Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday in Lent + March 11, 2018
Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
What’s up with that weird snake story in our first reading?
Moses and the Israelites were out wandering in the desert some place between Egypt and the Promised Land — no surprise there; we know that part of the story — and the Israelites were not happy. They were complaining: We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. This miraculous manna stuff is gross.
That part should probably not be a surprise to us, either. The wandering band of Israel complained a lot. In the story of their escape from Pharaoh — which some of you heard on Wednesday evening — they hadn’t even gotten to the Red Sea yet when they started begging Moses to turn the car around: This is dangerous! Why couldn’t you have left us alone, with our slavemasters, where we were safe? And God said, Why are you freaking out? Just keep walking, I’ll part the sea for you. Haven’t you figured out that I’m saving you yet? (Exodus 14:10-18).
Apparently that lesson never did sink in. God had sent plagues on the Egyptians –always sheltering the Israelites in Egypt from all the frogs and the bugs and the livestock diseases — trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God had shown them that God was with them by sending a pillar of cloud to guide them by a day and a pillar of fire to light their way at night. God had provided them with bread and quail from heaven. But after God had done miracle after miracle to free them and protect them and provide for them, still the people had no faith — no trust — that God’s taking care of them. They just kept on complaining every time something went wrong: We’re hungry; we’re thirsty; seriously, what is this manna even made out of? Why did you take us out of Egypt?
And then there were snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? But this time the Israelites were wiser. Instead of wanting to run back to Egypt, they ran to God. Or rather, they ran to Moses, begging him to run to God: “Pray to the Lord to take away these serpents from us.” And God told Moses to make up a bronze serpent and lift it up high on a pole, and everyone who got bitten by a snake could look up at the snake-on-a-pole and be instantly protected from its venom.
More seriously this time: Why did it have to be a snake? Why a bronze snake on a pole? Why not, “and then God scared all the serpents away”? Why not, “and then the Lord God revealed unto Moses the formula for the antivenom”? It almost seems like — in total contradiction to what we learned in the 10 Commandments and in Pastor Lippard’s sermon from last week — God told Moses to make an idol that the people could worship, an idol that could save the people. Was God trying to get them to finally stop complaining by giving into their need for a golden cow or some kind of metal animal to worship, like when a parent finally gives up and gives their crying child a piece of candy?
Ancient Jewish commentaries on this story say: No! Of course not. The snake-on-a-pole was not meant to be an idol or a talisman with magic powers; instead it was a helper, a device to help the Israelites remember to turn to God — the God who told them to make that snake-on-a-pole; the God who gave them manna when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty; the God who parted the sea and saved them from slavery in Egypt. As one modern Rabbi put it: “In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet.”
We sometimes need helpers to turn our thoughts to God, too. After all, how often are we distracted by the snakes slithering around our feet? We, like those ancient wandering Israelites, can forget about the bigger story we are a part of. We forget the story of what God has done for us; we forget the promise that God will be with us; and then we worry about what is happening to us right now as if we were without hope. We forget who God has said we are — a beloved child of God — as we worry about what other people think of us, as we let the media tell us what we should be, as we let the voice in our heads tells us we are not good enough. We forget the core message of the gospel — you are forgiven and accepted — and instead mire ourselves in guilt or regret or isolation.
Maybe even more importantly, we forget the full story of that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Our individual salvation stories are all part of this global salvation story, the story of God loving the whole world: God showing God’s presence through the traditions of other cultures; God by the side of those drinking contaminated water in Michigan or in Bhutan; God hearing the prayers of mothers who worry their children will be shot in classrooms or on the streets or in war; God’s work being done through people in Haiti and El Salvador and the Congo and Vietnam and Iran.
Sometimes the snakes that distract us from the bigger story are our own refusals: to hear the other side of a story, to climb outside of our politics, to see God in people who don’t look or act like “us.” Sometimes we don’t even know we are being plagued by snakes — we don’t realize we are being distracted from God’s true mission.
So we need something like that bronze snake-on-a-pole to help turn our attention to God. In our times of fear, in our times of hopelessness, and even in the times when we feel fine. We need habits that keep us turning back to God.
The cross serves as one helper for us. Our reading from the Gospel of John said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We turn our minds towards Christ on the cross to remember God’s saving work in the world and in us. Many of us wear crosses or hang crosses on the wall as a reminder to turn towards God, God’s promises, and God’s mission.
Coming to worship is another habit that can help us turn our attention to God. Here we come to God in prayer; we hear the promises and the challenges of God through scriptures and sermons; we cross our foreheads with water, we taste bread and wine on our tongue to remind ourselves that God is with us. Here we are forced to see God in ways we wouldn’t on our own, as we hear how other people understand God and God’s work in the world.
How do you keep yourself turning back to God outside of Sunday mornings?
St. Ignatius of Loyola, who lived during the time of Martin Luther, developed a daily check-in system to help him always keep turning to God’s presence and work in his life and in the world around him. His official followers — the Jesuits — call it “the daily Examen.” The Examen has five steps:
- Give thanks to God. Look back over your day for any and all good moments, even little things, and thank God for them. This first step is not only about realizing all the good things in life; most importantly it draws us to focus on God.
- Ask for grace to know your sins. “Where did you act contrary to your better judgment or to God’s voice inside of you?” Where did you neglect to “see the image of God in others?” The goal is not feel guilty, but to help us realize that we need God, and where we most need God, and to ask for that help to continue evolving as disciples of Christ. Again, the purpose is to help us move closer to God.
- Review your day. Run through it like a movie, from start to finish. “Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving…[Recall your] thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says. Each moment offers a window into where God has been in your day.” What is God up to in you and around you?
- Ask God for forgiveness. This step reminds us of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and never-ending love.
- Ask for God’s grace for tomorrow. Ask God for whatever it is you feel you need help with most: seeing God’s presence with you; trusting God’s promises; breaking harmful habits; learning to see God in others.
Maybe you’ll find that steps like these can help keep you turning to God, too.
Today’s reading from John 3 said: “those who do what is true come to the light.” The Gospel of John is full of this image of light: Jesus is the light who has come into the world, revealing God’s presence and God’s love, revealing God’s will and mission, revealing God’s hope and purpose. How can we keep coming into that the light of Christ to help us keep our lives in God’s perspective? How can we keep our eyes on God and our minds on God’s story, so that we could see our place in that story as people who receive God’s promises and share in God’s mission to our neighbors and to the world?
Let us pray.
Holy God, we thank you for your patience with us when we get distracted by the worries of this life, when we turn away from your promises and your mission. Help us to keep turning back to you. Give us faith to trust your promises and give us clarity as you reveal your purpose in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
 Fred N. Reiner, “Healing by Looking: Seraph Serpents and Theotherapy,” ReformJudaism.org, July 8, 2006. Available online: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/chukat-balak/healing-looking-seraph-serpents-and-theotherapy
 My reference for the Examen is James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), pp. 86-102.
 Martin, 89.
 Martin, 91.