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Snakes in the Sand, and what to do with them

Lent 4, Common Lectionary Year B

Numbers 21:4-9

©2018 Rev Elisabeth R. Jones 

Thank you to those who worked with and turned this text with me this week. There is so much in four verses, that what follows is but one of the many possible turnings of this particular text.

Now it is time for us all to turn the tale.

First a preamble.
CPU is a community of faith that takes the Bible very seriously, but not literally.
That means we know it is a library full of the testimonies of human beings as flawed and flimsy as we are, working out in words their relationship with God in the midst of the messiness of human living.Those testimonies include stories. Ancient myths that spin the mysteries of creation, and the even greater mysteries of redemption into epic poetry and fables to be told to inspire hope, and trust, repentance and forgiveness, around campfires, in worshipful gatherings.
Stories, not of fact,
but of the deeper truth and wisdom
of what it means to be spiritual beings
inhabiting human bodies
as God’s creatures in the space and time
of earthling life.

So the question: did it happen?
Did the Israelites cross a wild sea?
Did they wander through a wilderness for 40 years?
Which way did they go?
Did God send snakes to shut their whining in a fit of rage?

These questions are not quite distractions,
but are better to be seen as our entryways
into that holy wisdom
for which these stories are preserved
precisely to pass on.

Did it happen?
No…., or yes….
The point is, it happens all the time.

Life journeys that feel like a 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,
the transformations of religious, or cultural or political landscapes
that leave 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,
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!

Yes, this story happens.
It happens all the time.
Which is why this story
was told, in every generation.
Told on Mount Nebo, before they entered 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,
told when Assyria, then Babylon bit hard,
told by the rivers of Babylon,
and on the journey home, again,
told by Jesus to Nicodemus in the night of his fear,
and by Mark to those staring in fear at an empty cross.

In each generation
bards, poets, preachers and scribes embellished it,
added the 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,
knowing they are mirrors of the worst of ourselves.

And also, they tell it again and again,
so that we could know
that the terror of the 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.
You see, those people in the story, and we too,
we want whatever it is that terrifies to go away.
We want the days of ease,
the good old days back, don’t we?
The days before cancer,
the days before the hard work
of seeking forgiveness,
of recovery from addiction,
of growing up, and showing up.

But God knows better than we do
that it – life – doesn’t work like that.
Never has. Never will.
Those things that bite and terrify,
they are always here.
Following God is not a guarantee of a perfect life
absent of trouble.
In fact, far from it.
It’s more like a promise to be thrown together
with people we would not normally hang around with,
to forgive and pray for those who have hurt us,
to begin again and again the hard work of dismantling privilege,
racism, sexism, prejudice.
Being people of God means
to work long and hard to bend the arc of history
back towards justice and towards the Dream of God.

So, in response to the terrified scream,
God does not banish the snakes.
God promises instead
an awakening,
an awareness,
a new way of seeing the snakes in the sand
for what they are,
part of the fabric of creation,
but a part that need not vanquish us.
There’s so much that could be said
about the fiery copper snake
that God has Moses make.
It seems like magical nonsense, even idolatrous,
but let me suggest that we know well
the power of that sanctified rod of Moses,
with its nehas nehaset.

The power in the pocket of an AA anniversary token,
to the one who has and always will battle that addiction,
that snake in the sand.
The ring on your left finger,
sign of a covenant promise you’ve made
and will do all you can to keep.
The mantra you repeat
to hold back the anxiety attack.
The encouraging note posted to your bathroom mirror.
The covenant for harmony posted
throughout the building.
The candle cradled in the hand holding
both highs and lows.
The cup raised in blessing,
the bread blessed and broken,
The cross, bare or prismatic,
all pointing beyond themselves,
reminding us of
the life beyond life and death fidelity
of a God who lives this wilderness life with us.
Snakes in the sand and all.

Thanks be to God.


Phrase reminiscent of that used by Dr.King in 1967 at the end of the freedom march.

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