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Snake on a Stick, and Other Strange Biblical Wisdom

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

©2021 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to Scripture
Scripture
Sermon

I love maps, I love history,
I love strange mythic tales.
The story just shared
can be plotted on a map
(it purportedly happened here),
and the historicity of it could be argued,
by the evidence of copper mines in the vicinity
at the time of the migrations of the ancestors,
and by the evidence of nearby ancient cultures
with their snakes with healing powers,
but the bottom line is,
this story comes to us in its present form,
because it’s not bound by a single geography
nor a particular cultural history;
this mythic tale, as old as time,
happens all the time.

Life journeys that feel like an eternal wilderness,
inhospitable, elemental, harsh.
Life journeys with twists and turns and detours,
that never go according to plan.
Life companions who turn out to be more ornery and complicated than we’d imagined.
Life events that are horrific, tragic, so terrifying,
we think they will kill us.

The seismic shifts, the ruptures
in what were once assumed to be cultural norms,
societal givens, like hugging, and worshiping
together in a building, like going to work,
like hanging out with friends at a game or a concert,
suddenly truncated,
leaving us disoriented, lost, fearful,
regretful, nostalgic, for the good old days,
even if, in reality they were terrible…

And when that happens,
the biting begins…
the blaming, the negativity that poisons community,
the insinuations of guilt, or lack of care,
the pandemic mistrust,
the fear of those with those fangs
who prey on that fear to create reigns of terror,
oh, the snakes in the sand, how they bite,
how they kill!

Yes, this story happens.
It happens all the time.
Which is why it was told, and re-told in every generation.
Told by Moses on Mount Nebo, before this hapless generation
could finally enter the Promised Land;
told again in the time of the Judges;
told in David’s triumphs and Solomon’s failures;
told in the reigns of terror of feckless kings;
told when Assyria, then Babylon bit hard;
told by the rivers of Babylon, amid the weeping and the silenced harps;
told as the remnant survivors made the journey home again.
Even told by Jesus to Nicodemus in the night of his fear,
and by Mark the Gospeller to those staring in fear and near despair at an empty cross.

In each generation
bards, poets, preachers and scribes embellished it,
added the dark, satirical comedic humour,
the bellyaching of the childish children of God,
with their “Back to Egypt” committees,
their shoulda-dunnit-this-way grumblers,
so that we could chuckle wryly at them,
all the while knowing they are mirrors of the worst of ourselves.

And, told so that we could know
that the terror of snakes in the sand,
is a creature’s cry in every generation.
As is the prayer of supplication:
“God! Snakes!
Our fault, your fault, we don’t know,
but we need your help!”

Now, the divine response is worth our attention.

Those people in the story, we too,
we want whatever it is that terrifies to go away.
We want the days of ease,
the good old days
back again, don’t we?
The days before cancer,
the days before the pandemic,
the days before George Floyd’s murder,
before the growing up, and growing aware,
before the work of seeking and giving forgiveness,
the halcyon days (that likely never existed)
we want them back.

But God knows better than we do
that life doesn’t work like that.
Never has. Never will.
Those things that bite and terrify,
they are always here.

And, this following God thing is not a guarantee
of a perfect life absent of trouble.
In fact, far from it.
Because let’s face it,
the work of forgiving others, and praying for those who hurt us,
of loving the neighbour who doesn’t speak, look,
work, or eat like us,
the work of dismantling privilege, racism, sexism, prejudice,
bigotry, economic and political elitism,
the work of bending the long arc back
toward the justice of God’s Dream,
is pretty much a road map through the snake pit of trouble!

So, in response to the terrified scream,
God does not banish the snakes.
God promises instead
an awakening,
an awareness,
a bold-faced courage to stare the snakes in the eye,
to see them for what they are,
part of the fabric of creation,
but a part that need not vanquish us.

Now, in the story, at first we have a bit
of trouble with the fiery copper snake
God tells Moses to make.
We know that’s’ not how you heal a snake bite!
It’s not a shot in the arm against a virus.
To most of us, it’s magical, even idolatrous nonsense!
It’s uncomfortable, we’re rightly leery of it.
I’m one of the ones who cheered when
in the time of Hezekiah the Nehushtan
was destroyed,
because people kept idolizing the snake on a stick,
not God the giver of courage,
not God the healer.

But, then again…
there’s power in symbol, and in story, isn’t there?
And in a wilderness starved of
the tactile, of the beautiful of the holy communion
of physical proximity, maybe…. there’s a place
for some symbol of hope and healing?

Consider the ubiquity right now of this image;
hope in the sting of a needle!

To many there’s the power of an AA anniversary token,
to the one who has and always will battle that addiction.
There’s the ring on your left finger,
sign of a covenant promise.
Or the “feet on the ground, hand over the heart”
calming before facing whatever snake threatens
our wellbeing.
There’s the star word pinned by the front door.
The candle cradled in the hand holding
both highs and lows.
The pride flag, the prayer ribbons,
an easter cross
outside our building,
promising a public, intentional welcome
wider than fear and phobia
when we can return again.

Snakes on a stick, a cross on a walkway,
all pointing beyond themselves,
reminding us frail and frazzled humans
of the life beyond life and death fidelity
of a God who lives this wilderness with us,
and who leads us through whatever snakes
bite from without and within,
until we reach the verge of Jordan.
Always.
Thanks be to God.

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