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Fourth Sunday of Lent

If you are confused by the story from Numbers, you are in good company, because so am I. My first thought when I saw this story this week was, what am I supposed to do with THIS after 3 weeks of talking about God’s covenants? This story was obviously put here this week so that we understand what Jesus meant in the gospel when he said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..” Here is the story to which Jesus is referring.
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Still, a plague of snakes? This is just bizarre. It’s like the ancient version of the movie, “Snakes On A Plane,”…or maybe the movie was a modern version of this story. But why in the world would God respond to Israel’s complaints by sending poisonous snakes to bite people so that they would die? It seems a little drastic. On the one hand, this IS the God who sent plagues upon Egypt and brought the Red Sea crashing down on the Egyptian pursuers…still, these are God’s chosen people, the people God saved by doing all those things. Why is complaining suddenly punishable by death? If that was true today, I feel like many of us would be in A LOT of trouble!
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Because of the way this story is written, and as a result of how it has been taught over the years, we all believe that God did actually send snakes among the people as a punishment for their complaints. The people even believe that God sent the serpents among them because they repent of their complaining before Moses and ask Moses to pray that God would take the snakes away. So why didn’t God take the snakes away? Why does God have Moses make this bronze serpent on a pole? The snakes are still there…the people are still bitten…but now they won’t die if they look upon the snake on a stick. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to take the snakes away?
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Not if that’s where they live naturally. The people assume that God sent the snakes upon them, but is it possible that they entered an area of wilderness where the snakes were already dwelling? And because they were facing danger and hardship right after they had been complaining, they figured God must be punishing them for it. Hey, the truth is, they are IN the WILDERNESS after all. It had been a number of generations since the Hebrew people lived outside of Egypt, so they were not used to wilderness living…the dryness, the barrenness, the wildlife. But it’s like the condo that I lived in when I first moved to the area. I discovered I had mice and thought it was absolutely disgusting. But when I thought about it I realized, the mice were there first. People moved into their habitat, so they adjusted accordingly…right into our walls!
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The people of Israel are wandering through the wilderness…and it was a lot of people…and suddenly the snakes pop out because they heard a raucous…and chaos ensues, snakes and people and biting and death. Now there’s something to complain about! You thought the lack of food and water was bad, now there are poisonous snakes! With that explanation, it’s no longer a question of why would God send snakes to kill the people…now it’s a question of what is God up to bybring God’s chosen people through the dry, barren, dangerous wilderness?
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That is actually a much more helpful and interesting question to explore. We’ve been hearing about these covenants over the past few weeks which so far have resulted in this group of people that God has claimed as God’s people. This story of the snakes probably comes before the story of the 10 Commandments. But even at this point, God has brought them out of Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea…God is pretty well committed to them.
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And God brings them through the dry, barren, dangerous wilderness. What is God doing? Two things are for sure…God’s chosen people are not coddled or kept in a safe cocoon. But also, God does not leave them to fend for themselves. It seems, in this strange little story, that the people of Israel learn something important…regardless of their complaining, they know who to turn to when they are in trouble. They know who it is that has power over nature. They know who hears their prayers and delivers them from all evil. And they go from complaining about God one minute, to actually asking God for help the next.
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God’s people are not coddled or kept in a safe cocoon. I know there are times when we as baptized followers of Jesus live with the assumption that by virtue of our faith, our lives will be smooth and easy. With that assumption comes another, that when things do become difficult, and we experience pain or uncertainty, that God must be punishing us for something we’ve done wrong, maybe for not being faithful enough. But our faith isn’t built on these assumptions…it is built on the foundation of the One who came to give us peace and healing even though he may not take the snakes away.
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The people of Israel learned a lot about God and about God’s relationship with them as they wandered through the wilderness. They learned a reliance on God that they could never have learned anywhere else. And yes, God allowed them to wander, yet was there when they called out to God, with the water…the food…and in today’s story, that symbol of healing which allowed the people to live even when they were bitten. And maybe some of those who were bitten told the story to their children and grandchildren…that they were bitten by a poisonous snake when they were younger, but the Lord God granted them healing, and they did not die.
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It is often in those times when we feel out-of-sorts or uncertain or when we are experiencing physical or emotional pain that we discover just how reliable God really is, how much more reliable God is than anything with which we had previously surrounded ourselves. Sometimes the pain and chaos is inside us…sometimes it is around us. God does not cause these painful experiences, but God also doesn’t just remove us from them either. Sometimes it is only when those other sources of reliance are no longer available that we can see God’s faithfulness and steadfastness are a constant source of strength.
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We are blessed to have Scripture, prayer, people, song and Sacraments to remind us that when life is challenging, when pain is pressing, when fear and uncertainty threaten to overwhelm us we can call upon God in prayer. Through all of these blessings the Holy Spirit reminds us…and we remind one another that God is greater than nature, God is greater than fear, God is greater than evil, God is greater than death.
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The people of Israel wandered the desert for 40 years. Technically, it shouldn’t have taken that long to arrive at their destination. So what was going on in the wilderness? God and the people of Israel had this opportunity to walk through dryness, barrenness and danger together. The people had the opportunity to learn who this Lord God, this I AM really is. They learned, though not easily, that God was Holy…that they were not…but God was calling them to a new life as God’s people. This experience was instrumental in their process of becoming God’s chosen people.
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I would like to leave you with this thought for this week…can you think of a trying “wilderness” experience in your own life through which you learned something invaluable about God, faith or yourself…that changed you or your life in a positive way? Amen.

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