Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“An Unpredictable God”
Rev. Art Ritter
March 11, 2018
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.
As I was lying in bed a couple of weeks ago, flipping through the digital television channels to see if anything interesting was on, I came across an old black and white Western movie. It was probably filmed in the 50’s or possibly the early 60’s. The scene I stumbled onto was a group of settlers, crossing a mountainous region, and discussing where they were either going to make camp or perhaps even build a cabin. A question of dialogue from one of the characters caught my ear. He asked, “Do we know if we are above the snake line?” The snake line? I had never heard of such a thing before. I was familiar with the timber line but I didn’t know such a demarcation existed for snakes.
The next morning I googled “snake line” and found this. There is in nature, a real and definite line in elevation above which you will never find a snake. Early American settlers referred to this line as “the snake line.” When they were purchasing property or decided where to locate a house or cabin they would try to clarify whether or not that piece of property was above the snake line. When the land on such places was often more rocky, harder to clear, and certainly not as fertile as land in a rich valley, early settlers knew that the land below was frequently infested with rattlesnakes, adders, and copperheads. And so they chose to raise their families on the higher ground, above the snake line, rather than risk snake bites for themselves and their loved ones.
Nearly fifty-six percent of all Americans admit that snakes are the thing in life that they fear most. Snakes consistently beat out speaking public, heights, closed in places, mice and spiders as our worst fear. I always scratch my head when I consider that more of us fear snakes than a serious medical disease, although 1 in 13 of us will contract such a major disease in our lifetime while only 1 in 70,000 of us will be bitten by a snake. More people are killed annually by bee stings than by snake bites yet many more people are frightened by snakes than bees.
Yet I have to admit, the presence of a snake makes me feel very uneasy. A few weeks ago while vacationing in Florida, I came across a snake in the path to our room. Perhaps I should say more accurately, the snake came across me. When he suddenly slithered across the path, moving from one garden to another, I must have jumped a foot. I certainly was glad that no one was around to capture my reaction on camera!
William Willimon writes about a hike that he took with a group of people through the mountains of western North Carolina. Before the hike began, one of the hikers said, “I want everyone to know that I am deathly afraid of snakes. I suffer from herpaphobia. So I am fine, but don’t anyone come across a snake and if you do, don’t tell me about it, or I will go truly ballistic.” Another member of the group, a perhaps overly rational man, responded to the woman by saying, “That’s wonderful. The thing you fear most in life is a secretive reptile, the chances of which seeing are extremely slim. I almost envy you. I fear planes crashing into buildings, mass killings, a virus from Asia, and the collapse of my 401K. You are lucky if the thing that scares the wits out of you is a reptile.”
In the book of Numbers there is a strange passage about snakes. The people of Israel, led by Moses, had left slavery in Egypt and had wandered in the wilderness for some time. After months or perhaps years, they grew tired wandering. They grew impatient at the progress they seemed to be making toward the Promised Land. They actually detested the miserable manna that they were forced to eat, manna that God had earlier provided when they complained about being hungry. Now the food didn’t seem to match their more selective palates. One author puts it this way, “The people of Israel were tired of living on God’s desert welfare.” They were cranky and whiny. They were impatient and short-tempered. They seemed to have forgotten that God had rescued them from slavery in the first place and was leading them to a promised land. There was nothing that Moses could do about the complainers.
This is where the story gets really strange. As a responses to the complaining, God sent poisonous snakes among the people. God lowered the elevation of the snake line considerably! And the snakes did what snakes do best-bite. The bites were literally painful, fiery bites that killed many of the people of Israel. The word “seraph” comes from the word “fire,” so these snakes packed a painful punch. These serpents were lethal and the people soon understood that if God didn’t do something about them, many of the people would perish.
The Israelites got down on their knees and begged Moses to move God to save them from the snakes. Now, it may be hard for us to comprehend God sending such calamity upon people, even people showing such a lack of faith. We may not believe that God works in such a cold and heartless manner. Or perhaps this is just a story, a story that finds a divine hand in a terrible situation, a story that blames God when there is no other likely cause.
And the story gets stranger. The people of Israel came to their senses and confessed of their sin of speaking against God. Moses came up with a solution to the snake problem. He called for a bronze snake to be placed upon a pole, and lifted above the people. While we might see this as a clear violation of the Second Commandment against worshipping false idols, the people of God were called to look up and gaze upon the snake. By looking up, they would look past their fear of what was on the ground surrounding them. By gazing at the object of their fear, they would be able to seriously deal with their fears. The whole thing seems rather preposterous to us today, but God suggested it. It may seem rather counter-intuitive, but that is how an unpredictable God works. Moses followed through. The people believed.
Scott Hoezee writes that it is curious to him that God is able to do a great number of things more easily than deal with the presence of sin and evil. Compared to the birth and life and crucifixion and death and resurrection of Jesus- the whole act of Creation was a snap. While God can part seas and cause the sun to stand still in the sky, God cannot simply snap fingers and make sin and evil and the darkness of humanity disappear. Something more complex, something more meaningful, something that actually involves God’s people has to happen in order for such difficult problems are addressed.
So here in the book of Numbers, in the story of God’s people wandering the in wilderness, we have this story of a snake lifted up to help the faithful people of God get through a plague of snakebites. The people had to look at a snake, the very thing that was afflicting them, before some kind of healing and relief would happen. They had to confront their fear. They had to be honest about who they were and how they had fallen short in God’s eyes. They had to truthfully confront their limits of life. They had to stop looking down at the pain and anxiety surrounding them and start looking up at the hope of God which provides greater meaning to any situation. The lesson is that God takes our fears, our shortcomings, our sins, our limits; God takes these things from beneath our feet where they impede our journey. God lifts them up where we can see them clearly and walk forward with faith.
Perhaps that is what this season of Lent is all about. As we walk through the wilderness of life, as we wander between promise and fulfillment, we can often turn away from God. We can settle for less. We can pursue pleasures and delights. We can make choices and decisions that blind us to what it is that God is calling us to be. And then we encounter the bite of the snake. We are confronted by the reality that what we chasing and what we are building is really meaningless. We are aware that this gift of life can leave us at any time and we have not yet embraced it or used it as God has intended. Lent is a time to be honest about all of that- about the snakes that bite at our heels and the sin that keeps us separated from God. And it is about understanding the unpredictable God’s solution. It is not escape. It is not a simple scrubbing or cleaning. It is not a denial of reality. It is a process of looking up, of seeing and understanding God’s redemption of our lives. It is a realization that God will ultimately work through our death and our limits through the hope of resurrection. It is in knowing that we must confess to be forgiven, we must hurt before we are healed, and we might die before we can live.