Freeport March 11, 2018
There’s a story about a monk who took a vow of silence. After the first ten years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another ten years the monk again had the opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “bed hard.”
Yet another ten years went by and again he was called in. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” At which the superior retorted, “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here!”
Six words over thirty years, that’s all the monk said. But they were enough to brand him as a problem. The Israelites voiced three complaints at one stop in their journey. “Why have you brought us out of the land of Egypt to let us die in the wilderness? There is no food, no water!” We detest his miserable food!” Seemingly innocent complaints. Who wouldn’t grumble when a journey that should have taken two to three years max, stretched out to, four, then ten, then an unbelievable 40 years. Today’s lesson is the 14th time the scriptures record the people of Israel’s complaints during their sojourn. Complaining didn’t make the journey easier. Instead it made their trek harder and longer. The closer they drew to the Promised Land the more obstacles there seemed to be in the way. By the time they reached the land of Edom, a territory southeast of the Promised Land, they again were fed up. So, once more they start to grumble. As a result, God punished them by sending poisonous serpents that bite and kill.
When does complaining cross the line, and go from voicing legitimate concerns to be a symptom of a lack of gratitude and faith? Yes, times were hard. Yet despite the hardness of the journey, God was always there, God always provided, year in and year out. God led the people in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. God gave the people of Israel an identity and a compass to live by through the Law. God raised up leadership in Moses, Aaron and Miriam. God faithfully send manna and water. Yet the people were constantly pulled back to a spiritually dark place and they lost the greater perspective – through it all God provides. God loves. God restores.
So, the complaining went deeper than just the bad food. The complaining signaled a spiritual habit present in them from the very beginning soon after they crossed the Red Sea. Remember soon after their liberation they pined away for their fleshpots of Egypt? It never stopped, not matter what God did. No wonder the snakes bit: they were encountering snakes along their way: those snakes of resentment. The snakes of grumbling, the snakes of griping and groaning. The snakes of whining. The snakes of self-pity. The snakes of bitterness. The snakes of doubt. The snakes of fear.
Of all the animals God would send to teach a lesson it would be the serpent. Remember what happened the first time the serpent encounter people? It was in paradise and the cunning serpent tricked Eve into taking fruit from the forbidden tree. God’s judgment on the serpent was that there would be enmity between the snake and humanity. And so most people cringe at snakes—even the ones that are harmless. Those snakes on the wilderness plain are a reminder to the people that they were being tricked into doubt and disobedience all over again.
God sent a message through the serpent on the pole: even in our broken nature God brings forth healing, grace and goodness. It is God’s greatest desire to extend forgiveness and hope. Therefore, God said, just look at the serpent lifted up on the pole and you shall live. Just look up. That’s all you have to do. Nothing elaborate or fancy. Just look up at the serpent on the pole. And the people who obeyed this command were healed.
The experience of healing from the serpent on the pole became such a powerful memory that people actually began to worship it instead of God. According to the scriptures, eight centuries after that the incident of the snakes in the wilderness plain, King Hezekiah of Judah-- in the 7th century BC -- had to remove the bronze snake on the pole from the temple in Jerusalem…because down through the ages people continued to burn incense to it instead of to the living God (2 Kings 18:4).
Fast forward another seven centuries or so after King Hezekiah, Jesus would identify himself with this serpent. Our reading today from John follows Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a leader but was afraid to show his approval of Jesus publicly. He feared he would criticized by his colleagues. Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus but would come to talk with Jesus only in the dark. Although a distinguished teacher – he addresses Jesus three times in John – and each time he struggles to grasp the truth of faith – just like the people of Israel struggled with their faith in the wilderness. Jesus tells Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”( v. 10) Jesus explains as clearly as he can: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Jesus would take on the sin of humanity and be lifted up on the cross, because that is what love does. In turning our eyes toward Jesus, we are born again by the power of the Spirit. We are healed.
We are saved not by anything we do but by the faith in the one who is lifted up. Just like God forgave and healed by commanding the people in the wilderness to look up at the serpent on the pole. Our task is to keep our eyes on Jesus and do what he does. It is the power and will of God to redeem sinful situations and transform the negative to positive. To change the bad into good. God calls us to live in the presence of snakes but not be poisoned by the snakes’ venom. We can do this by staying focused on the cross.
Moses models how to act in the midst of snakes of life. The complaining that bites, the fear that bites, the hardship that bites, the worries that bite, the temptation that bites, the sin that bites. Remember Moses when God first called him? How reluctant he was? Send someone else Lord, he pleaded. Despite all the hardships and setbacks over the years, Moses is the only person in this passage who is not complaining. Moses learned he couldn’t change the people. He couldn’t change God. So, he changed himself through prayer, listening and obedience. The people asked for prayer, so he prayed. “God said, “put a snake up on a bronze pole and anyone who has been bitten will live.” Moses did as God commanded, not knowing if he would be bitten in the process. He didn’t understand what God was doing, just like the renowned teacher of Israel, Nicodemus, didn’t. Moses obeyed, and God stopped the tragedy. God turned the sickness into healing – just as through Jesus’ suffering on the cross God conquered the kingdom of sin.
Which way shall we turn? It reminds me of a story about a woman whose husband had Parkinson’s disease. Struggling with her fears, she boarded a plane to Cleveland. She noticed something peculiar. From her window she could see only a dark and threatening sky – but on the other side of the plane was a beautiful sunset with gorgeous colors.
At that moment the woman sensed the Lord telling her that only she could determine her perspective. You can dwell on the gloomy picture, or you can focus on the bright things in your life and leave the dark ominous situations to me. But no matter which window you look through, the plane is still going to Cleveland. Your final destination isn’t changed by what you see or feel along the way.
Our scriptures in these final weeks of Lent encourage us to focus on Jesus lifted up on the cross and be born again from above. To look away from those snakes that would bite and kill our spirit. To shed of that skin of complaining, negativity sinful habits. Let us choose the grace to pray, the grace to listen, the grace to obey the One lifted high. And God who has the power to change us, heal us, offer us eternal life in Christ- will see us to our journey’s end. Amen