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb reminds that
“[t]he narratives of rebellion in which God sends disaster upon some of the people function in large part to give theological meaning to the historical reality of the dying out of the earlier generation. The lack of faith they exhibited in the wilderness, the logic goes, rendered them unfit to inhabit the land.”[7]
And it is at this point that I place the passage from Numbers into my ever-growing list of “troubling texts.”  In its historical context, I can accept the reasoning. But in our 21st century context, it is troubling – irresponsible even – to suggest that natural disasters – be they snakes, earthquakes, or any other terrestrial phenomenon – are sent by God to punish a people.
As I wrote in last Wednesday’s newsletter, there are times when humans bear some responsibility for poor choices and actions that lead to certain illnesses – some cancers, some heart disease, for example; but, even then, focusing on blame is not a particularly useful exercise.  As the psalmist writes, "Some were fools and took rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins." But, two verses later, the psalmist reminds us that God "sent forth his word and healed them and saved them from the grave." [8] Our God is a God of healing and compassion, always looking for ways to call us into health, into wholeness.  And this is where I return to theologian Elizabeth Webb and join her in amazement that despite all of the adversities they have faced – the lack of food and water, the lack of a homeland, the loss of life on the journey – despite it all, the Israelites keep moving forward.
"In the midst of their desperation at a journey that was even more arduous than they ever would have imagined, how did they go on? How would we, how do we, go on when faced with a similar circumstance? What do we do when something for which we have hoped and prayed and labored recedes farther and farther into the distance? If someone never reaches the financial security he or she has worked so hard for, if another is never able to heal a relationship that is long broken, if I never quite become the person I've imagined myself to be -- what then?” [9] 

The Israelites, offer us an answer: they turn back to God. They cry out to the Lord, “We have sinned!”[10] “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’”[11]
Look at it and live.  “Even in our worst failures and disappointments, God provides. God offers healing for our wounds, relationship for our loneliness, and faithfulness” even in the face of “our faithlessness. God doesn't remove the sources of our suffering” – the Israelites continue to be bitten by poisonous snakes – “but God makes the journey with us, providing what we most deeply need, if we but look in the right direction.”[12]
Perhaps this is what the gospel writer had in mind when he recounts the story of Nicodemus.  “Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘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.”[13]  The deadly serpent is lifted up by God to be a reminder to the Israelites that they are always to put their faith in God, to keep looking forward to the promise. Jesus is lifted up – exalted even - on the cross, a human invention of torture and death, so that you and I, who look upon him, may believe in the promise of salvation and have eternal life.   Look up to God and live.

[1] Numbers 21:5.
[2] Numbers 11:5.
[3] Segal, Eliezer, “Brazen Serpents,” Guest Sermon, Preached at St. Cyprian Anglican Church, Calgary, March 9, 1997 accessed online on March 16, 2012.
[4] Holbert, John C., “Fiery Snakes and Copper Vipers: Reflections on Numbers 21:4-9,” Opening the Old Testament, March 11, 2012, accessed online at Patheos.com on March 16, 2012.
[5] Numbers 20:1b.
[6] cf: Numbers 20:12
[7] Webb, Elizabeth A., “Commentary: Numbers 21:4-9,” Preaching This Week, accessed online on March 16, 2012.
[8] Psalm 107:17, 20.
[9] Webb.
[10] Numbers 21:7.
[11] Numbers 21:8.
[12] Webb.
[13] John 3:14.