It is a good news story, in the end. The people of God are threatened; they cry out to the Lord, and the Lord hearkens unto their cry and saves them from certain death. Happy ending, happy story. But there is one moment that makes this story from the book of Numbers seem a little less than happy, one zinger that makes this seem like not-quite good news.
The people of God have been wandering in the wilderness for-absolutely-ever at this point. They know that they should be grateful – they’re free now, free because of God, who sent Moses, who sent plagues, who sent a warning and careful instructions about lambs and lintels, and who finally sent a mighty wind to blow back the water of the Red Sea. The Israelites know all of this, but it has been a long, hot summer. They’re tired of dust and dirt, they’re tired of Moses, they’re tired of promised land instead of actual land. And so they start whining. Why did you bother bringing us up out of Egypt for this mess? There’s nothing to eat or drink…well, okay, there’s this manna and water springing from rocks but we’re so tired of it. We don’t like it, and you can’t make us eat it anymore.
And here is the sentence that sticks like gristle in the gullet: Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. Ugh. I mean, I get that the people are being a pain in the divine rear end. They’re ungrateful and selfish and they don’t have any spiritual stick-to-it-iveness. They deserve a good scolding, to hear God heaving an exasperated sigh and telling them how disappointed he is in them. I could even get on board with a good grounding – you know: that’s it! you aren’t allowed to go to the Holy Land for another 35 years. But really, poisonous snakes? And not snakes that just appeared out of the savage wilderness, but snakes that were sent. God sent the snakes, Numbers tells us. God sent the snakes to kill his own people. Not good news.
It’s such not-good-news, in fact, that it’s tempting to try to work around this zinger. For example, we could employ the “stupid ancient peoples” theory. You know, people back then didn’t really understand the world, so they attributed all kinds of things to God. So we enlightened people who understand rain and snakes and wind and stuff can safely ignore those uncomfortable parts of the Bible because we can imagine some other explanation, like ancient near-eastern serpent migration patterns, or desert dehydration dementia. You can hear the arrogance here, but we’ve probably all had thoughts like this at some point, consciously or subconsciously. And of course there are things about the world that we understand in a more comprehensive, more molecular way than the ancient Israelites. But there is more to life than molecules. Isn’t it possible, no, probable, that these people were wise in a different way, that they knew deep truths even without having all of the facts? And wouldn’t we be stupid to reject their lives as having nothing to teach us about our own?
We could also try to work around this zinger by trying to split God in half. We could say, well, that was the Old Testament God, who was, to be honest, kind of a jerk. He was always venting his wrath and wiping out nations. But then Jesus came along and showed us the New Testament God, the God of love, God your BFF, who is like a soft pillow of mercy floating on a cloud of forgiveness covered in compassion sauce. The problem with this approach is not only that it’s theologically harmful, it’s also deeply unscriptural. To put it more simply, Jesus didn’t think this way. Jesus was a big fan of the Old Testament, or, to borrow a helpful rephrase, the Older Testament. This Older Testament God was Jesus’ God. Jesus preached only continuity between the God of his ancestors and the God he called Father, taught a fulfillment of the ancient law and a new covenant built on God’s righteousness and lasting promise. So this work-around doesn’t work either, because there’s no working around this zinger if Jesus didn’t want to.
There is a third way, of course, to work around this zinger. And that is to just ignore the whole story, to assert that God is inherently capricious – full of tenderness one moment and dialed up to full smiting mode the next. Why worship a God like this at all? Why pay him any attention? Frankly, why acknowledge that such a God might even exist? We can choose to reject the zinger, the story, the whole kit-n-caboodle, and in the process, allow none of it to have any impact at all on our lives. Which, frankly, would be a terrible shame. Because this is a good news story, in the end. There is grace here for us, even in that zinger of a sentence, if only we are brave enough to look at it full in the face.
We have to be brave, you and I, because this story is, at its heart, about sin. The people of God aren’t just whining here. They’ve whined before, and God’s response in those cases has been to get a little annoyed and then to send a lot of help – manna, quails, water from dry places. But this time, the people are actually turning away. They speak against God, and their words carve out a chasm of discontent and doubt between them and their Creator. Their actions separate them from God’s purpose and plan. This is sin. So these snakes are not a penalty for the people’s complaining; the snakes are a corrective for extreme, potentially fatal missteps.
But still, those snakes remain a pretty frightening thought. It’s uncomfortable to imagine God punishing his children – punishing us – for anything. But honestly, what is the alternative? Would we really prefer to have a divine doormat, a God who looks upon us down here in the sandbox, whacking the devil out of each other like three year olds, and says, Ooh, that looks like it hurts, but I guess they’ll grow out of it? Or a God who looks down at us grabbing toys and throwing sand in each other’s eyes and says, let them have at it because I just don’t care anymore? Or might it be okay to imagine a God who would look down at his people and say: stop that! and take our toys away? Might it be okay, even good news, to imagine a God who would actually correct us because he hasn’t given up on us yet?
Of course, the truth is that 99.9% of the time, God doesn’t have to do any stomping at all, for our sin carries its own reward. We speak against God, step off in the wrong direction, and find ourselves running from serpents in a wilderness of our making. The wages of sin is death, and you and I do more in our own lives to contribute to our own suffering than God would ever do. Let me be clear: when I’m talking about these kinds of corrections, this kind of punishment, I do not mean the deeply unhelpful platitudes spoken, however kindly, in hospital emergency rooms and around gravesides about God not sending more than we can handle or testing us to make us stronger. God does not send us cancer to test how faithful we are or Alzheimer’s disease to make us stronger through misery. But God does try really hard to get us back on the right path. And to borrow a phrase of Anne Lamott’s – sometimes he can do this by gently tapping us on the shoulder, and other times he has to stomp on our feet.
But even if we do imagine that God might someday send snakes, there is reassurance there. Even in the shadow of that zinger, there is reassurance that God will do even that to bring us back to him, and that that is not all of the story. Because God has always known that he would do much, much more than send a shake on the shoulder or a snake in the grass. God has always known that he would do much, much more than sending a bronze snake lifted on a staff to ward off the deaths of a few. God does not only send snakes. God also sent his Son, not to condemn us, but to save us. The wages of sin is death, but God is more interested in gift, the gift of grace and the chance to once again be wholly his. There is no zinger of pain or suffering or death that God has not experienced in his own self, not cross that we are ever asked to bear alone. Those zingers are not the end of the story. The end of the story is no end at all. The end is eternal life. The end is Jesus Christ, lifted up on a cross so that everyone may come and see, take and eat, and to look up and see life and light and hope, even when the snakes are biting. This story is, in the end, and in the beginning and in all of the steps and stumbles inbetween, a good news story.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
15 March 2015, Laetare Sunday
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia