Written by Pastor Ed
Facing Our Fears
March 11, 2018 Lent 4
Numbers 21: 4-9
John 3: 14-21
If there’s one thing that my younger brother and Indiana Jones have in common it is a fear of snakes. I don’t know if the church my brother is attending will be using this text this morning or not, but if so, my brother may just walk out. We think it has to do with a rubber snake that he put in my mother’s bed one night, and then she returned the favour on another night when he came home late and not in the best shape! He sort of freaked out and has had a fear of snakes ever since.
The account we read from Numbers 21 is about snakes, but it’s really about more than snakes. The children of Israel are on their way from Egypt to the promised land. Again and again we are told of their complaining and God providing for them, water, food, and whatever else they needed. But now they were running into several set-backs and again they were not happy.
The most direct route to where they were headed was through the land of Edom, and they had sent a message to the king of Edom requesting permission to cross his land, promising that they would go straight through on the King’s highway and wouldn’t even stop to eat or drink. Kind of like through traffic on the Trans-Canada going through Banff National Park. But the king of Edom said, “No way!” and sent out the border patrol to make sure they didn’t cross the border.
So that meant they had to go the long way around, what in our family was known as the scenic route, and then to add to their frustration, along the way they lost one of their leaders, Aaron. And that meant they had to go into mourning for 30 days, another set-back. And yet, when Arad, a Canaanite king saw an opportunity and came out to fight with Israel, “the Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns.” (Num. 21: 3)
So here they were traveling through a barren land, going around Edom. Millennia later Lawrence of Arabia would describe this land as “sinister, full of forbidding and actively evil, with only salt water, barren palms and bush’s which served neither for grazing or firewood. That it was snake devoted: the valley floor simply creeping with horn vipers, puff adders, cobra and black snakes.” (<http://howard-carter.blogspot.ca/2014/06/snakes-on-plain-previewnumbers-214-9.html) And, as one might expect the people again began to complain.
As Howard Carter states in his commentary on this text, “So the Lord sends snakes, from Lawrence’s description they didn’t have to come far. While it challenges us to consider God’s role in natural disasters, Lawrence had talked of the need to walk carefully with a stick bashing every bush in this land and you can imagine a group of grumpy disillusioned Israelites simply stomping and trudging through the same land easily falling victim to snake attack. It sobers them up real quick they realise what they have done and go to Moses who they had just being maligning and ask him to intercede on their behalf. We often think of disasters and difficulties being God’s judgement rather than being a time when God wakes us up to our need for him.
And so Moses intercedes once again (I would think by now he might be getting a bit fed up with them) and God provides a remedy, a bronze snake on a pole, and tells the people that if they are bitten by a snake, if they look at the serpent, they will be healed. Interesting point that God didn’t wipe out the snakes, but rather provided a means of healing.
It is this incident that Jesus refers to as he speaks with Nicodemus, recorded in John 3. “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: 14-15) Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus about how it is that someone can be born anew, or from above, depending on how you translate the Greek word. And it has to do with belief. But let’s be clear, belief in John, indeed throughout the Bible, is never just about some kind of intellectual assent, but involves acting on the belief.
The Children of Israel had to actually look at the serpent, and even then it wasn’t the bronze serpent that healed them, it was God. This is reinforced by a midrash on this passage from the book of Wisdom, which says, “They had a symbol of salvation to remind them of the precept of your Law. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the Saviour of all.” (Wis. 16: 6-7)
All of us have our fears, whether they are of snakes or some other real and tangible threat. But we also have those fears that are more intangible. We fear the unknown that lies ahead. We fear change or something new. And that’s especially true when we have had to make other changes, are disgruntled about things, or feel like the world has turned against us in some way. All of us can undoubtedly relate to how the Israelites must have felt as they trudged through the wilderness, beating the bushes to avoid the snakes! Sometimes our lives feel a bit like that as well.
And when that happens we are prone to try and find someone to blame. The Israelites blamed Moses and wanted to go back to the good old days in Egypt, forgetting that they were slaves and had cried out to be delivered. We blame leaders, foreigners, or whoever happens to appear as an easy target. Dare I suggest that even Jesus may have been speaking for himself as he faced the prospect of death?
Rather than banish the snakes, God calls on the people to face their fear. The thing they had to look at was exactly what they were afraid of! And in doing so, they also had to affirm their trust and belief that God would provide and save them. For the loss of that trust was really the problem. When we enter those dark places in our lives, when things seem to be going from bad to worse, and when our fears overtake us, it is easy to lose our trust in the one who has provided for us so many times before.
Jesus calls Nicodemus to that same trust and notes that God isn’t about bringing condemnation and darkness, but rather in bringing light and life. When we face our fears we are reminded that God walks with us, even thru the valley of the shadow of death. Even when our fear has to do with the unknown that lies ahead, we know that God is already there.
Whether we look around us at society in general, or think only of our own current situation, it would be easy to become fearful. There are lots of unknowns. We had a few of our unknowns answered over the past two weeks, and you may have one of your unknowns answered in just a little while. But times of change leave many unanswered questions and we sometimes wish things could just go on like they had been, the “good old days.”
God calls us to face those fears, believe and obey, and trust that the God who led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and who sent Jesus into the world, is still active and ready to provide for us in all our circumstances, because of God’s love for us and for the world.
Between me and you,
with pain and darkness clouding your view,
I’ll give you courage to face what is true,
I choose to be there with you.
“Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Let’s affirm that as we sing.