March 15th 2015
“Lift Your Eyes”
Numbers 21: 4-9
John 3: 14-21
Vaccines have been in the news a lot recently. This is an issue that has brought up some interesting, and occasionally heated, conversations about the ethics of what institutions like: schools, churches, medical facilities, and athletic programs can and cannot mandate. All the while, the conversation is interwoven with the universal concern that we all have about the health and safety of all those around us and ourselves
Regardless of whether or not you have a strong opinion on the matter or not… vaccines really are fascinating. To think that we inject ourselves, willingly, with small controlled amounts of deadly diseases, kind of goes against our instincts! Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Measles, Small Pox, Whooping Cough, Diphtheria, Cholera, Hepatitis, Polio, the common annual flu…
Edward Jenner, the father of the modern vaccine, noticed back in the 18th century that milk maids had become immune to Small Pox, simply because they had regular encounters with Cow Pox during their work on the dairy farm… So in a rather gusty move he tested out his observation by purposefully exposing and eight-year-old boy to a small amount of Cow Pox matter, and then exposed him to Small Pox to see if he was right. Thank God his observation was right on the nose! The boy was now immune!
But thanks to that rather alarming experiment Small Pox has been eradicated. When we look at global immunization statistics, Polio is pretty close to its end, Measles is almost under control, as is Whooping Cough and Diphtheria.
Jenner and other medicinal researchers over the decades have come to understand that the means of our destruction can also become the means of our salvation. We expose ourselves to disease/ to sickness in order to prevent disease/ sickness. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Well today we find in our Old Testament reading a story of a “sin vaccination”, where the means of one’s destruction, becomes the means of salvation as well. So, let’s look at today’s passage in the Book of Numbers.
In order to truly appreciate this story, let’s step into the shoes of the ancient Israelites for a moment.
By this time, God has long since rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they are deep into the wilderness with Moses at the helm, leading them on towards the promise land. They have seen miracles of God’s power and presence like the parting of the red sea and pillars of clouds and fires to guide them. They have gone to bed hungry, having used up their scant rations they brought with them from Egypt, and woken to find manna and quail just waiting for breakfast. All in all, the Israelites have gotten used to this rhythm of finding themselves in need or in danger, then Moses prays to God, and then God swoops in to rescue them.
But in our Scripture passage for today we find this familiar rhythm interrupted.
Right before the Scripture passage that we read today we find this tiny story about a time when the Israelites were getting knocked around by the Canaanite King Arad. The Canaanites kidnapped some of their people, and a few got killed. So the Israelites prayed to God, like they are supposed to, about what to do about their Canaanite bully… and in response, let’s just say, that the Lord came through for them as usual. So much so, that the Israelites had to think of a new name for the region, so they named it Hormah, meaning broken rocks or destroyed.
But flush from their stunning, God-given victory over the Canaanites in the town now called Destroyed, the people suddenly seem to notice the rumbling in their stomachs… they began to notice the relentless heat of the sun above the head… they noticed that they have lost track of just how many days it has been since they entered this wilderness journey with still no sign of the promised land ahead of them.
It seems that God’s people were growing weary of this dependence on God.
So the Israelites begin to reflect back on good ol’ Egypt! While the work was back breaking, the oppression intense… they at least had a home. They at least had food on the table. And only as hungry people can do, they begin to salivate over the mere memory of leeks and cucumbers, melons and other fine fresh food that grew in their Egyptian home. Their memory of Egypt becomes rose-colored. It becomes Shangri-La, a shimmering oasis of goodness… for them to reminisce over as they wander the arid wilderness.
Soon the complaining starts. They speak against Moses (who by this point must have developed fairly tough skin because they are always complaining about him). But… they also begin to complain about God.
But they were God’s covenant people. They had a spiritual contract that makes them utterly reliant on God. So “for a covenant people such as Israel was (or was supposed to be), speaking against God is a little like speaking against oxygen. Speaking against God’s anointed and chosen servant is a little like speaking against the branch you’re sitting on by sawing it off.”
It’s a bad idea.
Especially given what the Israelites have lived and encountered in the wilderness – they have seen God’s protective presence.
So what happens? The sssssnakes arrive!
Venomous snakes (or what is referred to as “slithering creatures of fire” in the Hebrew) make their way into the camp! Biting complainers left and right.
People grew sick. People began to die…
It is a troubling thought to think that God sent these snakes among the people on purpose as punishment… isn’t it?
I’m sure all of us here are far more comfortable thinking of our God as some kindly old man living in the sky, reflecting only rainbows and smiles down to the people.
But, here we are. A God of justice and punishment. Sending slithering creatures of fire.
So, again I ask, what happens?
The people run to Moses, their leader, who they tend to treat like the community punching bag… and they beg at his feet to pray to God to rid them of this venomous plague, saying, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” (Numbers 21:7)
And just as the Covenant people of God, the Israelites, turned their nose up at their dependence on God… In like manner God didn’t quite respond as they expected.
When Moses prays to God to “take the snakes away”, God… well… doesn’t…
God does not snap divine fingers and evaporate the snakes, or even send them slithering into the hills… instead the snakes stay put. They stick around, biting complainers/sinners left and right!
But what God does do is instruct Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and raise it in town square, so that the people who have been bitten could lift their eyes to it and be cured. God makes them work for their salvation a little bit by requiring an act of trust.
Now, snakes in the Bible, have a certain reputation don’t they?
Has anyone been thinking of the Garden of Eden, and the tempting snake this whole time?
Snakes in the ancient world were not so much a symbol of evilness and sin as they were a symbol for cleverness, skill and ingenuity.
But when the Israelites rest their eyes on the bronze snake, what they are supposed to see is a reminder of their sins – judged and dealt with/ forgiven. Which, to me, is very clever.
God could have done what was easy and vaporized the snakes or sent them scurrying away, sure. But that is not what happens. It seems that when it comes to God dealing with the problem of sin and humanity’s inability to resist it… God never takes the easy way or the short cut… But God usually does something clever that requires a response. Making us deal with it. Face it, even. Look, closely at our own sins.
If you look at the whole of the Bible, we find a very faithful and busy God.
The Israelites call out for freedom from Egyptian oppression… So God sends the plagues and parts the sea.
The Israelites are thirsty… God pours out water from a rock.
The Israelites need to be rescued from the Canaanites…. So God aids in their battle.
God comes through for them!
But when it comes to dealing with sin, saving them from sin… God slows down a little bit and just kind of watches to see what we will do. Putting the ball in our court.
Where sin is concerned, God won’t snap God’s fingers, and voila, it’s gone.
The snakes stay. Sin stays.
That is true to this day! God hasn’t rid this world of temptation or sin… Pride still exists, lust for power still exists, idols still exists. Sin isn’t going anywhere.
Instead, God sends us an anti-venom/ a vaccine! The Israelites had to set their eyes on the means of their destruction in order to find their healing. They had to look at the means of their judgment to find salvation.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
Jesus says that he will become like the snake on the pole.
Christ will be raised on a pole in his crucifixion to take on our sins, to take on our struggles, to take on what we fear the most- death itself – so as to gift us with the great anti-venom….. grace.
The means of our destruction (sin, fear, struggle, death…) is lifted up in Christ to become the means of our salvation. Grace.
Lent is about lifting our eyes to see and take in the power and significance of Christ’s work on the cross. It’s sin vaccination season.
We expose ourselves to a little bit of the disease in order to prevent it from destroying us. Like building up our spiritual anti-bodies so when the time comes that we are tempted by, or asked to face our ugliest sins, our body has an immunity strategy. Vaccines are the body’s way of saying to the disease, “We’ve got your number! We’ve seen you before! You have no hold on this person.”
People of God, know this. Because God gave us Christ, we have grace. We have the ultimate vaccination!
Ephesians 1:7 states, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
Sin has no hold on you. Death has no hold on you. So rejoice and lift your eyes! Have no fear as we continue on our journey to the cross through Lent. Have no fear as you continue to examine your hearts and minds.
Let close in prayer. This is a prayer written by Thom Shuman based on our Scripture of the day:
The words we speak all too often do not show you in our lives, God of our pilgrimage. We spend so much time boasting to others, they imagine we have no need for you. We grumble impatiently when you don’t respond immediately to our requests, but are slow to sing your praises. We mutter under our breath about the behavior of those around us, when we could be asking them if there is some way we could serve them.
It is on our journey to the cross and the tomb that you fill us with the riches of your mercy, Steadfast Love! You do so, not because of any thing we have done, but because of the compassion which flows from your heart wounded by our failings. As we open our lives to receive your forgiveness, may we turn to the Light which brings us life, following Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, every step of the way. AMEN.
 Hoezee, Scott. Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9. Center for Excellence in Preaching.