Pick Your Poison [Numbers 21:4-9]

This is a sermon originally given on 3.18.12.

How many of us enjoy complainers? You know, people who never seem to be satisfied & nothing is ever right. Whiners. Anyone? Me too. Complainers are annoying. I’m glad I never complain. OK, that’s sarcasm- we all complain. Sometimes complaints are justified & a reasonable response, but most of the time complaining doesn’t help & doesn’t produce the desired results- change. At the root of most complaining are impatience & a lack of gratitude.


In today’s passage from Numbers, v.4- “the people grew impatient with the long journey”. Watch the next verse, 5- “and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”


It wasn’t all that long ago that these people were glad to have manna when they were starving, but these folks had been wandering for close to 40 years & their attitude changed as impatience set in. Trust in God’s provision vanished like sand granules slipping through fingers. What we see in today’s text is a part of a larger “murmuring tradition”, as it’s called. The Israelites complained. A lot. This can be seen in many passages. I wonder how much complaining God hears every day. Here, God hears the Israelites’ complaints & responds a bit harshly, don’t you think? A little whining & God sends poisonous snakes?


I have to be honest with you. I have a fear; a paranoia; a phobia; of snakes. As a kid at the zoo, I would avoid the reptile exhibit. Even coming over here today, I was a little antsy walking through the field between DaySpring next door & here. There have been snakes sighted near our church building. All it takes is seeing a picture of a snake or spotting a tiny baby lizard in the grass & I’m outta there! There is something unpredictable, ssssneaky & ssscary, & sssslimy about ssssnakess. People die from snake bites. There is danger.


In response to this hardship, this challenge, this life-threatening situation of the snakes, the Israelites turned to Moses, their leader & messenger of God, & to God Himself. What else could they do? V.7- “Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people.” A challenge, the poisonous snakes, led the people to turn to God because they trusted God could do something about their situation.


God does something about it. Instead of taking away the snakes, He provides a path of healing, a way for restoration. v.8-9 Then the LORD told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!”


Perhaps one of the reasons I have a fear of snakes is because they represent evil, temptation, trickery, sin in many traditions & for many people. Sin was already present among the Israelites, God didn’t send sin. He just sent snakes as a punishment. There is danger with snakes. There is danger with sin, but faith in Jesus Christ as Savior changes things. Perhaps this is the point of John 3:14-15- “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”


It has not been my experience that faith in Jesus Christ takes away temptation per sé, the presence of snakes, in my life, but instead Jesus creates a path to spiritual healing & reconciliation, & forgiveness. As a result of faith in Jesus Christ, we have eternal life. We are free from eternal punishment for sin.


“Jesus canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.” [Colossians 2:14-15]


“But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1 Corinthians 15:57]


Whatever the sin- impatience, complaining, greed, ungratefulness, sin of any sort, let us not allow these snakes, sin, to take over our camp, our life, but instead let us look to the Cross, let us look to Jesus’ perfect example & grow in holiness. If the Israelites looked in the correct place, toward the bronze snake on the pole, they would receive healing, & if we look in the right place, the cross of Jesus Christ, we will receive spiritual healing.


“The [bronze] serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.” –John Wesley


Some of us today have been impatient on a long life journey, some of us have been in a spiritual wilderness/desert for a long time. The wilderness was not permanent for them & is not permanent for us. Let us not grow impatient, but instead trust in God’s provisions for what we need now & what we will need later. Let us each day consider Isaiah in chapter 40- “God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”



Esther & Mary

The Church Fathers give Mary the title, “The Second Eve” based on a continued interpretation of Romans 5:11-21.  Paul compares Jesus to Adam in this passage. V. 15- “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.” As Adam’s actions & sin brought death, Jesus’ actions & perfection bring life. A few steps further- Eve’s disobedience to the command not to eat the fruit birthed death while Mary’s obedience to God’s will- mothering Jesus Christ brings life. As St. Jerome wrote in Epistle 22- “death by Eve, life by Mary”. Eve was visited by the serpent & agreed to sin while Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel & agreed to the sacred task of carrying a different kind of fruit- Jesus Christ.


From a 9th century prayer, Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea):

“Taking that sweet Ave,

which from Gabriel came,

peace confirm within us,

changing Eva’s name.”


Could Mary also be a second Esther figure? Purim was celebrated last week, so Esther has been on my mind. I see some Esther-Mary connections:


Favored by the King

“Esther was taken to King Xerxes at the royal palace in early winter of the seventh year of his reign.  And the king loved Esther more than any of the other young women. He was so delighted with her that he set the royal crown on her head and declared her queen instead of Vashti.” [Esther 2:16-17] Esther followed the instructions of Hegai, the eunuch, who helped prepare her & knew what pleased the king.


“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus… For nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.” [Luke 1:30-31;37-38] Mary followed the instructions of Gabriel, who helped prepare her for her important task.


Both Esther & Mary received their respective challenges with courage & grace, stepping out in faith.


Self-sacrifice for A Cause Bigger Than Self

“All the king’s officials and even the people in the provinces know that anyone who appears before the king in his inner court without being invited is doomed to die unless the king holds out his gold scepter. And the king has not called for me to come to him for thirty days…

If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this? On the third day of the fast, Esther put on her royal robes and entered the inner court of the palace, just across from the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne, facing the entrance.  When he saw Queen Esther standing there in the inner court, he welcomed her and held out the gold scepter to her. So Esther approached and touched the end of the scepter. Then the king asked her, ‘What do you want, Queen Esther? What is your request? I will give it to you, even if it is half the kingdom!’” [Esther 4:11;14-5:3]


The Jewish people were at risk. Esther was in a position of influence. Esther eventually put aside concern for her own well-being & status. Esther is a hero as a result of what appears to be God-ordained circumstances, & her willingness to step forward.


“This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. ‘Joseph, son of David,’ the angel said, ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit’.” [Matthew 1:18-20]


Mary risked shame & unknown specifics of the future as a result of accepting this most unusual task of pregnancy & motherhood. Mary accepted. Mary & Joseph moved forward in obedience & acceptance.


While it is unwise to suffer under unmitigated communion- service to others at the expense & destruction of yourself- or with a self-righteous martyr complex, perhaps deeper consideration of what causes do I live for would be helpful? What would I be willing to die for? Lose social standing for? Be rejected for? Face unknowns for?


Esther & Mary were ordinary women put into the right place at the right time who accepted the challenging requests- Esther speaking up for the Jews & Mary receiving the task of mothering Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are an ordinary woman [or ordinary man like Joseph & Mordecai!] who will have an opportunity for something amazing! Are you willing? How have you, how do you, & how will you respond when a difficult task requiring courage & faith is asked of you?


“Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. [Luke 1:46-49]


A song from Esther Veggie Tales: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Bihr7vPgS4

Lenten Lint

What really counts? What is worth defending, if necessary, to death? These are questions that have been rolling around in my head for a little while. Getting down to the basics, the necessities, is what Lent is truly about.


Last night, we watched Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Sophie Scholl lived in Germany during WWII, distributed anti-Hitler literature, and faced the consequences including a semi-trial & execution. She made it her priority to stand for what is right, freedom & truth, & as a result lost everything except an amazing story of courage.


Tonight, we watched The Way [I do more than “movie night” hop on the weekends… ha!] about a father whose son dies on El Camino de Santiago in France/Spain, so the father continues the journey. The farther one walks this path on the journey, the less stuff one carries out of necessity to lighten the load.


These are both example of the Lenten spirit- removing excess in order to remember what truly counts, what truly matters.


Lent is like lint. Removing lint from the dryer filter produces more whole clothing from the dryer. What an injustice to a lovely black blouse to be covered and hidden by white specks, lint, all over. Perhaps, more accurately- Lent is the dryer, set to a certain time, while the Holy Spirit is the lint filter as we, each pilgrim, agree to remove junk & distractions.


“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” [Hebrews 12:1]