Back when I was a guy, this was one of my favorite times of the year. I loved the excitement provided by March Madness. I relished the idea of filling out a bracket and competing with my friends to see who “knew college basketball the best.” I was even known to toss in a few dollars and draft teams in an office lottery, and pray, if I drew a 13-15 seed, that my new team had drawn Syracuse in the first round. I see you all laughing at various parts of the story. Some of you are laughing at my “when I was a guy” description of myself. Others of you have felt the pain of tossing $20 in the office pool and pulling out the upset champion of the Horizon League tournament or the Southern Conference tournament. One or two of you might have selected Syracuse as a Final Four team in your brackets only to see them flame out in the first round as a #2 seed.
I mention the tournament because of the prevalence of John 3:16 signs in the arenas back in those days. It used to be that some guy in a Bozo the clown wig would be holding a sign that said John 3:16 in plain view of the camera during free throws. What really amazed me about his ministry was that he could get to both ends of the court behind the basket for every free throw! I would imagine, especially here in Nashville with the heavy Baptist and Church of Christ influence, John 3:16 might be the verse that best summarizes the Gospel. When I was . . . disagreeing with God about my call, that was a ministry that I thought sounded more like me. I was willing to be that guy. I would travel to important sporting events. I would make the sign. I would suffer for God by proclaiming His love to the world at Tourney games, at Super Bowls, at NBA games, and maybe even the Olympics! I see you men nodding. It would be a great ministry, wouldn’t it? Except maybe for that stupid wig. Maybe we could convince God that the wig detracts from the message?!
I start off with that funny story, though, because we are going to focus today on the story that informs that famous verse of “For God so loved the world. . ." and is anything but funny. How do we know that? Jesus begins verse 14 by reminding us all that He will be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. When we as Christians or we as clergy skip over such challenging stories, we do ourselves and those who are seeking God or a deeper relationship with Him a terrible disservice. What do I mean?
Look at your story in Numbers today. How many of you have ever read this narrative before? It goes without saying that you have read it every three years since the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary; yet how few of us remember the story? And it is a great story. The people gripe at God. He punishes them with venomous snakes. They repent. He instructs Moses as to the anti-venom. And the people continue their wandering. All that does not include the background.
I shared with the Wednesday night group that my favorite description of the book of Numbers by a commentary writer was that it was like the old desk or table or counter where we keep all those things we are loathe to throw away but not quite sure what to do with right now. I am sure none of you do this, but I have been known to collect piles on my desk, on an island countertop in my house, and a dining room table. To outsiders it looks like a mess. To me, it is that paperwork “I might one day need.” I see some elbows in ribs and knowing nods. One or two of you might do this as well. That’s one of the descriptions of the book of Numbers. God gave Moses all this information. He wrote the other four books of the Pentateuch, but he had all this leftover information, mostly numbers, that he needed to use. Let’s be real: if we can’t throw away a receipt, what do you think we would do with information given to us by God? Hoarding would not even begin to describe my response!
In truth, Numbers is a great book for modern Americans, and not just as a cure for insomnia. One of the most popular defenses in this country is “it’s not my fault.” We blame everything and everybody for our wrong, stupid, and evil choices. People tell me that their divorces are not their fault because their parents never really taught them how to have a loving, stable relationship. Abusers have told me they beat their wives or children because that’s how their dad raised them. A convicted child rapist once defended his actions to me by saying “Father, she acted and dressed like she wanted it.” How many psychotic killers or other criminals play the “I was abused” defense card? How many of us in relationships here blame the other for pushing our buttons for our actions?
The book of Numbers speaks against that very defense. Most commentators agree that the book is roughly divided between the two censuses. There is a counting of the first generation and a counting of the second generation. In between the two censuses is where a lot of action occurs, including our story for today. One of the main themes of the book is that we are influenced and shaped by our surroundings, our environment, and our family systems; each person, however, is finally required to make a decision on how to act in the today. Will we follow God? The first generation chickened out. Although the second generation was born in and forced to wander in the desert because of the first generation’s distrust of God, they were eventually forced to choose whom they would follow. Luckily for them and for us, they chose wisely.
Our story today, though, is challenging to modern Christians and especially modern pastors. The people complain and God sends snakes to bite them and kill them as punishment. We claim we have a loving Father, yet this story seems to speak against that. Doesn’t this sound more like an abusive father or a vengeful father? Who sends snakes to bite His people? I had to laugh at one of my colleagues this week who claimed it was a good thing we don’t have to preach on the Old Testament because their god does not act like that God. It is sad, is it not? What’s worse, their path to their god supposedly goes through this guy Jesus, and he says right before our famous passage that He must be lifted up as was the serpent in the wilderness by Moses. Jesus could have avoided that imagery. There are tons of pages in the Old Testament. Why choose one that supposedly besmirches the character of His Father?
The simple answer, of course, is that the narrative in Numbers does not besmirch God’s character. Quite the contrary, it reveals His character to His people. What has happened to lead us to this point in the narrative? God has decided to free His people in Israel. He proved His power over ten of Egypt’s gods with various plagues and signs. He has so upset the Egyptian cosmology that the people throw Israel out and give them treasures to leave. When trapped by the Egyptian chariots against the sea, God has parted the waters and led Israel to safety. God has muddied the wheels of the chariots to slow them and then closed the passage to kill them, thereby ensuring that Egypt will no longer be a threat against Israel for many years. God has shaded them in the wilderness by day and lighted the way with a fiery cloud by night. God has fed Israel manna, the bread of angels. God has fed them quail until it came out of their nostrils. God has watered Israel when necessary. Their sandals or feet have withstood the long journey. They have witnessed the cloud descending into the Tabernacle to speak with Moses. They have heard the theophany of Sinai with their own ears. They have seen God’s jealousy at work with the molten calf and revelry. And how do they respond? They rail against God and complain about this miserable food.
More often than not, the people grumble and complain against Moses. But here, they complain specifically against God and, by extension, Moses. They even call the food of angels detestable. Parents probably can relate to this story. Ever make a big sacrifice for your kids and have them cast it back in your teeth? How did it make you feel? Maybe now you understand the snakes. Those of us who were once or are currently kids, ever complain about something only to have your parents explode? Maybe we did not understand the cost, maybe we did not understand the benefit. But when we complained about whatever it was, whoa!
Now, place yourself in God’s shoes. You have cared for them like a loving Father. You have fed them, watered them, protected them, guided them. You have given supernatural proof of your power to provide for them, and how do they respond? I can only speak for me, but I sort of think the snakes are a sign of grace. I’m thinking I would tend toward the lightning strike and instant vaporization, though I can respect a painful poison. Given the chuckles, I’m guessing some of you are like me. Here is God doing this great thing, actually series of great things for Israel, and they cast it back in His teeth. No wonder he punishes them! We often forget that God takes sin seriously. God takes sin so seriously that it will take His Son to redeem us from it. One of those sins we commit is rebellion. In this story, God’s people are rebelling not just against God, but His care and concern and provision for them. They reject the very life He is offering and, in a real, tangible way, earn a painful death.
Notice, too, though, the rest of the story. When Israel realizes their sin, what do they do? They go to Moses and beg Him to intercede on their behalf. A few lines earlier, they were grumbling against Him; now they want Moses to save them. Now, this is where you and I should really begin to be humbled and really should begin to understand the true depth of Jesus’ claim in John 3:16. How does God respond? Those of us a minute ago who were laughing knowingly how we would respond know this is far beyond us. Those of us who would have vaporized Israel would have no opportunity to show mercy. Those of us who killed everyone instantly would be unable to see them learn the necessary lesson in this story.
God tells Moses to make a bronze stake and place it on a snake in the middle of the camp. Then He tells Moses that, when they are bitten, Israel needs to look at the snake to live. How would you have responded to Israel’s repentance? Those of us who nuked Israel would not have had to worry about it. Would you be able to show grace? When you parented, did you? When you were parented, did your parents? Most of us, particularly if we are of the “nuking” mentality, would probably find ourselves pulling back from the punishment entirely. I suspect, unless we are abusers, we would simply cause the snakes we caused to come to leave. That seems fair, right? They sinned. We punished. They repented. We accepted and fixed. It's like reducing a grounding of weeks to a day or paying the allowance withheld.
Jesus claims our Father in heaven is the perfect Father. He loves us, wants nothing for the best for us, but He also realizes that we are separated from Him by our sin. There is a cost, a terrible cost that Jesus knows all too well, for sin. When we repent, we usually want God to take away the consequences, don’t we? But when that happens, over and over again, do we really learn the cost of sin? Put differently, if, every time you sinned and repented and God forgave and wiped away the consequences, would you really understand the cost of your sins? We know our jobs as parents is to raise our children to love God, to love other people as themselves, to participate in society as productive members, to find a spouse that shares their values and will raise their children, our grandchildren, in light of these obligations. How do we teach our children those important life lessons? Is the best way to teach them always to take away consequences? Or do we recognize that some of the best lessons are learned through experience? Can a child truly understand the value of something as simple as a phone if we give it to them and replace it every time they break it? Or do they better learn these lessons as they save their money to buy those things they value and lose that value when the items in question are not cared for appropriately? And what of bigger items like cars? Houses? Education? And if we who are sinners recognize that wisdom, what do we think God is really teaching the people here? Might not some learn the lesson the hard way not to think that God wishes them ill? Maybe the next time they think to curse God for that detestable manna their ankle will say “hey, uh, don’t forget these fang marks here” and cause them to withhold that sentiment?
Notice, too, even though God allows the people to continue to be punished by the snakes, still He places among them the means for their healing. God is effectively saying to them, “yes, you will be bit, but if you want to live, look to the snake on a post.” Can you not see how the image relates to our sins? “Yes, you will sin, but look to the Cross for healing.” We might think it stupid to look at a bronze snake on a post for healing, but is it really that different from looking at the Cross on Calvary for our healing? Every time we sin, we are reminded of the cost of forgiveness, the cost of our Lord's life!
Better still, our loving Father wants us to choose obedience. Does He make the people look at the snake? No. Numbers does not record it, but I wonder how many people were too stubborn to be healed. I think I might have numbered among that group. Really, Moses, that’s supposed to be my cure? Why don’t you shut up and grab me a knife and a belt so I can cut an ‘X’ over this and suck out the poison. Don’t laugh. You have seen those cowboy movies, too. We have seen the real life rejection of Jesus for just that reason, though, as well. You want me to believe I can be forgiven for all that I have done because of some guy’s death on the Cross? It seems just as implausible to many as the snake in today’s story, yet the healing is undeniable to those who cling to it. It sounds stupid. It is far too simple. Most of all, we don’t bear any of the cost. How is that fair? How is that just? How does that save?
You have probably thought more about this passage today than you ever have in your life, and believe it or not we have not fully mined the depth of this passage. My hope is, my prayer is that you will never again see that John 3:16 sign on television or hear it on the radio without remembering this story. Jesus pointed to this story as the foundation of that favorite passage. Is there a cost to sin and disobedience? We better believe it! Are there consequences to our sins and evil actions? Absolutely. Are we ever without the means of healing and eternal life? No. Never. Who provides the healing for us? Our Father in heaven. Who makes the healing possible? His Son our Lord who came not to condemn us, but to save us.
There is one other significance to this story we need to consider. You and I live in a world beset by sin. Paul tells us that Creation groans under the weight of our sins. Some of those consequences are our own making. A number of you have shared already how your choices have negatively impacted your present life. But some of us have experienced consequences not of our own making or choosing. Those of you abused by parents or spouses did not choose nor deserve to be abused. Those of you stabbed in the back by friends or co-workers did nothing to deserve such actions. Some of you have suffered environmental illnesses that do not tie directly to you behavior. Using a metaphor based on today’s story in Numbers, you and I live in a world beset by snakes. Some of the bites are nuisances, some are rather painful, and some, I am sorry to say, are even deadly.
You and I, though, know that our Lord has been nailed to that Cross two thousand years ago and lifted up. We have been given a sign not that different from Israel. We have looked upon our Lord dead, buried, Resurrected, and Ascended, and we know that we shall have eternal life. That same Father who promised Abraham that He would die if Abraham’s descendants could not keep the faith, that same Father who promised Israel He would deliver them, that same Father who promised He would cause the Land to disgorge them if they failed to keep His covenant, that same Father who sent His Son, not to condemn us, but to save us, has promised. And you and I, by virtue of that promise, by virtue of our belief in Him and His Son, have become like snakes on poles in the camps where we live and work. You and I have been charged with dying to self that we might arise in Him and begin, through His empowering Spirit, to draw the world into His saving embrace. In a way, we are the bronzed snakes who point the way to the One lifted up that the world might be saved. We are the ones who testify to the dark world that the Light has come into the world. We are the ones who proclaim that there truly is healing for our evil deeds. We are the signposts who point the others in our lives to the Christ, the Son of God, that they, like us, might not be condemned, but rather might turn to Him and live eternally!