Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14 – 21 Lent 4 March 11, 2018
There is in the Exodus story a tradition that is only too painfully aware that the people of God, who dwelt for generations as slaves in Egypt and who were freed by the mighty power of a compassionate God quickly took to complaining. Because of the number of times the freed slaves wandering around in the wilderness are said to grumble and murmur it has come to be known as the murmuring tradition. A phenomenon not unknown in many churches today.
The journey from slavery to freedom and on into the Promised Land was not a long in kilometres travelled but it was a journey of several generations in learning the way the freed people of God may form community and live in relationship with each other and the deliverer. Today’s passage is part of Israel’s “on the way” story. But isn’t that life? Isn’t life one long “on the way story”? I mean when have you ever arrived in the Promised Land? And when can you lay down all your struggles, growing, achievements, disappointments, hurts, joys? The only question is how are you going to live with it all while you are journeying? With what attitude and what relationship with God, others and yourself.
Israel is now to think of themselves as “People of the Covenant” as we have been reminding ourselves over Lent this year. The 10 commandments have a crucial role in this we saw last week. These are now People of the Law, not viewed as a heavy burdensome imposition but the gracious revelation of the values, beliefs, practices of once slaves, who had no say in how they lived and who now are free. Remember I said last week the most helpful lens you can read the 10 Commandments through is, in the phrase of Walter Bruggemann, “Instruction on how not to fall back into slavery”.
But freedom brings its own issues. Freedom requires mature responsibility; it means living with the consequences of your actions. Freedom and maturity mean putting an end to the blame game, no longer saying, “It’s not my fault, don’t blame me, he made me do it, she makes me feel……, if only, when …… happens all my problems will be over.
Living under slavery the battle lines are clearly drawn and the war is against the external forces that oppress you. That make it impossible to grow to maturity in bondage. In freedom there needs to be a shift in mentality. There will still be battles fought, resistance is still required. But for maturity to arrive there needs to be a fundamental shift of perspective and the enemy will also be identified as internal. Freedom has its own challenges and temptations.
So clearly when we read this story of the ancient Israelites we are reading our own spiritual biography. In freedom Israel still wanted to keep the slave mentality of blaming everyone and everything else. And in the trek through the wilderness this really weird thing has started to happen. History is being rewritten. Life back under bondage is beginning to look OK. I mean gees, we couldn’t make any decisions for ourselves, but who ever remembers going to bed hungry? We may not have been able to practice our own cultural life, but gees, we never remember wandering around lost in the wilderness. And what do we eat now? Manna! Manna on Monday, Manna on Tuesday, Manna on Wednesday, mana, manna, manna. The people are saying, “Yes, Eternal God, it is indeed a privilege and an honour to be the chosen people, but why can’t you choose some other people for a change?”
I lived in Fiji for a year as a student minister and I took a couple of weeks holiday to go to Western Samoa and I vividly recall on the flight that I had the misfortune as I came to see it soon, of sitting next to an American guy (not that his nationality had much to do with this point) who was also going to a new life (like Israel). His journey was cutting all his ties, burning his bridges and going to start live anew in Western Samoa. And my strongest memory of him was that he was full of recriminations against everyone and everything for the way his life had gone belly up. It was ex partners, it was government, and it was the whole rotten world that had conspired against him. I got off the plane with a headache but an overwhelming sense that he had learnt nothing and he was not going to escape his demons because they did not dwell outside himself. His life was one long self guided tour of misery! And misery enjoys company, but I did not want to enter that dismal land and if I had to have another plane flight with him I would have been summoning up the snakes.
In this murmuring tradition God’s patience is tested almost beyond endurance by these stiff necked, whinging, faithless covenant people. This grumbling tradition represents what each of us experience on a daily basis – we turn away from, and scorn, and dump upon, the special covenant relationship we are now in with the Creator.
And then things take a really weird turn. God in final exasperation brings into the camp of the Israelites the poisonous snakes (or is it fiery- word can be translated either way). Well that is one way to shut up the incessant complaints about the food! and when the people are stricken and Moses intercedes, this same God turns to provide the means of healing.
The symbol of the serpent in the cultures which surrounded the Israelites as they moved through the desert and gradually settled into the land was significant in different ways. A serpent could be a symbol of evil power and chaos in some cultures while in others it was a symbol of life, fertility and healing. This was because of the phenomenon of being able to shed its skin and apparently take on new life. In Num 21:4-9 it encompasses both these extremes – a means of death and a way of healing.
The power of the snake punishes and saves.
Moses beat the metal into a snake and wrapped it around a pole and raised it heavenwards and ran among the people saying, do not look down fearfully at those snakes that threaten you, raise your eyes to the heavens and to this serpent on a pole and in that looking upon it you will be saved. The rabbis have said it was not that the bronze serpent that had any power to save in itself, but it was the act of raising the eyes to heaven that saves. Oh they were still bitten it seems, but in that act of raising their eyes as response to the bite, and not looking at the snake they were saved and healed. Great psychology and great wisdom that says to turn and confront and stare down that which threatens you is an empowering and liberating act. I am sure counsellors and parents and teachers and youth group leaders have all called upon this wisdom in their counsel of those in their charge.
But the bible contains more than great psychology and in John’s gospel we get a theological analysis.
This is a strange, even bizarre story we read today and one I am sure would have dwelt in the mists of Old Testament obscurity were it not for a single verse in John’s gospel that we read today. A verse that sees the healing power of Jesus death resurrection, his being “lifted up” as a later type of Moses lifting the serpent up on the pole.
In this passage from John you could take your pick if Jesus is the speaker, or if this is commentary on Jesus words. Either way the bronze (or fiery)serpent points to Jesus death on the cross, his being lifted up, a reference to both death on the cross but also the exaltation of resurrection when Jesus was raised to glory is being presented a type, of what had happened earlier in the wilderness.