March 15, 2015/Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”
So said Indiana Jones in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. For those who may not be familiar with this movie, Indiana Jones is an archeologist and an unexpected hero. He finds lost treasures and rare antiquities. He also gets into what can only be described as swashbuckling adventures, fighting off the bad guys who would use an archaeological treasure for nefarious purposes. In Raiders, the “bad guys” are the Nazi’s. The great irony of the story is that Hitler – who wanted to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth – wants to find one of the most sacred relics of Judaism, the lost Ark of the Covenant. The premise of the story is that Hitler would be able to use the Ark’s supposed powers to win the war and rule the world. Indiana Jones has to find it before Hitler’s minions do.
Indy and his friend and helper, Sallah, find the location of the ark. It is buried underground in some sort of ancient cavern. Sallah asks Jones, “Indy, why does the floor move?” Indiana throws a torch down and there they are: snakes, hundreds and hundreds of snakes. “Snakes. Why’d there have to be snakes?”
Indiana Jones hates snakes. Seeing this movie for the first time, I felt vindicated that a courageous hero like Indiana Jones has the same phobia I do. I hate snakes. That is why it is exceptionally strange that I chose this exceptionally strange passage of scripture to preach this morning.
Numbers is kind of a strange book altogether. It is in Numbers that we read the story of the talking donkey. Yes, there is a talking donkey in scripture. In the verses immediately preceding this one, the Israelites were helped by God in overcoming the Cannaanites. But in the next breath, the people forgot this. The opening verse in our story tells us that the Israelites leave Mount Hor for the Red Sea, “to go around the land of Edom.” They were still following Moses. They were still being fed by manna and quail. But they were getting fed up with what they were being fed. They whined and complained against God and against Moses.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.”
If you think about it, this is a pretty funny line. We don’t have any water. We don’t have any food. And, by the way, the food stinks! The people had complained against Moses before, but if I’m correct, this is the first time they’ve really complained against God. What is God’s response? Snakes. Why’d there have to be snakes? What the NRSV translates as “poisonous” can also be translated as “fiery.” I don’t know which sounds worse. Regardless of the translation, the snakes slither through the people and bite them. People are dying left and right, and those who are left quickly realize the error of their ways. They go to Moses, proclaiming that they have sinned against God and against him. Please Moses, take away the snakes. Moses prayed for them, and in response to his prayer, God gave him the cure. Make a bronze image of a serpent and put it on a pole. If someone is bitten, all they have to do is look at the serpent and they will live.
I guess the first question to ask is why didn’t God just make the snakes go away? Another question to ask is why are we reading this story in the first place? The reasons we read this odd little story from Numbers is because Jesus spoke of it in our passage from John’s gospel. Just as the serpent on the pole was lifted up and the people lived, so shall Jesus be lifted up on the cross so the people may live. Then Jesus spoke perhaps the most well-known words in all of scripture. “For God so loved the world…”
However, beyond the serpent on the pole and Jesus on the cross, it is hard to reconcile the God who acted in Numbers and the God who sent Jesus. I understand why so many people see the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as being two different Gods. Technically this is heresy, but it is still understandable. The God we read about in Numbers seems vengeful and punitive. Although the correlation between the people’s complaining and God sending the snakes is not stated specifically, it is implied. The people certainly think that God sent them as punishment for their sinful words. But is this an act of a loving God? People did not stop sinning once they left the wilderness. Jesus was born into that world of sin, and died to save us from the death that sin brings and from ourselves. Jesus was God incarnate, and was there because of God’s overwhelming love for the world. So why the snakes? Why’d there have to be snakes?
What did snakes represent in the ancient world? They were a personification of evil. Think about the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One commentator wrote that the people have been thinking poisonous thoughts and speaking poisonous words. They could not seem to remember how God was with them, even in the immediate past. The longer they wandered in the wilderness, the more poisonous those thoughts became. Although I tend to stay away from analogy when it comes to scripture, perhaps the snakes are as much a metaphor for the people’s own venom in thought and word, as they were literal serpents.
The Israelites had been wandering for a long, long time. Older generations were dying, and new ones were being born. For every moment that the Israelites recognized God’s saving presence, there were many more moments when they didn’t. From their perspective, one that was colored by wilderness wandering and a minimum of food and drink, Egypt looked pretty good. Just as they forgot God’s presence, they also seemed to forget exactly what their lives in Egypt really were. They were not halcyon days of bliss; they were days of slavery and backbreaking work. God saved them from that life. God called them to new life and made a covenant, a promise, with them to be their God and asked them to be God’s people. But in this story they can’t see that. They don’t remember that. They don’t fully trust that God is with them or that Moses knows what he is doing; until the snakes.
How often am I like the Israelites at the beginning of this story? I’d say I’m like them most of the time. While trusting God and trusting in God’s presence and care should be the easiest thing I do, it is really the hardest. It is hard because I can’t see where God is leading me. I can’t envision life beyond plain old manna. I’m tired of this constant wandering, and I complain bitterly about what I think God is and is not doing in my life. My thoughts and words and lack of trust become snakes of my own design.
Yet, just as God provided the means for healing to the Israelites in the wilderness, God also provides healing for me. If only I would look. That healing comes in the generosity and compassion of other people, in windows that open when doors close, and in a variety of other ways and through other people. But before we get too complacent in this moment of sweetness and light I’m offering, I think we need to hear a little more about that serpent on a pole.
In II Kings, when a new king comes into power and begins to clean up the mess left by other kings, that bronze serpent on a pole is still in existence. And the king orders that it be smashed, along with any other idols that may have been used. The people were healed by the snake on a stick, but they forgot that it was only a figure on a stick, not God on a stick. Isn’t that really what idols are? Isn’t that what idolatry boils down to? It is worshipping God on a stick. God was not on that pole, any more than God is residing solely on the crosses in our sanctuary or even in our sanctuary at all. God is a living God. That is the God we worship, and it seems to me that a living God cannot be found in one place or in one symbol. The living God cannot be forced into a box of our own making or placed on a stick that is easy for us to look at. God is a living God. As one scholar commented, “God is on the loose.”
Author Anne Lamott wrote that she knows that she has created God in her own image when God starts hating everyone that she does. If you put that on a much larger scale, it’s easy to understand the wars that are fought in God’s name.
We want so much to understand God, to have a handle on God, to be comfortable with God. But God is not on a stick. God is a living God, and that is good news. A living God continues to create and call and lead. A living God is not bound by our conventions or our complacency. God is not static or fixed, but alive. This living God gives us new life. This living God opens our minds to new ways of thinking. This living God opens our eyes to new ways of seeing. This living God opens our hearts to wide and wonderful loving. God is not trapped on stick, but alive and on the loose in our world. God is on the loose because God so loved the world, and because God so loves us. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”