Thursday, 15 March 2018

Look with Trust- the bronze serpent Num 21


Some of us have a tendency to take the blessings of our lives for granted. We focus on the negative, or what we lack, rather than be thankful for what we have. I don’t know if you notice this in yourself at all, but I know I see it in myself. Some of us really have to struggle against that negative habit.

This has become a significant field of research. There have been a number of studies done on gratitude and they have found that people who are thankful are generally happier, less depressed, are more satisfied with life, have a greater sense of purpose in life, and tend to be more generous. That also implies the opposite. A lack of gratitude leads to being less happy, more depressed, less satisfied with life, having less sense of purpose in life, and less generosity. The field of positive psychology has been trying to find practices to help people become more grateful in order to help people have better lives.

It sounds like the Hebrew people in the book of Numbers could have used the insights of positive psychology. The people are in a constant pattern of ingratitude as they wandered in the wilderness. In the book of Numbers chapter 21, they are in the middle of complaining. Despite the miraculous way God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, they complain that they were better off as slaves. They complain that they will starve, and God provides them with manna for food (Ex 16). They complain that they are thirsty, and Moses strikes a rock and God provides water (Ex 17). They complain that they are tired of anna and want meat to eat, and God gives them quail (Num 11). … And yet, they continue to grumble. After all this miraculous provision- after saving them from slavery- after seeing the miracles- after eating the miraculous food and drinking the miraculous water in a desolate landscape- they still complain. They complain against Moses and they complain against God. Their hearts are ungrateful. They are constantly looking for what is wrong, and overlooking their blessings.

Can you see yourself doing that? We don’t want to see ourselves that way, but I think some of us have a tendency to complain and forget about the blessings in our lives. I may have told some of you about the time I went to Cuba on a mission trip. I didn’t have much Spanish, but I had a little, so I tried to make conversation. “Tengo mucho calor”, I said. Which means “I’m very hot”. It was warm, but I wasn’t really that uncomfortable. I was more just making conversation with the limited Spanish I had. When I woke up in the morning I found that the Cubans went out and bought a whole bunch fans. These are not rich people, and those fans weren’t cheap. … Upon reflection, I realized how much we tend to complain, even if just for conversation. We talk about the bad weather, or the long line at Costco. But, we have temperature-controlled vehicles and houses, so the weather doesn’t affect us that badly. In our grocery stores we have more food, and more varieties of food, than most of the world does. And how amazing that we have vehicles to help us cross great distances in very minimal time, all while keeping us out of the weather. That sure seems to beat walking or riding a horse in the rain. Still, many of us have a tendency to focus on what is wrong. Ingratitude can take root in our hearts.

There is this very strange story in the book of Numbers. The people complain and express their lack of trust in God and God causes a release of snakes. Some of the people are bitten by the snakes and they die. The snakes seem to be a symbol of the fallen and dangerous world. In the world we are in danger from the elements, from disease, from war, from famine, and numerous other dangers. The serpents invade, and bite, and people begin to die.

God is the rescuer. God is the one who rescued the people from slavery. God is the one who provided food when they were hungry, and water when they were thirsty. God has rescued them from the dangerous world many times already. God is the source of all love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. To grumble and rebel against God is to put yourself back into the snake pit. To push away from God is to push yourself into the presence of all that God wants to save you from. To push away from God is to cut yourself off from the source love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. That is a road to destruction.

In a strange kind of living parable the Hebrew people feel the pain of turning away from God- in the form of snake bites. They realize the error of their ways and they come to Moses and say, 
“We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” They repent. They turn towards God. They realize the stupidity of what they've done. Turning away from the God of life means death. 

Moses hears their cry and has compassion. He prays to God on behalf of the people. And God give Moses some strange instructions. God told Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” They needed a focus point for their faith. They needed a sacrament- a visible symbol of God’s grace. They needed to put their trust into action in a very practical way. They needed to believe that what God said was true- look and trust ... and live.

Trust in God is different than believing things about God. The people knew God existed, they just didn't believe that God would take care of them. Belief is different than trust. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent. God gave the Hebrew people a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God will save them. Whoever looks at the bronze serpent, trusting in God's words, will live. Their trust needed a focal point- they needed an action to activate their faith.

I heard a story about a high school student. She was taking a Physics class and she was supposed to present to her class on the physics of a pendulum. She explained to the class how a pendulum worked. It has a weight that is fixed to a point by a wire. She described the physics and how, because of gravity and other forces acting on the pendulum that it can never reach the same point it is swung from. She drew diagrams. She showed the class the formula on the black board, and to really make her point she set up a giant pendulum in the classroom. It had a barbell weight secured with a rope to the ceiling in the center of the classroom. She asked if everyone understood and believed what she said and the class agreed. She then asked the teacher if she could use him as a part of her presentation. The student asked her teacher to stand on a chair at one end of the classroom. She then set up the pendulum with the 20 pound barbell. She attached the wire and made sure everything was secure. The student raised the barbell to the teacher's nose and adjusted the chair so the rope was tight. She reminded the classroom, "now remember, because of gravity and the other forces acting on the pendulum the weight will not be able to get this high again. Based on the physics I just showed you, which you all said you believe, when this weight swings back it will not be able to reach the teacher’s nose". She let the weight drop and the teacher watched as it slowly swung through the pathway between the desks. The class collectively held their breath. The teacher watched as the weight slowed and then stopped at the other side of the classroom and then started back down towards the teacher. The weight got closer and closer and … suddenly the teacher jumped off the chair, afraid he was going to get his teeth knocked out. The teacher may have understood the physics in theory, but not in his heart. He didn't believe it enough to trust it.

I like that story. It is a reminder to me that faith is something that has to be more than a theory. It has to get into my heart. I have to be willing to act in a way that reflects my belief. If I jump off the chair like the teacher did, then part of me really doesn't believe it. Of course, we need to be sure that what we believe in is worth believing. As the preacher Stuart Briscoe once said, "faith is only as valid as its object. You can have tremendous faith in very thin ice and drown. ... You could have very little faith in very thick ice and be perfectly secure". God had shown Himself over and over again to be worthy of the Hebrew people’s trust, yet they were unwilling to trust God. God never said it would be an easy walk through the wilderness, but God made promises to protect and keep them. However, they turned against God over and over again.

To help them learn to trust in a very real way God gives Moses some strange instructions. "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." "So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole." They looked at a symbol of their own suffering and death. The snakes were biting their friends and family. Instead of getting rid of the snakes they were taught to trust God in the midst of their suffering. When they were bit, they looked at the bronze snake and they lived. When they looked at that strange symbol of their suffering they lived.

These serpents are interesting. Some have looked into the Hebrew and have concluded that these were no ordinary serpents. The serpents that were biting the people were called in the Hebrew "Saraph" serpents. This word "Saraph" can mean a few things. The plain meaning is "fiery". The Serpent is a "fiery" serpent. This might mean that the bite burned like fire. …. "Saraph" might be even more mysterious though. "Saraph" might point to a kind of winged serpent that we find in the art of ancient Egypt (pointed out to me by one of my O.T. professors, Glen Taylor). Perhaps it is a stretch, but imagine an upright serpent with wings outstretched on either side. Doesn't it look like a cross? Is this is what the Hebrew people were looking at with eyes of faith. … They looked at this symbol trusting that God would save them from the poison of the world. The Hebrews looked at this sacrament- this means of the grace of God- and lived. 

This image was important to the Hebrew people. They carried it with them when they established themselves in the Promised Land. We read that around 800 hundred years later the reforming King Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent (which may have been kept in the Temple) because people were worshipping it by burning incense to it. What was meant to be a sacrament for healing became a source of idolatry and so it had to be removed. But, imagine that this symbol remained in the hearts and minds of the Hebrew people as an object of faith for around 800 years.

Jesus points to this Bronze serpent in the gospel of John chapter 3, "14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is saying that he is like the bronze serpent. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. People will look at the suffering of the cross and it will become a means of their own healing from the venom of the world. We are invited to look at him and believe. We are invited to look at the cross- an instrument of torture and destruction- and, mysteriously, receive life. Just as the Hebrew people looked at the symbol of their suffering- the Serpent- so we look at death and suffering symbolized by the cross and through it we receive life through Jesus.

We don't know exactly how it works, but we are told God's motivation for doing it John 3:16-17, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." The cross, was God's self-sacrifice. It was the best way to show that God would hold nothing back- Jesus would hold nothing back- in order to show us how much he loves us.

Like the Hebrew people we are invited to respond. It is not enough to have a theory in your head about this. The bronze serpent was raised and they were invited to look upon it and believe God would save them from the venom. Jesus was raised on a cross and we are invited to look to him and believe that this is the ultimate act of love for us- this is God saving us. We are invited to see God entering into our suffering out of love for us. We are invited to put our faith into action. Like the Hebrews we are not promised that the serpents will be taken away. We are told that when we get stung by the world that we look to Christ for healing and protection.

One way that you can look to Christ for healing in the midst of the serpents is to come forward to receive the bread and wine- to receive the life of Jesus to rejuvenate your life. When we respond in faith, we stay standing on the chair as the pendulum swings back at us. We take the risk of faith. We chose to believe that it is not just theory- it is describing reality. It is not just a theory. It is in our hearts. When we come forward and open our hands to receive the bread and wine we show that we believe it. God has offered it, to give us life while we make our way through a dangerous world. All we have to do is look, believe, receive, and live. AMEN

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