Our story this week in Numbers needs a bit of perspective. We don't often spend time in the book of Numbers. To be sure, many commentators believe that it is a good thing that we don't spend too much time in it. I remember during seminary, when we actually have to study the books, one of the commentators compared the book of Numbers to a treasured desk, an attic, or some chest where we keep the things we don't want to get rid of, but we don't quite know what we want to do with either. This commentator remarked that the book of Numbers was almost like Moses took great notes from God when composing the rest of the Pentateuch, but then he had all these left over stories when he had finished Genesis, Exodus, and the torah with which he was unwilling to part. This commentator jokingly hypothesized that such was how this book was created!
If you have ever spent any significant time in the book of Numbers, you can probably understand the commentator’s humor. Compared to the narrative history that unfolds in Genesis and Exodus, and compared do the thou shalts and thou shalt nots of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers is a challenge. In many cases, it does not seem to make sense. In many cases, without the appropriate background, it can seem very disjointed and, well, not full of any good news. Today’s reading is, perhaps for you, one such example. After all, why on earth would God send a plague of snakes on people who are just complaining? It’s not like they are killing each other, worshipping a molten calf, or doing anything worthy of death, right? Did Moses leave this passage out of the Exodus narrative because it painted God in a bad light, as some will argue? And, surely, it offers us no good news and has no application today, right?
To place the story in its narrative location, you must understand what is going on during this wandering. Moses led Israel to the banks of the Jordan after the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the torah on Mount Sinai. Thinking to be prudent, the leaders of Israel send spies into the Promised Land. They see those who live in the Promised Land and are afraid that they cannot hope to take possession of the Land. So, God tells Moses and Israel that none of that generation will enter the Promised Land. They will spend the next forty years wandering in a wilderness that would take you and me some two to three weeks to cross on foot. Our story today picks up in that wandering. Immediately before our story today, Israel has had to battle the King of Arad and all his forces. Despite the odds, Israel wins an improbable victory and utterly destroys Arad. Prior to that, Moses had asked the King of Edom for permission to pass through the land of Edom peacefully, a request that was denied by the king (Obadiah will explain more of Edom’s haughtiness and God’s judgment later in Scripture). So Israel finds itself going around Edom rather than through it, and it is during this “going around” that our story is grounded.
Israel asks Moses and God why they were brought up out of the land of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Worse, they complain that the food and water are detestable. What are the people of Israel eating on this journey? Manna. God is feeding them the bread of angels, and the people of Israel claim it is detestable. How are the people of Israel being watered? If I mentioned the story of Moses striking the rock with his staff, would you know how they are being watered? That’s right, God is giving them manna and water. Hmmm. They are also being protected against the elements by the cloud. And they are being protected against enemies. Does any group have less reason to complain? And we have not even mentioned the events at Mount Sinai, the parting of the Red Sea, or the destruction of Egypt’s chariots. In the midst of all this, they have the temerity to accuse God and Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to dies. In the midst of this miraculous provision, they have the audacity to call it detestable and miserable. Maybe God’s punishment makes a little more sense to you now. And, in the grander sense, God is fulfilling His righteous judgment that none of those who came to the Jordan will ever enter to the Promised Land because they do not trust in Him.
But notice what happens. Israel will often blame others for their actions. Like Adam (the one You gave me, she gave it to me) and us (it’s not my fault), Israel will blame their bad actions, their sinful actions, on others or on their circumstances. Curiously, Israel is growing up a bit during their wandering. The people recognize that they have sinned, that God is punishing them, and so they go to Moses. They confess their sin against Moses and God, and they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf with God. When Moses intercedes, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, to set it on a pole, and to put the pole up in the middle of camp. Anyone who is bitten need only to look at the bronze snake in the middle of camp to be healed. Moses did as he was instructed by God, and Scripture tells us that whenever a person was bitten and looked at the bronze serpent, they would live. Ever wonder why God does not remove the snakes? After all, he caused them to enter the camp. Ever wonder how many people refused to look at the bronze snake upon being bit? Who here, honestly, would not be tempted to try and cure themselves? Maybe cut the x in the wound and suck the poison out? Maybe go see a doctor? Maybe try a nice poultice? Do you think you would honestly look to a bronze snake as told? Doesn’t that sound like a stupid solution to the problem of a snakebite?
I ask those questions because you and I live a life similar to Moses with respect to this cure. You and I become heralds of God’s forgiveness and mercy the moment we accept His offer of salvation and undertake to live, not for ourself, but for Him. And what’s our message? Perhaps, in this season the Church calls Lent, you and I are engaged in disciplines or avoiding idols which cause others to ask what we are doing. If we understand Lent properly, we probably mention in our own voices that we are trying to live closer to the way God would have us live. We give up idols which cause us to walk apart; we take on disciplines or practices which cause us to walk closer with Him. People outside the Church in your life hopefully notice that you are more aware of your sins, more reflective about your behaviors which cause you or others in your life to stumble. And what do we offer as the solution to that problem of sin? The cross! Ever ask someone in your life outside the Church what they make of the cross? I bet if you asked and they shared honestly, you would find that many think it silly, not unlike, perhaps, the way you would find yourself looking to a bronze snake if you were alive during the time of our story. You want me to believe that God became a carpenter’s son? You want me to believe that He died for my sins? There has to be a better story than that! To outsiders, we might well sound like fools. But how do we sound in our own ears?
I ask because I think that temptation to solve our own problems is alive and well today. How much better would our story sound, particularly in the Midwest, if we had to perform certain activities or duties to earn God’s grace? Yet how can we ever? If I call Charlie a bad name, how can I ever make total amends? Forget for a second the priest-parishioner relationship. Pretend we are friends and I insult him. If I apologize, have I completely atoned for my hurtful words, even if he accepts my apology as heartfelt? When your friends apologize to you for their insults, is the insult ever truly forgotten? Are things ever really the way they were before? No. There is a loss of trust. There is a sense of “does he/she really like me?”
What if, when Polly was here, I reached into her purse and stole $20 out of it? Again, forget the priest-parishioner relationship for a moment. Pretend we are just friends. If she discovers the theft, accuses me, and I repent, will my returning of that $20 cause her to forget my initial theft? I took $20, and I returned $20; everything is restored, right? Or will not Polly be tempted to keep her purse on her person, or maybe keep her money in her pockets? Will she really trust me when I apologize and give back the money? No.
Brothers and sisters, we are speaking now of so-called minor sins. What happens when we expand our examples to those sins in other peoples’ lives that we know He hates far worse than our own garden variety inconveniences? How do we atone for sins of lust? For sins of dishonoring? For idolatry? For murder? How? And if every sin we commit is not only a sin against our brother or sister but against our Father in whose image each was created, how do we ever get things right with God?
What you and I should realize by now in our walk with God is that we cannot do anything to fully atone for our sins. We can apologize and we can try and make some restitution, but there is a limit to what you and I can do, and that limit becomes even more pronounced when we think of our sins against God. If I cannot fully atone for stealing from Polly or insulting Charlie, how can I atone for my sins against the Father who made them? Thankfully and mercifully, God understood that when we were not yet His disciples, when we were dead to Him, we needed His grace and His mercy to atone and to save.
I preached on Numbers this week, brothers and sisters, because of its importance in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s March Madness. I bet it would be hard to find a sports fan in this country who would not know the words of John 3:16. Heck, I bet it would be challenging to find people in the country, Christian or otherwise, who could not finish the verse for us if we started with “For God so loved the world.” But what comes immediately before that famous verse? And 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. Before that most famous of biblical verses, Jesus draws our attention to this story in Numbers, a story that is unkown to far too many Christians, let alone unbelievers. Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up and brought healing to all who looked to it when they were bit, the Son of Man will bring healing to all who look to Him for forgiveness of their sins. Better still, and I say this knowing that we are in the season of Lent and called to remember our needs for a savior, but I also say this mindful of the fact that you and I live this side of the cross, this side of the Resurrection, and this side of the Ascension: think of the hope of the double meaning in Jesus’ words. Like those in Israel’s camp, we can be healed of our sins which are killing us. Unlike those in the camp, though, we have the hope of the Ascension before us. How can we be assured of passing through the shadow of our deaths? The Son of Man has been lifted up! He has passed through the cross and the empty tomb, and He has been raised! But not only has He been raised from the dead. He has been raised to be with the Father for all eternity! The mercy and healing shown to Israel in our reading from Numbers pales by comparison with what God offers to all! All those who were bitten died. Not a one of them entered into that Land promised to Abraham and Sarah. You and I stand on this side of His Resurrection and His Ascension certain of God’s power to redeem everything in our lives, even our deaths. That, brothers and sisters is our hope and promise. That, my brothers and sisters, is good news worth sharing, even while we ponder all those things for which He has forgiven us. That, my brothers and sisters, is why John 3:16 so resonates with us who believe and is so well known even by those who do not yet believe. Healing and eternal life: gifts undeserved, but promised to all who look to the Son of Man!