by Elaine Maust
Numbers 21: 4-9
March 26, 2006
Are you afraid of anything? Silly question. Of course we are all afraid of something, right?
When I was a kid, I was afraid of spiders. Now, I can kill them fearlessly, but I can still get the creeps when I remember how afraid I used to be. You see, I grew up on a dairy farm. One day I stuck my finger down into a suction cup and there was a spider inside it. Yehewee!
The free stall barn where the cows slept at night was a virtual laboratory for spiders. For reasons I won’t go into, this type of environment attracts and, well, multiplies flies. A regular Barnhill‘s buffet for spiders. In our barn, they laced their sticky nets from every rafter. The dust got to the webs before the flies did; making the whole barn look like it was hung with Christmas garland gone bad. Let’s just say, spiders were everywhere. Every evening after school and unless I was in packing lunches and making breakfast, every morning, I was out there in this dreadful spider world. Yuk.
The Israelites, in our Lectionary text today, Numbers 21, had plenty to be afraid of! But first, turn with me to Numbers 14 for the setting for this drama. Things weren’t going very well. In Numbers 13 the spies had gone in to take a look at the Promised Land. Oh, it was fine! And it was to be theirs. But the Israelites were afraid. They were so afraid that in Numbers 14 they are ready to mutiny and go back to Egypt! What? (Num. 14:2b-4). Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Caleb begged the people not to lose faith. (Num. 14:8-9)
The people talked about stoning them. Things weren’t looking good.
Then God showed up and said to Moses, (Num. 14:11) God had had it and said, “I think I’ll just start over.” (v 12)
What happens next is a tender and amazing moment. Moses reminds God of something… (Num. 14:18) and appeals to God’s reputation (15-16). Moses begged God to forgive the people and they are spared. Whew! That was close.
Well, lots of other things happen… Worship instructions are given, in chapter 16 some community leaders try a rebellion. And then there’s chapter 20, where the people are fussing again. And lest I sound too hard on these folks, I’ve complained about conditions much more comfortable than theirs.
There is no water (20:2). And the people say to Moses… (20:3-5). Moses is so frustrated with the people that he says in v. 10… Then he whacks the rock instead of speaking to it as God had asked. You’ve just got to feel sorry for the whole bunch.
Things continued to be difficult… Edom wouldn’t let them march through their country, even though Moses promised the Israelites would not use any of their resources, not even water for their cattle. Edom said no. Aaron, Moses’ brother and ministry partner, died. (chapter 20)
And now we come to our text for today. Numbers 21:4-9. This huge tribe of people on this ill-fated camping trip was hiking around Edom when the people started getting impatient again.
I wonder if Moses was lying in his tent, hearing the fussing outside. Poor Moses. He knew it was coming again. They were impatient (v4). The Hebrew word used here means “thoroughly discouraged,” literally “short souled.” Maybe a little like when we say we have a short temper. (21:5) I suppose having manna pancakes for breakfast every morning gets a little tiresome even if they are free.
Part of the story seems to be missing. We don’t know if Moses appealed on behalf of the people this time or not. Or, if God had anything to say… But in verse 6 it says, (…) In the King James Version, it says they were “fiery serpents.” That description refers more to what happened when the people got bit, than what the snakes looked like. And bless their hearts. Many died.
Can you even imagine how afraid they must have been? Snakes everywhere. My uncle Rog loved to go hunting in the woods in Lowndes County, MS where we lived when I was about five. He was a teenager who was always bringing cool things back from the woods, like the tiny flying squirrel that lived in his bedroom. Well, one day, he brought back a snake. It was gigantic! At least that’s how it looked to me. After he showed it to all the family and everyone exclaimed at the size, he threw it out by the shed in the back of the yard. Well, we kids got to chasing each other around the yard and I forgot about the monster snake over by the shed. I made a big loop to escape whoever was chasing me… and you guessed it, I stepped on that snake. I can still feel the contact of its body against the bottom of my flip-flop.
Now imagine how afraid God’s people must have been. Snakes everywhere. Terrible pain. People dying.
And the people came to Moses. We might expect them to complain. They’ve really got something to complain about this time, don’t they! And what is it that they say to Moses? Moses, you are scaring us to death? Not this time. For the first time in the stories that we’ve just talked about, the people came to Moses with a change of heart. They said, “We sinned.” (v7) They asked Moses to ask God to take the snakes away.
So Moses prayed for the people. What do you suppose Moses prayed this time?
But wait, God is talking to Moses again, (v 8) God didn’t answer their prayers exactly. At least God didn’t take the snakes away. But God saved them nonetheless. That happens for us sometimes too, doesn’t it? God answering our prayers, but not exactly as we had intended.
So Moses followed God’s instructions and crafted a bronze snake and put it on a pole. (9b). I can see Moses hoisting this snake high up in the tent village. Maybe it was still hot. I can hear Moses coaxing the people, “Hey, look up this way. Quick, look here. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. God will forgive you. Look up here. God will heal you.”
I wonder why God chose this way to save the people? There were lots of other methods God could have used for snake venom antidote. Wonder why God told Moses to make that brass snake on a pole?
And here’s another question. How did they find it in themselves to look at it? Wouldn’t they have thought that looking at a snake at this moment in their lives was too terrifying? Or too simple? Or too much to ask?
Earlier I asked, “What are you afraid of?” Lots of people are afraid of public speaking. Once during a public speaking workshop I heard that it was the number one fear of Americans. I don’t know about that. But I, along with many other folks, are sometimes afraid to speak in public. I say sometimes, because I am rarely terrified to stand here before you all. But when I was taking a seminary class during sabbatical I had to give a presentation to the class. I was so afraid that I couldn’t speak. Really. I had to stop, breathe and start over.
As I thought about that experience this week, I came to this conclusion. I think that one of the reasons I’m not afraid to preach for you is because I know you love me. We trust each other. But back to the story…
Now even though God’s people kept failing the love and trust tests they were given, they passed this one. (v9) Despite all the bad things they had said about God and Moses, somehow they still believed that those two loved them. They had sinned. They were in pain. They needed help. At that moment, they gave God the benefit of the doubt, looked at that snake and were healed.
Let’s turn to John 3, the passage Duane just read for us. Jesus is talking. Let’s start at verse 14. Now we know the story of Moses lifting up the snake in the desert. But what’s Jesus mean by the “Son of Man must be lifted up”?
Throughout his life, Jesus kept turning his face toward the cross. Especially in the days right before his death, a time we commemorate during the 40 days of Lent, Jesus said things like, (Jh 12:27-28). v 33 says “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” Jesus facing his own fears. Moving toward the cross, because of love. For us. (John 3:16,17).
Like the Israelites we complain, fuming at a God who has given us everything that we need. Even in the face of God’s goodness, sometimes we refuse to move ahead when God leads. Even though God has made it plenty clear how we should live (as in the 10 commandments Duane preached about last Sunday) sometimes we ignore those instructions. We sin.
And we are afraid. Like the Israelites, we have seen what happens when we take life into our own hands, and we are afraid. We know the truth about ourselves, but we are afraid to own up to it. We don’t want anyone to know. Not even ourselves. That’s what verse 20 seems to be talking about.
Jesus says, (v 14-15, 17-18a) Good news for people who have done wrong and are afraid.
Lent is a time for us to face our sin and our fears. Like the Israelites did, to say, “we have sinned” and to trust God to forgive and heal. Sometimes that can be more terrifying than spiders, snakes and public speaking combined. Lent is a time to let God write his word on our hearts. Words like (John 3:16).
It is the time to turn toward Jesus. Hear the Holy Spirit speaking in your heart, like Moses must have in the desert, “Look this way. Don’t be afraid. God will forgive you. God will heal you.” Believe that God loves you and will forgive and heal.
(prayer of confession, #699 Hymnal: A Worship Book)
Do not be afraid. Receive God’s love and forgiveness.