Saturday, 17 March 2012

Look at the bronze snake with faith- Numbers 21

Numbers 21:4-9

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea,[a] to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you [plural] brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.


John 3:14-21

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[a] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[b]

16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

           There are certain patterns in the life of God's people that seem to repeat. One of these patterns is that we have a tendency to complain and take God for granted. When grace flows all around us we sometimes stop seeing it. Familiarity breeds contempt. We can grumble about the worship service and receive the bread and wine in the Eucharist without much thought or prayer. When we think about the amazing thing God has done through Christ in giving us the gift of the Lord's Supper it's amazing we can forget so easily and come to receive with such apathetic hearts. But that is sometimes where we find ourselves- just going through the motions, without a thought that we are receiving the gift of God that graces us with eternal life. 
            That is not far off from where the Hebrews were in our Old Testament reading from the book of Numbers. In our passage they are in the middle of a grump. Despite the miraculous way God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt their familiarity with God and God's provision has caused them to take it all for granted. They complain that they were better off as slaves in Egypt. They complain that they will starve and God provides them with manna (Ex 16). They complain that they are thirsty and Moses strikes a rock and God provides water (Ex 17). They complain that they want meat and God gives them quail (Num 11). 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. 
            We have to be careful to not look down on them too much. Every breath we take and every beating of our heart is a gift of God. Unless we recognize the miracle of our own existence at every moment of every day we have no right to judge them.
            Their complaints and lack of trust in God cause the release of snakes. Some of the people are bitten by the snakes and they die. They see and experience a deadly symbol of the state of fallen humanity. In our rebellion against God we experience suffering and death. After the fall in Genesis 3 God says to the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The deadly serpent reminds us of the consequences of our rebellion from God. Because of human rebellion we live in a world drowning in sin and suffering.
            For those who have watched the Kony 2012 video you know what I'm talking about. We live in a world not just of individual sin. One man choosing to harm a child, but we live in a world where a man like Kony can create a system of sin that steals children and destroys lives. And Sin also gets into our systems and allow Kony to keep doing what he's doing. Anyway, I'm sure you really don't need me to prove to you that we live in a broken world. All you need to do is turn on the news.   
            The Hebrew people now 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 realize the stupidity of what they've done. Of course turning away from the God of life would mean 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. They needed to act in faith. They needed to put their trust into action. They needed to believe that what God said was true- look in 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. The letter of James reminds us that even demons believe in God, and shudder in terror (2:19). Belief is different than trust. God gave the Hebrew people a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace that God will save them. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent. Whoever looks at it, 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 once, I'm not sure where I heard it. It was 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 friction 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 secured with a rope to the ceiling in the centre 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 teachers 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'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. They turned from those promises again and 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 killing their friends and family. Instead of getting rid of the snakes they were taught to trust God in the middle of their suffering. When they were bit, they looked at the bronze snake and they lived. When they looked at that symbol of their suffering and death they lived.      
            Though it may be deeper than a simple reading allows. This is also no ordinary symbol. The serpents that were biting the people were called in the Hebrew "Saraph" serpents. This word "Saraph" can mean a few things. The most plain meaning is "fiery". The Serpent is a "fiery" serpent. This might mean that the bite burned like fire.
            "Saraph" might have a bit more of a mysterious meaning. "Saraph" might point to a kind of winged serpent that we find in the art of ancient Egypt (Glen Taylor- Wycliffe College). If that is what we are talking about, which is very possible looking at the Hebrew, the bronze serpent might have looked something like this [see picture below]. I don't know, I wasn't there, but just maybe this is what the Hebrew people were looking at with eyes of faith- trusting that God would save them from the poison of the world that came about from their own sin. The Hebrews looked upon this sacrament- this means of the grace of God- and lived.
            This cross-like serpent image was important to the Hebrew people. They carried it with them when they established themselves in the promised land. We read that over 500 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 over 500 years. Imagine this symbol in the temple.   
               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. We are invited to look at him and believe. We are invited to look at the cross- an instrument of torture and destruction- and 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 because of the work Jesus did there.
            We don't know exactly how it works, but we are told God's motivation for doing it in verse 16, "16 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. 17 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. God wants us to respond. His hand is outstretched and he wants us to grab it. 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 upon 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 get out of our seats and come forward with our hands out to receive the bread and wine- Jesus' body and blood. We are invited to accept that Jesus did this act of love for each of us.
            When we respond in this way, we stay on the chair as the pendulum swings back at us. We believe it. 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, all we have to do is receive it. Amen.        

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