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Lent 4, 03/15/2015

Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9, by Allison Zbicz Michael


From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21:4-9 NRSV


Snakes are, perhaps, the most wretched of all creatures in the Scriptures. A serpent lurked among the trees in the garden of Eden, an unwelcome interloper in paradise who precipitated a disastrous fall. The first biblical punishment is his to endure. God declares: “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15). Thus, from the beginning, the snake becomes the biblical sign and symbol of all that went wrong with the world when sin and death entered into it.

The snake’s reputation does not improve after the biblical action moves outside of Eden. In Exodus, Pharoah’s magicians turn their staffs into snakes as an obstinant display of rebellion against God’s command (Exod. 7:8-13). “Why do we need to listen to your God,” Phaoah seemed to say, “if my men can work wonders and even the snakes obey us?”

Pharoah, like Eve, should have been more wary of the temptation to power. They both forgot that they are creatures, that their authority has limits. The failure to recognize this has dreadful consequenses. Moments later, Aaron’s rod, also changed to a snake, and ate up the rods of these so-called wise men. This was a sign of judgment against pretenders to the throne which belongs to God alone, and a foretaste of the plagues to come.

And now, in the book of Numbers, the querulous people of God moan for the umpteenth time about their wilderness diet. The Isrealites are exhausted from their long journey, and they continue to be terribly unimaginative in their complaints. Even the Lord, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” eventually wearies of their ungrateful whining. So, he leaves them to be afflicted for a time by the toxins they themselves have unleashed on the world. Ingratitude, and pride are always poisonous. It just happens that in this case, the poison took on visible form.

These snakes of the desert, following their serpentine biblical ancestors, become the sign of both sin and of God’s just judgment. These snakes are a reminder to the people of Israel that their sin, like that of Adam and Eve, is direct rebellion against God.

The people of God do turn back to God after being visited by this deadly problem. Whether they are sorry for their sin, or simply sorry about the consequences of their sin, we do not know. Their history suggests that if they are sorry for their sin, their sorrow will probably be short-lived, forgotten after the last snake slithers away. At this point in the story, at least, nobody seems interested in the question of their motivation. The people beg Moses to intercede for them before the Lord. Moses does as they ask, and their merciful God hears the cries of his children, giving them a way to find healing from the snakes. He does this by commanding Moses to make a poisonous serpent and lift it up on a pole. Those who have been bitten can look up at this serpent-on-the-pole to receive healing.

In theory, God could have given the Israelites the antivenom or taught them a way to kill the snakes. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching (from a safe distance) a nest of copperheads in the woodpile handily exterminated by two men with a couple of sharp garden tools. But axes would not have been as fitting as the solution that was actually offered, and perhaps a simple antivenom would have been too easy.

This strange serpent lifted up on a pole is a more poetic form of both justice and mercy.

The Israelites are not simply looking at a snake or a statue of a snake. Rather, they are looking to the sign of God’s judgment and the symbol of their sin. In order to find healing, they first face the harsh and poisonous reality of their habitual sin, their habitual pride, their habitual refusal to trust and honor the Lord God. To look at that snake is, in part, to look themselves in the mirror and to discover their own sin as the destructive force that it is.

The cure is a free and undeserved gift, but illness can only be cured after an accurate diagnosis.

God has continued to lift up serpents in the wilderness before his people, to find ways show them their sin and shower upon them his healing grace. Most profoundly, this is what happens on the cross. Jesus himself draws the comparison and points out the connection when he tells his followers that “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” (Jn. 3:14).

The cross reveals the poisonous reality of sin with vivid clarity. That cruel instrument of torture shows us our own cruelty. The Lord’s loneliness, abandoned by his friends, shows us how quick we are to abandon his side when faith is difficult. The multitude’s jeers show us our ingratitute to a man who has done nothing but feed them with good things. His willing forgiveness of his tormentors reveals to us the heardness of our own hearts. And on it goes. To look upon the cross is to see ourselves in light of God’s just judgment.

Is it any wonder that so few want to see it in all its ugliness? Is it any wonder that some want to let cross and crucifix gather dust in back hall closets in order to spend more time on “happier” themes? Or is it better to guild it and decorate it with precious jewels to hide the ugliness of the rough-hewn instrument of death? If the cross is partly a sign of our sin and God’s just judgment, is it any great surprise that humans often prefer to avoid it?

Despite some reluctance, however, we have not thrown out our crucifixes, nor have we cancelled Lent this year. We need healing too desperately for that, and as Christians, we turn to Jesus for that healing. When we feel that sin’s poison has seeped into our veins and has begun to suffocate us, we face the cross, the Son of Man lifted up, and we cry out with the Israelites, “help us, Lord!”

Thanks be to God that he always hears the cry of his children.

Jesus, lifted up on the cross, gives an even more profound healing than the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. Look upon his pained face, the innocent one, who endures the venom that our sin unleashed. Look also upon his tender mercy and love, his sacrifice to conquer sin and death, and be healed. He takes away the power of sin. He takes away the sting of death. Look at him. He wants you to live.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 


The Rev. Allison Zbicz Michael
Seward, New York
E-Mail: zbiczmichael@gmail.com