T HIS STRANGE AND TROUBLING STORY from the rarely read book of Numbers would probably be lost if not for Jesus referencing it in his conversation with Nicodemus.
First, a recap of this part of the wilderness journey, then Jesus.
If you’ve been keeping up, the freed slaves safely crossed the sea. They are in the wilderness, a biblical place of discovering faith and God. One word describes this time: “grumbling.”
These newly freed Hebrews grumble because the water is bitter; grumble because they have no food; grumble because of the scarcity of water. Each time, God provides. Sweet water. Manna from heaven. Water from a rock.
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TODAY IS MORE of the same, but with a twist. The Hebrews — men, women, children, and livestock — slowly travel to the promised land, described as a land of “milk and honey.” They are tired of wilderness. Tired of water from rocks. Tired of manna.
In this vast wilderness, the people grow impatient. They speak against God and Moses, making exaggerated claims. “We have no food and we don’t like the food we have!”
Do you find that an odd statement? I do.
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NOW, I’VE ALWAYS IMAGINED receiving manna from heaven as something special. We sing about it. “Brethren, we have met to worship … pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.” In our final hymn today, we will sing, “daily manna still provide you.”
Yet, they complain about having to eat it day in and day out.
An article in the news about a month ago reported that for 10 years, a 65-year-old Belgian man has been tormented by a constant stream of pizza deliveries he didn’t order. He reports, “I cannot sleep anymore. I start shaking every time I hear a scooter on the street … . I dread that someone will come to drop off hot pizzas yet another time.” I guess if a person can get tired of daily pizza, a person can get tired of daily manna showered all around.
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THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a few-week journey, maybe a couple of months. It’s turned into an unending schlep across a hot, dry, uninviting desert. The people grow impatient. And why not?
God gets fed up with their restless desires and expectations. Instead of sending more quail or filet mignon, God sends poisonous snakes. They slither into the camp and bite people who then die.
Folks recognize this is punishment for sinning against God with their complaining, so they confess their sins. God hears them, instructs Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole. Anyone who looks at the serpent statue will live.
And sure enough, that happens. People get bitten, look up at the pole and certain death turns to life. I think it’s important to note that God doesn’t remove the snakes, God provides a way to live in spite of the snakes. Good to remember in our own lives. Obstacles, pain may not go away, but God provides a way to get through them.
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THIS WHOLE SCARY SCENE from Numbers shows up in John’s gospel as an allegorical reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus is talking to Nicodemus. Just before Jesus says, “For God so loved the world …,” he says this: “And 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.” (John 3:14)
John’s Gospel gives a new lens through which to view the story of the bronze serpent. There is a thematic tie between the serpent and the cross. In both the story of the serpent and the story of the cross, a cause of death is transformed by God into a symbol of life.
The image of the poisonous serpent, the thing that had been so deadly, became for those Israelites in the wilderness an image that promised healing and life. In Christianity, the cross is transformed from an instrument of oppression, torture and execution to a vital symbol that reminds us of God’s promise of resurrection and restoration. Both are symbols of death giving way to life.
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THE SON OF MAN will be lifted up. That means exalted. The Son of Man must be lifted up in order to be exalted. The physical act of lifting up is a moment of exaltation.
In the crucifixion, Jesus is high and lifted up, shining in the light of his glory. Jesus pours out his power and love. The snake, lifted up for the people to see, gave physical life to these desert wanderers. Jesus lifted up on the cross makes eternal life possible for wanderers like us.
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ETERNAL LIFE — no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or human will, but by God. Eternal life lived in the unending presence of God.
The one thing, the one enemy, we all share is death itself.
And God takes death and stands it on its head; God announces that out of death comes new, vibrant, resurrection life
Through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, we can be born again. Thanks be to God! Amen.