Since John over at Come to the Waters is wrestling with Moses and the snake out in the wilderness, I thought I’d post an old sermon that I wrote on this. This one ended up in the online edition of Preaching Magazine, so it’s one that I look back on fondly. Here you go:
From Crisis to Confession: A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9
The people of Israel were “hacked off.” It’s right there in the Bible, they were hacked off. Oh sure, the translation in your pew bible says “impatient,” but in Hebrew it doesn’t say impatient it says qatsar. Qatsar mean making something shorter, and was also used to describe the harvest. When the grain in the field is harvested – it gets qatsar – cut off – shortened. That’s exactly how the people who the wandered around following Moses through the middle of nowhere were described. They felt as if they had been cut down, their fuses were short, and they were at the end of their rope. But most of all they were simply hacked off. Being impatient is sort of a nuisance – we get impatient as we wait to pay for our gas at the convenience store while someone ahead of us leisurely scratches off their lottery tickets hoping to win a dollar or two. Being hacked off is more intense – we get hacked off when someone nearly runs us off the road as we’re driving.
The people of Israel were at the end of their rope. Moses had led them out of Egypt, but now they were in the middle of nowhere and things were more difficult than they ever expected. Along the way they had made enemies, and now they had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to travel around Edom, a country they were forbidden from crossing. A hundred mile detour makes a huge difference when you’re walking over rocks and through steep valleys – especially when you’re wearing sandals. Blisters and calluses were beginning to take their toll. God had provided manna and quail, but visions of Egyptian buffets danced in their heads. No doubt about it, they had had enough.
The old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, I’ve often found that when the going gets tough, the tough start complaining. That’s just what Israel did. During my time as a professor, I found the same thing to be true. When the tests scores were bad, it was rare that I heard someone say, “You know, I really should have buckled down and studied. I wasn’t ready for that test.” Generally I heard people saying, “That was too hard, can we get a big curve!?” Just like a group of unruly students, when the tests in the wilderness got hard, the Israelites started complaining about everything: What kind of leader would bring us out here in the desert to suffer? What kind of God leads his people around in the desert like this? All of a sudden, even enslavement back in Egypt started looking good. Complaints filled the air – the attitude of God’s people was as poor as it could be. In no time, people doubted God and questioned His reason for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place.
The story then takes a terrible turn, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” You know, I thought about entitling this sermon, “Complain about your leader and get killed by poisonous Snakes,” but I didn’t think that would go over too well – and all kidding aside, I don’t think that’s what this passage is talking about. Whatever the reason God sent snakes among the people, and it is likely impossible to know fully, there can be no mistaking the fact that this was a terrible crisis in the camp. Things just as mysterious and frightening happen in our lives – people who are apparently healthy just days find cancer slithering into their lives and find they only have months or weeks to live. Marriages begin to unravel. People in our families make poor choices with devastating consequences. We may not face literal snakes, but the symbolic snakes in our lives can be just as frightening and destructive. Like the Israelites, as we travel this world we’re all too familiar with crises in the camp and many times that leads us to question our faith and even to question God.
Yet somehow through the grace of God, against our own inclinations, crises can lead to confession. The Israelites took stock of what they were doing and examined their lives. When we encounter snakes in our lives – poisonous relationships, poisonous health issues, tragic losses, or seemingly insurmountable odds – it is time to take stock and see reflect on what matters most. The people of Israel very simply say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” The crisis of the snakes led Israel to confess their failings as God’s people. Not only did they turn against the leader God sent them, but they rebelled against God as well. Is it wrong to question and be confused? No way – the only way this becomes sin is if we decide to rebel against God and call it quits – the ultimate danger is letting the crises of our lives cause us to turn our backs on our faith.
The crisis of the snakes helped God’s people realize that their very lives were in the hands of God. Even though the situation in the wilderness was one of difficulty and challenge, the very fact that they had survived this far was evidence of the ongoing presence of God in their lives. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us to this kind of truth. Before I answered God’s call to ministry, I worked in a research lab even though I was sick and tired of it. I had resolved to plow through and just go down the path I had planned. But in the middle of this I encountered a crisis. My father was checked into Saint Francis hospital in Tulsa. My wife Nanci and I made several frantic trips back and forth from Oklahoma City, where we lived, to Tulsa thinking he was going to die at any moment. Even though my father pulled through that difficult time, something changed within me. The crisis led to confession. I understood like never before that our lives are gifts and we never know how long or short they might be. For me, life was too short to do something other than pursue God’s call on my life. The crisis in my life led me to confess I wasn’t doing what God had planned for my life. Every single one of us will have points of crisis in our lives, just like the Israelites surrounded by snakes. Yet, God’s grace offers opportunity for growth in the midst of danger. By God’s grace we’re offered hope in the middle of hopelessness.
Moses prayed and God responded. As Israel confessed their disobedience and admitted their utter need, God responded. God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to lift it on a stick. Those who were bitten needed only to faithfully respond to God by looking at the snake and they would be healed. The snake wasn’t magic – it was the sheer power of God that brought salvation into a frightening and horrific situation. There is no situation that cannot be transformed by confession and trust in God’s means of salvation. Sometimes, like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake up on a pole in the wilderness in order to be rescued from their snakebites, God’s means of salvation looks a whole lot like the catastrophe we face. Sometimes, through the transforming grace of God, the darkest situations we face in our lives can actually lead to our healing and salvation.
We don’t need to look any farther than our faith in Jesus to see the truth of this belief. The cross was more deadly and humiliating than any snakebite, but it is at the cross where God’s greatest triumph takes place. The people confessed to Moses, he interceded and trusted God. The people lift up their eyes and receive healing, not from the deadly serpent, but from the very hand of God. It is through the suffering and shame of the cross that God offers transforms the entire world.
Nearly every one of us who was raised in church knows John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But how many of us remember the two verses that come before 3:16, “…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.” In what was apparently the greatest defeat of all time, God’s own Son was lifted on the cross. Yet in the providence and grace of God it is through Christ was raised from the dead and we are offered eternal, full and abundant life. Following God and trusting Jesus Christ means looking at the frightening and tragic situations of our life in a new way. Through Jesus Christ, nothing in this world is beyond being used for God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. Whether it is the sickness of our loved ones, the loss of a job, the struggles of a family member, the unraveling of a marriage, or the death of a friend – through God’s grace any of these situations offer one more opportunity for resurrection and can be transformed from the most frightening snake to the most miraculous salvation.