We continue on with our journey through Lent, a time of reflection as we prepare for the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Today’s story from the Old Testament book of Numbers give us lots to reflect on because it is one of the strangest stories in the Bible.
The context of this story is that it takes place during the wilderness wanderings of the Exodus between the time the people left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and headed toward the Promised Land. As many of you know, that journey took forty years. We have read those stories before and how God provided the people with food and water. In doing so, God taught the people that he would supply all their needs. He would not let them die of hunger or thirst. All they had to do was be faithful.
In Numbers 21, we are actually getting to the end of their forty year journey. There are a few hints about the location of the Israelites at this point in time. We know from the previous story that they have just come from the kingdom of Arad where they had been victorious over that kingdom. This kingdom, we know, was located to the west of the Dead Sea.
Then Numbers 21:4a (NIV) says this: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom.” What this tell us is that they travelled south from Arad toward the Red Sea, skirting along the western boundary of the kingdom of Edom. So they are somewhere south of Mount Hor but north of the Red Sea. When they get to the Red Sea, they will make a 180 degree turn north and begin their final approach to the Promised Land. But we’re not there yet. I just show you this to emphasize that the people are near the end of the Exodus. That’s important. They have spent the better part of forty years getting to know God and learning to trust God. You’d think that they would have learned a few lessons along the way.
But then comes Numbers 21:4b-5 (NIV) which says, “But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!'” And we can almost sense the frustration and despair in God’s Spirit. The people, after all of these years, still do not know how to trust God. They are still impatient. Their minds still go back to the stories of Egypt – decades old – where they had lots to eat and lots to drink with lots of variety and lots of choices. They also had lots of chains and lots of slavery and lots of suffering. But somehow since they had full stomachs they had forgotten all of that. They may be in for a reminder.
Even after forty years, they still did not totally trust God. And the goofy thing is that they are right near the end of the journey. The finish line is almost in sight. All they have to do is put one foot in front of the other and get there. I know that sounds easy but it’s not. I’ve seen it happen so many times that people are just about to complete something but then get discouraged and lose heart. As a competitive runner, I’ve been in a few races. And I understand who difficult the last few kilometers of a race can be because you’ve been pushing hard and if you’ve planned your race well and done what you should be doing, you should be just about at the end of your reserves because ultimately, when you cross the finish line, there should be nothing left.
I remember one time, it was a ten kilometer race on Canada Day a few years ago in Windsor along the riverfront. It was a beautiful day. I was running with a small pack of other people. We were pacing each other. We could actually see the finish line just up ahead, less than a kilometer. We were going to make it and we were keeping a great sub fin minute per kilometer pace. But then I noticed the young woman beside me pull up. I slowed down beside her and said, “What are you doing?”
“I can’t make it,” she said. “I’m done.”
And everything inside of me said, “Noooo!” So I grabbed her by the arm and said, “You are going to finish this race! You can see the finish line. It’s right there. You’re 95% of the way to the finish line. You can do this.”
“No I can’t,” she said.
“Yes you can!” I wasn’t going to give up on this young woman. So I did something that surprised even me. She wasn’t very big so I tightened by grip on her arm and began to run, dragging her along behind me. And then she started to cry but I kept pulling her toward the finish line. And then she started to laugh and when she realized that I wasn’t going to let go, she got her feet under her and began to run with me. We crossed the finish line together. The first thing I want to say is don’t ever try that yourself because it could go south very quickly. But while it wrecked my good finishing time, it made a great story and I never saw her again. I have absolutely no idea who she was.
But it just highlights how common it is, even after going through a forty year marathon like the Exodus to still find it hard to finish. The Promised Land is right there and they fall into the same old habit of not trusting God. Do you know why that is? It’s because no matter where we are in the race of life, when faced with stress, we have a tendency to revert back to old habits. That’s exactly what’s happened here with the people of Israel. We talked about this just last fall when we went through the Exodus story. The people couldn’t find water so what did God do? God gave them water from a rock. The people ran out of food so what did God do? God sent them manna and quails. The people didn’t know what to do so what did God do? God gave them the ten commandments. The people didn’t know where to go so what did God do? God led them. God had been faithfully supplying their every need for forty years and they had learned to trust God. But just before they are about to enter the Promised Land it all comes back again and their hearts go back to Egypt, a place that most of them had never seen because it’s now forty years later. Listen to them: “God, why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” It’s the same stuff their parents and grandparents said forty years earlier.
There’s a message here for us. No matter how long you’ve been Christians, no matter how long you’ve been attending worship, no matter how many times you’re taken part in Bible study, no matter how many times you’ve volunteered at the turkey supper, none of us is bulletproof. There is a moment when any of us can get stressed to the point where we simply revert back to old familiar habits.
Let me give you an example. You all know, because I’ve preached it – and all of you remember all or my sermons – that when things go wrong in life the very first thing you should do is take it to God in pray. Bring God in. Seek his strength and guidance. Allow the Holy Spirit to bring you peace and comfort even in the tough times. Do you know when it’s easiest to do that? When you aren’t going through any problems. When life is good, it is very easy to say that when those problems come along, the very first thing you do is turn to God in prayer. That is so easy to say.
Do you know when it’s hardest to do that? It’s hardest when you actually need to do it. When life is peachy you can tell yourself a dozen times a day that when things get tough, the very first thing you’ll do is turn to God. But when things actually get tough, where do you turn? Your mother, your sister, your friend, your spouse, your therapist. Anyone but God.
Have you ever wondered why you do that? It’s because that’s what you used to do before anyone taught you that the very first place you should turn is to God. And so in times of stress, there’s a real temptation to turn back to old habits and old patterns – just like the people of Israel did when they thought they were running out of food and water.
So what did God do? The next verse, Numbers 21:6 (NIV) tells us: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” This is one of those verses that we read and aren’t quite sure what to make of it. The people are stressed and they revert back to old habits, complaining that they don’t have enough food and water and that they want to go back to Egypt. So what does God do? God sends poisonous snakes to bite them so that many of the people die. There are a few stories in the Bible that are troubling. This is one of them. In many ways, it would be so much easier to just ignore it but here it is so what do we do with it?
Let me give you my take on what this is all about. The people have fallen back into complaint mode and are saying that they want to go back to Egypt where there was lots of food and water. But do you know what else was back in Egypt? Snakes, lots of snakes. In fact, snakes were one of the most common symbols of power in ancient Egypt. You’ve all seen pictures of the headdress that the Pharaohs wore on their heads. In the very front of the headdress was a snake. It was actually a cobra which is a very venomous snake whose bite can kill people.
Perhaps what God is doing is reminding the people that there was more to Egypt than food and water. It was also a place of cruelty, oppression and death, a place from which the people begged God to rescue them forty years earlier. So rather than letting them go all the way back to Egypt to see how snake bitten they would be there, God decides to bring Egypt to them. It is almost as if he is saying, “You want to go back to Egypt. Here is Egypt. You may be missing the food and the water but you seem to have forgotten about the oppression and the slavery and the suffering. Here’s a reminder.”
I know that this seems cruel. If this was the first story in the Bible that I read about God, then I’d wonder why I would want to ever follow a God like that, who would send in poisonous snakes to bite his people. The good news for us is that this is not the only story. We also have lots of stories where God demonstrates his abundant love for his people and that God’s greatest priority is to bring us back to him again. So behind this apparent cruelty is a greater purpose. God’s purpose is to shake the people out of their pitty pot and bring them back to him again.
That is exactly what happens. Listen to how the people respond to this snake epidemic. Numbers 21:7 (NIV) says: “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”
It didn’t take the people long to realize that the snakes were God’s response to their unfaithful whining and complaining. They wanted to go back to Egypt. They wanted food and they wanted water just like in the good old days when they lived there before the Exodus. But now they remember – oh yeah, almost forgot about the snakes in Egypt. Maybe Egypt wasn’t so great after all. This is a huge wakeup call for the people of Israel and it is a reminder not only that Egypt is like a land of poisonous snakes that can suck the life out of you but also that God wants them back and will do anything to achieve that goal including putting snakes among them if that’s what it takes.
The important thing here is that the people are finally able to recognize their sin and repent of it. Listen again to what they say to Moses: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.” So not only did the people sin against God, they also sinned against Moses. And now they have to make that right.
So they go to Moses who has been their intermediary with God for the past forty years and ask Moses to intercede for them one more time. They have done wrong and they own up to it.
It would have been so easy to blame God for their problems. After all, God sent the snakes, the snakes bit the people and the people died. Therefore, God is responsible for the deaths of the people.
And while there is some truth to that for God did indeed send the snakes, the people were also able to come to the realization that the snakes were God’s response to their sinful actions. It was because of their actions that God sent the snakes. Therefore, the snakes were their responsibility. If anyone had died of a snake bite, ultimately the blood was on their hands.
Here’s a lesson for us to remember and it’s one of the hardest lessons in life. Often in life, when things don’t go our way and we experience suffering and grief, it is because of decisions we have made and things we have done. Yes I know that sometimes bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Next time you’re tempted to blame God for all the garbage that has happened in your life, pause and think about how your misfortune is the result of decisions you have made and actions that you have taken. There are times when you’ve done nothing to deserve what you’re going through but usually – say nine times out of ten – if you’re really honest, you will discover that at least part of the blame falls at your own feet.
And if that is true, then do what the people of Israel did. Take that to God too. Admit your sin, repent, ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation. And here’s the nice part. You don’t have to go through someone like Moses. You can go directly to God through Jesus who has opened that path for you.
Know that, when you do that, that God can turn things around and make all things new. Expect God to do that with you. If God can transform the world, if God can promise and new heaven and a new earth, surely he can remake you too. For as it says in Romans 8:28 (NIV): “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” That is God’s promise to us his children. Don’t hesitate to claim that promise as your own.
Finally, we get to the result of all of this. In Numbers 21:8-9 (NIV) we read, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
God orders Moses to make a bronze snake – the very animal that was killing the people with its poisonous bites – and place it on a pole in the middle of the camp for everyone to see. Moses does that and when anyone who was bit by a snake looks at the bronze snake on a pole that person is healed. God takes that which caused death and transforms it into a means of healing and wholeness. But that is what God does time and time and time again.
“So you want to go back to Egypt where you will be snake bitten and die in your sin? Go ahead and do that if you want but if you return to me and walk in my way, I will give you life. I will save you from the pestilence that surrounds you and heal you of all that may harm you.”
In placing the bronze snake on the pole, God once again calls the people back to faithfulness. Once again, God provides healing. Once again God makes reconciliation possible.
That symbol of reconciliation persists today in two ways. First, the snake on a pole is a very common symbol in the medical world. The Canadian Medical Association, the American Medical Association, EMS, The Canadian Dental Association, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Royal Canadian Medical Service among others all use the snake on the pole as part of their symbol.
The second reason that this symbol
persists is because of John 3:14-15 (NIV) which says, “Just as Moses lifted up
the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone
who believes may have eternal life in him.” As the snake was lifted up to bring
healing to the nations, so was Jesus lifted up to pay the price of our sins so
that all who look to him and put their faith in him will have eternal life.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of the Ages, speak to our hearts. Remind us, once again, of your infinite love. Cleanse our souls and calm our fears. Give us the assurance of your presence and the strength of your Spirit living within us. O God, the Rock of the Ages, speak to our hearts.
Lord of Love, help us to keep the priorities of my life in proper order, always putting you and your way of doing things first above all else. It would be most foolish to give away that which is of infinite value for that which is of no lasting value. We want to live, with you, forever, and there is nothing in the universe that could ever be of equal value to that. Thank you for the gift of eternal life with you.
We remember the struggle of people the world over. We pray that their concerns and issues may be addressed and that solutions can be found for problems that, in many cases, have continued for centuries. We give thanks for the progress that has been made in our world. Give your Church, O God, the courage to continue to struggle against attitudes of violence and injustice. In doing so, may we work toward the society that you have called us build on the foundation of your love.
We lift up in our prayers the situations in war torn parts of the world. We mourn the violence, the destruction and the bloodshed. Forgive us, O God, that we have not been able to get beyond such futile ways to solve differences. May your peace spring forth for the good of all humanity. May justice be done in your name, O God.
We pray for those who mourn. Thank you, Jesus, that you died for their sins and rose again for their eternal life. May we, who mourn in this season or Lent, never fail to look toward the promise of empty tomb of Easter morning.
Finally, we lift up in prayer the
sick of our congregation and community. We pray, this morning, for those who
have been in hospital or are recovering at home. Grant to them and to all of
us, O God, your healing touch. Grant us your peace and strength in Jesus’ name.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
March 11, 2018 / Lent 4
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Give thanks to God who loves forever.
ALL: Give praise to the Lord who rules Creation.
ONE: Sing to God who redeems and saves us.
ALL: Honour the One who calls us home.
ONE: Come, let us worship our God in a celebration of faith.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Your love, O God, endures forever. Your faithfulness to all generations. We are grateful for your assurance which tells us that you will complete what you have begun in our lives. We come as your children, like the seeds of spring waiting to be watered and nourished by your Spirit. We come seeking the nurture and growth that only you can provide. Enable us to learn more about your ways and to walk more confidently in the strength of your love for each of us. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Loving God, our Saviour and Friend, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the circumstances of life. Sometimes, we do not know where to turn. Sometimes, we forget to turn to you. Forgive us. Give us the courage to hold on to faith, refusing to let it go. We seek a fresh experience of your love, a love which is greater than we can comprehend. It is an unconditional love that has been offered to us by your grace. Enable us to set our hearts on your path and to turn from our sinful ways. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The choices that we make are ours alone. The consequences of our actions will be revealed in the light of God. Thanks be to God that, when we make wrong and destructive choices, God is there to mend and heal the damage and to lead us back along the path of righteousness.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We bring our best to you this day, O God, represented by our tithes and offerings. We bring, also, our hearts that you may use our lives for your holy purpose. All that we are, all that we do, all that we ever have we offer to you. Amen.
The time to leave is upon us. It is time to return to
our lives and to take our faith with us. May Jesus shine in your work and your
way. May the Holy Spirit thrive in your prayers and meditations. May God be
with you ‘til we meet again.