Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17
The Hebrews had learned that complaining works. When they had run out of food, they complained to Moses and manna appeared the next morning. When they had nothing to drink, they again complained to Moses. He struck a rock and out gushed fresh water. Perhaps because of their success at complaining, they tried it again, only this time their complaint was a bit hollow, even contradictory. They complained not only to Moses but also to God about having no food, but then said that the food, which they said they didn’t have, was horrible. Listen again to verse 5:
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.’
Perhaps God wearied of their complaints. This time, God did not give them manna or water. Instead, they found themselves in the midst of a poisonous snake infestation. They were beginning to think that complaining was not such a good idea after all. They went to Moses and said, “We’re sorry for our constant complaints, for our lack of faith that God will bring us through. All we humbly ask is that God get rid of these snakes.” Once again, Moses prayed to God on behalf of his people.
God was always creative with responses to the Hebrew’s prayers, but this was the strangest one yet. Moses went back to the people and told them, “God will not get rid of the snakes. Instead, God wants you to build a snake of bronze and lift it high up on a pole. Then, whenever you are bit, you are to look at the bronze snake so that you will not die.” In that moment, I imagine the people looked at Moses with the same incredulity with which we look at some political leaders today. The most amazing part of this story is that they didn’t turf Moses as their leader, but complied and built that bronze serpent amidst the vipers slithering around their ankles.
What could possibly be the reason for building a bronze serpent? Rabbinic teaching from the Mishnah is clear that the bronze serpent itself it was not a magical talisman that contained healing powers. Only God can heal. As the people lifted up their eyes to the snake on a stick, they were drawn beyond it to God.
It did not take long, however, before the Hebrews began to idolize and worship the bronze serpent. A little further in our Bible, you will read of one of the leaders taking the bronze serpent and breaking it, so as to rid the people of yet one more idol. It didn’t disappear totally, though. The snake on a stick is still used as a medical symbol today.
Even though the bronze serpent was not meant to be a magical talisman, I believe that there was something healing in looking directly at the bronze serpent. Not until we are able to truly face death can we be released from its grip of fear. Like cures like. Behaviour modification suggests that intentional interaction with the source of our phobia can cure us of our phobia. Vaccines of a live virus are best able to protect us from the virus. Sometimes the very source of our suffering can be the source of healing.
Slave holders used to quote particular passages from the Bible to their slaves to insist that obedience to God necessitated slaves obeying their masters. But some of those who were enslaved learned how to read and they met in secret to read other passages from the Bible that talked about God leading the enslaved Hebrews to freedom. They drew strongly upon their Christian faith to sustain them, even though it was this same faith that was used to justify their slavery.
Many Aboriginal recipients of Christian mission work were also recipients of harsh treatment, abuse and cultural genocide. Yet some of them in their healing, draw strongly on the Christian faith. Although it justified their own mistreatment, it is now one of their sources of strength.
This period of Lent invites us to look at the difficult things in our lives; look square in the face of that which causes us fear, suffering, pain, or anger. Acknowledge it, feel it. Sometimes the path of healing must pass through the middle of that which causes us anguish. Sometimes that which has caused us grief is that which can offer healing. As we gather courage to look into the face of our nemesis, may we find the faith to look beyond it to the one who was lifted high on a cross.
A poem by Andrew King: https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-lent-4-yr-b/