I was glad to serve as guest preacher and worship leader today at Advent Lutheran Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
My recent interest in biblical storytelling drew me to focus on today’s Old Testament lection, Numbers 21.4-9. As I said in my sermon, it’s a strange story, but it’s not for nothing God’s people have been telling it generation to generation.
You can watch the service below. My telling of the story from Numbers starts at about the 20-minute mark, and my sermon begins at about the 27-minte mark.
(There’s also a children’s message starting at about 11-1/2 minutes where I get to indulge my superhero fandom for the sake of the Gospel!)
As I prepared the sermon, I ruefully remembered attending a Lutheran church in Williamsburg, Virginia on this same occasion in 1991—the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B—as part of a “worship service review” project a friend and I undertook for Professor David L. Holmes’ “Introduction to Christianity” course at The College of William & Mary. In our paper, we took care to note, for whatever reason, that the preacher for the day had chosen to avoid the “judgmental” aspects of the Gospel lection from John 3 in his sermon. I suppose we both thought we would never do such a thing!
So the irony is not lost on me that, exactly 30 years later, given my chance to preach a sermon on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, I chose to base it on another pericope entirely! I ask that Lutheran preacher’s forgiveness.
Still, Numbers 21 is not without its own troubling, judgmental aspects as well.
If you would rather read my sermon manuscript, I’ve included it below.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Only about 200 of the world’s 3,000-plus species of snake are actually dangerous to humans, according to National Geographic.
But most people still don’t like any of them.
Several major polls in the last 20 years confirm we hate snakes. Anywhere from 51% to 64% of American adults admit to being scared by snakes, at least a little. The American Diabetes Association found more Americans fear getting bitten by a snake than they fear getting a disease.
Some biologists and psychologists think our lack of love for snakes is hardwired into our brains, a leftover from our evolutionary past. Mammals who managed to avoid getting bitten—or eaten—by reptiles had, not surprisingly, more offspring than those who didn’t. So a healthy fear of snakes gave your genes an edge.
It’s clear why the Israelites in today’s story from Numbers hate snakes.
The snakes slithering their way among them don’t belong to any of those 2,800 “safe” species. The original Hebrew calls them “fiery serpents.” Their bites burn as the sharp fangs break the people’s skin. Their venom feels as searing as flame as it courses through their victims’ veins.
And what makes their suffering even worse is their firm belief they brought it on themselves.
They had spoken against Moses—as they had several times, frankly, during their by this point forty-year trek to the Promised Land. But this time, for the first time, they’d also spoken against God.
They spoke resentfully of their rescue from Egypt, where they’d been enslaved. They even badmouthed God’s gift of manna, the daily bread that miraculously came from heaven to sustain them.
Now, our narrator doesn’t say God sent the snakes as a judgment . . . but our narrator does say God sent the snakes, and given the situation, it’s not hard to see why the people believed God was punishing them. In their exhaustion and exasperation, they’d crossed a line.
They come to Moses, confessing their guilt and desperate for relief. They know God speaks with Moses in the sacred tent face to face—”the way one speaks with a friend” (Ex. 33.11). Moses has prayed for them often on their journey. At times, his prayers have even persuaded God to spare them from total destruction. “Intercede with God for us,” they ask him, “to take the serpents away!”
We’re left to wonder how they responded when Moses told them God’s answer.
It turns out, Moses is not some Bible-times Saint Paddy, driving all the serpents away! Instead, he comes back to the people with a snake on a stick, a snake hammered out of bronze, and tells them what God told him: “Everyone who’s bitten will look at this and live.”
It can’t be the answer the people were expecting.
It’s certainly not what the people want. While Moses has been off making his fake snake, the real ones have still been doing plenty of damage . . . and now, the people hear God’s not planning to call them off?
And it’s not a solution many if any of them are likely to find easy or pleasant. Sure, in one sense, it couldn’t be simpler. But at a deeper level, if they want to survive their snakebite, they’ll have to look at a reminder of the ugly, scary creature causing them so much misery . . . a reminder of sin and its consequences.
But—they will survive. They will live. God has promised it.
It’s such a weird story. It may contain memories of the snake worship and magical, voodoo doll-type thinking so common in ancient cultures. And it’s one of those stories that can make people think “smiting” is the part of the job God loves best.
But it’s a story God’s people remembered, and told, generation to generation.
And it’s a story we need to hear today.
Because we’re all snakebitten.
Even if the only snakes you’ve ever seen up close were safely behind glass in the reptile house at the zoo, you have been snakebit.
It’s an inescapable part of being human, feeling pain—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual pain.
Our pain and suffering aren’t all the same. By objective and reasonable measures, some pain and suffering is worse, much worse, than others.
But pain isn’t a competition. We can tell other people, and should when it’s so, “Yes, your pain is greater than my pain. Your suffering is greater than my suffering. But my pain is my pain. My suffering is my suffering.” One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, calls pain a fraternity, a sorority, we all belong to.
And when we feel our pain—when fiery serpents sink their fangs into us, in the many different ways they do—it can feel as searing and as agonizing as flame, and we just want it to stop. We just want it taken away.
When we’re in pain, when those serpents’ venom is coursing its way through our veins, we can respond in different ways.
We can deny our pain. We can pretend those puncture wounds aren’t in our skin or in our souls. We can be stoic and soldier on.
We can give in to the pain. We can refuse to put up any resistance to the paralyzing venom—simply let it flow through us, having its corrosive way with us, until we’re either hiding under our own rocks all the time . . . or striking out at other people, “fiery serpents” ourselves, as eager to deal out pain as we have been dealt it.
Both these reactions are natural. Neither is ultimately desirable, and one thing we must do when we’re in pain is tell someone. If you are in that kind of searing and agonizing pain right now, please tell someone you trust. Call for help, because help is out there, and you do not have to be alone with your pain.
And for those of us who believe, there’s still something else we can do.
Like the Israelites, we can look at our pain in the light of God’s promise.
We may think, as they did, our pain is our own fault. Sometimes, that’s so. Sometimes we leave ourselves open to snakebites because we haven’t been careful, or we’ve made bad choices, or we’ve done what we know we ought not to have done, and haven’t done what we know we should. That’s what the Bible calls “having sinned,” and we’re all in that fraternity, that sorority, as well.
But the Bible also tells us not all pain and suffering are direct, or even indirect, punishment from God. Some snakes find ways to bite no matter how careful we are, no matter how much we’re doing right. Some serpents take advantage of the innocent. Some strike through brute force. Some snakebites just happen, because the world God created and called good and continues to love contains snakes. But it’s now a broken world, a poisoned world, with venom in it none of us are able to draw out. That’s what the Bible calls the power of sin, and it’s bigger than our individual misdeeds.
But when we we are suffering, for whatever reason or for no apparent reason, from the bite of some fiery serpent or other . . . we can remember that serpent of bronze Moses lifted up in the wilderness.
We can look at our pain—as ugly and scary as it might seem, as uneasy or unpleasant as looking at it may be—trusting God has promised that doing so is part of the way God gives us life.
I so appreciate what one scholar I read this week, Elizabeth Webb, wrote: “God does not remove the snakes, but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger… God doesn’t remove the sources of our suffering, but God makes the journey with us, providing what we most deeply need, if we but look in the right direction.”
How do we live as snakebitten people in a snakebitten world? By lifting up our eyes as God commanded.
Maybe that’s why God told Moses to put the snake on a pole. If the people could lift their eyes that much, they might lift their gaze even further, to the source of their life, and wholeness, and salvation.
And maybe that’s why Jesus—lifelong devout Jew, who knew this story of the people of God—used it to talk about what those who believed in him would see when he was lifted up.
He was lifted up on a Roman cross because all have sinned in a world poisoned with the power of sin. “For our sake,” wrote the apostle Paul, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin, so in him we might become God’s righteousness” (2 Cor. 5.21).
When we look at Jesus, lifted up on his cross, suffering in ugly and scary ways, we see the ultimate reminder of sin and its consequences.
But the longer we look, we see him lifted up even further—exalted to heaven from where he came, and where he promised to go ahead of us.
We see him lifted up that we might live—fully, freely, and eternally, “raised up in union with him and enthroned with him in the heavenly realms… It is by grace we are saved, through faith. And this is not our own doing. It is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:6, 8).
When you’re in pain, look at him—and live . . . both in the thick of your pain, and beyond it.
Let all God’s people say Amen.