Snakes are in the Bible 37 times.
Not one time in a positive light.
They are either biting people, scaring people,
being devious, or incarnating the devil himself.
I don’t know whether my brother Fred and I should feel guilty
about loving snakes as teenagers in Florida,
and once keeping several quite large ones as pets in our home.
If I should, I don’t.
As the song goes, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir.”
Snakes have always disturbed people.
If you have a fear of snakes, ophidiophobia to be precise,
cheer up, you are just fulfilling God’s plan for your life.
God cursed the snake in the Garden of Eden,
said it would always be an enemy of Eve . . .
and all her descendants.
And for disturbing stories of snakes in the Bible,
nothing beats Numbers 21.
It even disturbs me, a snake lover.
But it’s not the snakes themselves, that disturb me.
I am disturbed by God in this story.
Or at least, I am sobered by God’s way of working.
Numbers 21 is one of many stories in the Hebrew scriptures,
about the rebellion of the people,
of God’s subsequent punishment,
and the people’s repentance.
It’s a common theme throughout much of the Old Testament.
The view of people in the ancient world was clear on this.
When bad things happened in the natural world,
it was God, or the gods, doing it to them.
It was divine anger, or divine judgement of human sin.
There was no reason to give a natural, or rational, explanation.
That wasn’t how ancients thought.
So what’s disturbing to me is not the portrayal of God’s wrath,
in sending the poisonous snakes to kill the rebellious people.
That’s how they understood it, and needed to portray it.
I also realize Jesus moved beyond that way of thinking.
Jesus advanced our understanding of God.
He showed us that God doesn’t manipulate nature at every turn,
to punish sinful people.
About the man born blind, Jesus said,
“It was not his sins, or his parents’ sins, that he was born blind.”
About natural phenomena, he said,
“The sun rises on the evil and the good,
the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
When a tower collapsed, and 18 people died, Jesus said,
“They were no worse sinners than others in Jerusalem.”
Jesus moved us beyond a God who “gets even.”
Jesus revealed a God who loves us unconditionally,
even while nature take a course
that sometimes causes suffering.
He revealed a God who, when bad things happen,
does not stand back and say, I told you so,
but rather, a God who is with us in our suffering.
So it’s not this primitive understanding of God’s wrath
that bothers me in this ancient text.
That’s an authentic reflection of the times.
No, it’s how God responded to their repentance,
that gives me pause.
And we can’t easily dismiss that response
as an ancient and primitive view of God.
Because it’s reinforced in the New Testament,
and in the life of Jesus.
So how did God respond, after the people repented?
The people fell on their knees, and cried out to Moses,
“We have sinned against Yahweh.
Pray to Yahweh to take the snakes away from us.”
So Moses prayed exactly that.
The prayer was simple. Reasonable. Just.
God sent the snakes to make them repent.
God should send the snakes away.
But God said, “No. That’s not what I have in mind.”
The snakes stayed.
They kept striking people, with their fatal venom.
God had Moses make a bronze replica of a snake,
and put it on a pole to look at,
so when they were bitten, they could look . . . and live.
Rather than remove the cause of their suffering,
God provided wholeness,
by making them face the very cause of their suffering,
the very thing that threatened their life.
Why would God do this?
God was not being malicious.
This was not a cruel joke.
God, in God’s wisdom,
knew something about becoming whole
that we often try to ignore.
We don’t heal from life’s suffering
by running away, or ignoring it,
or having the suffering magically disappear.
We face the source of suffering,
with the promise of God’s presence and help.
The path to wholeness involves
looking into the face of what is causing our brokenness.
God wants wholeness in every part of our lives.
God hates diseases that break down our bodies.
God hates sin that separates us from God.
God hates broken relationships and prejudice
that separate us from each other.
God hates violence that rips apart nations and peoples.
God will one day crush evil and suffering forever,
and create a new heaven and new earth.
But until then, we must wrestle with it here and now.
We must stare it in the face,
and trust in God to be with us in it.
I don’t know any way around that.
I’m not sure I want a way around that,
if, in fact, that is God’s way of bringing us
into a flourishing human life.
We know, from the Gospel of John this morning,
that God’s heart is for the salvation, not condemnation,
of this world God loves.
In fact, God so loved the world,
so yearned for its wholeness and salvation and shalom,
that God was willing, eager, in fact,
to enter into the full experience of life in this world,
including its pain, its suffering, its conflict . . .
was willing to engage, be touched by, be hurt by,
its sordid, self-oriented, and violent ways,
. . . all for love.
If God, in Christ Jesus, was so ready to face suffering,
for the sake of life and love . . .
I have to believe that is our calling as well.
It puts new light on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane.
“Father,” he prayed in such agony that he sweat blood, as it were,
“Father, let this cup of suffering pass from me.”
“Yahweh, take the snakes away from us.”
God’s answer, to the Israelites in Numbers, to Jesus in the garden,
was not to remove the suffering,
but to allow God’s beloved to stay right there,
in the midst of the shadows and pain of suffering,
and provide a way to move through it,
to a deeper, more flourishing life.
If God’s intent was for us to avoid all human suffering,
God would hardly have come up with this grand plan
to show us how to live fully human lives,
by becoming one of us,
and letting Jesus live among us as he did—
born in poverty,
sent as a refugee to Egypt with a price on his head,
raised in a family and town of low reputation,
driven into the desert for 40 days of desolation,
without food, tormented by the devil,
roamed the land in itinerant ministry,
with resistance at every turn,
and violent threats by those in power,
temptation, loneliness, fatigue, ridicule, misunderstanding,
false accusation, arrest, beating, and public execution.
The notion that true faith
leads to a blessed and happy and prosperous life,
that God intends our lives to be free of misery . . .
simply cannot be reconciled with the stark reality that
the One we are called to follow in life—Jesus of Nazareth—
experienced nothing of the sort.
The lives of the Israelites, in Numbers 21,
of Jesus in the Gospels,
of early Christians in the Roman Empire,
of our 16th-century Anabaptist forebears,
of the persecuted church today in other parts of the world,
even our ordinary lives today, in the here and now . . .
life is often overcast with the shadow of suffering.
Brokenness of body, of mind, of spirit, of relationships,
is always present with us . . .
God’s priority is apparently not to remove us from suffering.
But rather for us to live fully in the midst of the shadows,
and God will meet us there.
I sent a little video clip on Friday, which some of you saw,
and it’s playing in the foyer today, if you missed it . . .
In it, Parker Palmer says,
“The only way to get out of it is to get into it.
The only way to deal with the darkness . . .
is to go deeper into it,
until you start to see a little bit of light.”
Glennon Doyle Melton, says,
“Grieving with another human being
is one of the most holy places to be.”
Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, says,
“[We must] change our heart of stone, which is protective,
to a heart where we are capable of being hurt.”
So here we are, half-way through Lent,
preparing for a three-day Easter celebration.
We must be honest,
living the Christian life is not one big long Easter season,
lived in constant high celebration.
Yes, yes. Easter is always with us, in some form,
even if an almost invisible germ, a seed of resurrection.
But it should be obvious,
the Christian life includes living in the shadows.
When we find ourselves groping in the dark,
having trouble seeing the light,
it does not mean we are in a state of moral and spiritual failure.
It means we are at a place where, if we are attentive, and open,
God is likely to show up.
—Phil Kniss, March 15, 2015
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