4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 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!”
6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 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.
8 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.” 9 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.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which means that there are only two more Sundays after today before Easter Sunday! Last week we lost an hour of sleep and I thought that it would be difficult to keep you all awake, but yesterday was the beginning of the third round of the NCAA Tournament, which means you might have a hard time keeping me awake! So for some random comic relief I offer the following:
Why did the two boa constrictors get married? Because they had a crush on each other.
How do you find out how much a snake weighs? By looking at his scales.
Okay, we will get to the snakes here shortly, but first we need to know a little bit of background about the snakes. So let’s look at the text leading up to our text for today.
As the Israelites have traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land, we have seen that they are quick to forget the things that God has done for them, quick to complain, and down-right slow to learn. Today’s passage is one of those times when they reminisce about the good old days back in Egypt when they were slaves, living the good life. If only we were still back in Egypt where we had real food. All we have here is this manna stuff and we detest it! Kind of reminds me of those who reminisce about high school. It probably wasn’t as great as we would like to think it was.
I understand that people like a little variety in their diets. I personally would rather not eat the same thing for forty years straight, but the second generation probably didn’t know any other food than the manna and occasional meat. So what did they have to complain about? There are poor people in China starving every day. Maybe they would like your manna.
There are other examples of the people complaining about the provisions of the Lord and often there is some kind of punishment for that. People die, the earth opens up and swallows some people, and God threatens to cut off the people from the promises that he has made. The lesson being that one ought to be thankful for what they have. But today’s passage is unique because this time when the people grumble and complain, God sends snakes. And not just any old garter snake that you might find in your back yard. These are poisonous snakes and they are feisty.
So the people go to Moses and ask him to pray to God to take away the snakes. Moses does just that. And God gives Moses some very precise instructions in verse 8, “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.’”
Moses did as he was told. He put a bronze or some versions say a copper snake on a pole and when someone was bit, they only needed to look at the serpent and they were healed.
This raises a few question and problems in my mind. And I want to take a second and let you know that this is how I grow in faith and dig deeper into scriptures. When I see something that I don’t like or that raises some questions, I dig deeper. Some people might feel like I am challenging their faith and if that is the case, please feel free to talk to me about it. My intention isn’t to tear someone’s faith down by asking some of these hard questions. My intention is to strengthen the faith that you and I already have.
Problem/Question # 1: Last week we looked at the Ten Commandments and one of the first commandments is Do not make any graven images. Don’t make any idols. That seems pretty straight forward to me. But isn’t God instructing Moses to make a graven image of a snake? Furthermore, God instructs Moses to have the people to raise their eyes and look at the snake, which seems to suggest that they are required to put some sort of faith in this graven image in order to be healed.
I bet you would really like it if I had the reason why God would command Moses to break this commandment and make a graven image of a snake. I would really like it if I had the reason why God would command Moses to break this commandment. But I don’t. I have a few theories, some better than others, but none clear this issue up 100% for me.
It would be really easy to just skip ahead and focus on the healing of the people and I do believe that is the point of this passage and we will get there. But I just don’t get this. It opens up too many cans of worms. Some might call it a slippery slope. If God commanded Moses to break this one commandment, what other commandment might God command him/us to break? We could go the route of saying that this wasn’t an idol and the people were not worshipping it. We could say that they were being faithful to God in doing what he commanded. But if we read on in the Old Testament we find that the Israelites were really pushing the boundaries of idol worship with this bronze snake. If we check out 2 Kings 18:3-4 we read this about the new King Hezekiah, “3 He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”
It sounds to me like the Israelites were treating the snake on a pole as an idol. Hezekiah put the snake on a pole at the same level as the Asherah poles and the sacred stones of other religious groups. And God told Moses to make this snake. We will come back to this problem/question in just a few minutes. First, I want to look at the second Problem/Question.
Problem/Question #2: Why doesn’t God just take away the snakes? When the people repented and went to Moses to ask him to pray to God, they prayed that God would take the snakes away, not provide a magical antidote to the snake bite. Makes sense to me, who wants to be bit by a snake?
I like this problem a lot more than the first one, so I will address it first. And again, I don’t have the definitive answer, but just some suggestions. I believe that the fact that God did not take away the snakes but provided an antidote to the snake venom is consistent with the way that we see God dealing with sin, pain, and suffering today.
We probably all know what it is like to pray for God to take something away. Whether that is pain, or sickness, addiction, financial burdens, mental health conditions, or anything else that seems to be causing us physical, spiritual, or mental suffering. And just as God chose not to take away the snakes, God doesn’t always take away the source of our suffering. Sometimes he does, and we need to give thanks and praise for that, but he doesn’t always. Sometimes God chooses instead to give us the means by which to deal with our pain and suffering.
As most of you know, though perhaps some of you question, I consider myself to be a Christian. So you can guess that we are moving toward something with this passage. I believe that the Bible is a grand narrative that reveals to us the healing work of God through Jesus. I believe that Jesus is the great physician who heals us mind, body, and soul. And just as God chose to not take away the snakes in our passage from Numbers, God doesn’t always choose to take away the things that cause us pain here on earth. But I believe that through Christ God has provided the means by which to deal with our pain and suffering.
Which brings me back to the first Problem/Question: Why did God tell Moses to make a snake of bronze and put it on a pole? Why did God choose to have Moses make something just like the very thing that was causing the pain and suffering to lead to their healing? They were hurt by the snake and instructed to look to a snake for healing.
In John chapter three Jesus receives a visitor at night by the name of Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus because he recognized that Jesus had been sent from God. And Jesus goes into a bunch of symbolic language about being born again and born of the Spirit and of water. And Jesus throws in an obscure Old Testament reference in verse 14-15, “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.”
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. It seems like everyone has a different opinion as to why Jesus uses this phrase to refer to himself from time to time, and I have my opinion as well. I believe that when Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, he is trying to emphasize his own humanity.
As Christians we often make the claim that Jesus was both human and divine; God in human flesh. Hebrews chapter 2 talks about the full humanity of Jesus and how he experienced everything that we experience, yet was without sin. Jesus knows what it is like to feel lonely; Jesus knows what it is like to feel broken. Jesus knows what it is like to have your most intimate friends desert you in your greatest time of need. And as he hung on the cross, Jesus showed us that he even knows what it is like to feel like God has deserted you. Jesus has been through whatever you have been through, which is why he is the great physician.
That’s the difference between empathy and sympathy. To sympathize is to feel for someone; to empathize is to feel with them. For instance, any day now my wife will be giving birth to our second child. She also was the one who gave birth to our first child, not me. I have not, nor do I ever plan to push another human being out of my body. I have no idea what that must feel like, though I am told that it hurts.
Now as she lies in that hospital bed, having contractions, I will have sympathy for her. I will feel bad for the pain that she has to experience, but what do I know about giving birth to a child? I have already found out that it is not helpful to bring by experience from birthing calves on the farm up as a point of reference. But a woman who has given birth to another person will have empathy. She will be able to relate to my wife’s pain. (Perhaps Jesus can’t empathize with everything!)
My title for today’s sermon is “Like heals like.” Sometimes it takes something a lot like the thing that causes our problems to heal our problems. God chose for Moses to place a snake on a pole to heal the people from their snake bites. God chose to have the Romans place Jesus, who lived 33 years as a human being, on a pole to heal the people of their sins. God’s method for healing humanity came too by God entering into humanity. Like heals like.
We see this in our medical world today. When someone has an addiction or they experience a great loss, they are usually encouraged to join a support group. Surround yourself with people who are going through or have gone through the same thing as you are.
We worship a God who cared so much about our hurts, pains, and suffering, that he entered into our hurts, pains, and suffering through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it is through his wounds that we are healed.