Numbers 21:4- 9
One of my favorite stories is an old Indian story. There was a young boy who had to move his elephants through the busy market each day to get to work. As he would walk the market the elephant’s unruly trunks would make trouble. As they would walk through their trunks would move to and fro- grabbing a bunch of bananas here, and a head of cabbage there from the cart of a vendor and dropping it into his mouth. As you can imagine this didn’t go over well with vendors who were having their merchandise stolen by the thoughtless elephants.
In looking for a solution, the boy discovered that if he gave the elephants a stick to hold onto- the trunks were then distracted and occupied - and they could walk through the market without stealing- and the boy could get to work without incident.
The people of Israel were wandering- not through a market- but in the wilderness. They were restless, irritable- perhaps a little ‘hangry’ we all know that feeling..… All they can see in this moment is their misery. Enough time has passed that they no longer remember the days of brick without straw, of back breaking labor, and lives of slavery. All they know now is hunger and exhaustion. The past looks better than the present.
They are living in what I call their ‘monkey brain’ and can focus on nothing more than the misery in front of them. They have lost a wider perspective.
Their misery only gets worse when they find themselves overwhelmed by an infestation of poisonous fiery snakes- which they see as punishment for their complaining. They feel hopeless and stuck and see no way out.
Out of desperation they go back to Moses- who must feel a bit like an unappreciated mother at this point surrounded by whining children. The people ask Moses to help them out- the people are dying - trapped in a land of hunger- and now of venomous snakes.
So Moses calls out to God.. and this is when I imagine God breaking out the snarky sarcastic voice…
Alright, alright let's try this… YHWH responds, "Make a Seraph, and put it on a pole so that any who are bitten can look at it and live.”
So this is exactly what Moses does- he makes a bronze viper- lifts it up on a pole. and Whenever the snakes bite someone, that person would look at the bronze viper and live".
Looking at the snake becomes an antidote - when the people who are bitten change their focus away from the snakes biting them- and look up at the bronze snake, and they live.
So how are we to understand this highly unusual text? We know from both the ten commandments, and from multiple incidents in the Hebrew Bible that God is not one for idol worship or magic- so we can eliminate these two understandings of this text. In fact later in 2 Kings the people are reprimanded for misunderstanding and beginning to worship this seraph - God reminds the people that the snake on the pole is not to become an idol to worship. Rather this snake on a pole is a tool- a distraction to call the people to point themselves toward life- to give them an alternative to the suffering they are trapped in- a life with hunger and fiery snakes. They change their focus to a way of life, and they live.
For us as Christians in the 21st century-- this somewhat bizarre text would not have such power for us- if it had not been later called upon in the book of John: and this is where this get’s really fascinating…
We all know John 3:16: For God so loved the world…
But do you know John 3:14?
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Anyone who is "snakebit" has to look at the image and be healed. This is the episode that is called to mind before we are reminded of how much God loved the world.
Just as the snake is not meant to be magical- or an idol- neither is Jesus. Rather Jesus- like the snake- points toward a different way. Calls on the people to hold onto the ways of life rather than the ways of death.
For those trapped in systems that kill— the way of Jesus brings the way of life.
You see, in Jesus time people were trapped in broken systems. Trapped in the unjust economy of the Roman empire- 98 % lived in poverty. Those where were born with a disability were seen as ‘sinners’- relegated to a life of begging- - mental illness meant possession by demons and exclusion from community. Have and have nots was a life determining reality. Who’s in and who’s out were questions that permeated political, social and religious systems.
This week- many people here at First Plymouth- including my family- participated in the SNAP challenge.. This is a challenge to live for a week on what those who use food stamps- or supplemental nutrition assistance live on— this amount is $4.14 a day per person in Colorado - which means no eating out- and no luxury items.. which my husband reminded me included the glass of wine I was drinking with my dinner Monday night- I blew it day one.
The purpose of this challenge is not to create opportunities for us to harass each other about our incompetence in following a simple challenge— or to recreate the whining and hunger of the Isrealites in the wilderness- though these were certainly side effects of the challenge in our home…
The intent of the challenge is to strengthen our ‘empathy muscles’ and to gain awareness and perspective on our broken food systems. To shake us a bit that we might begin to look up from the ways we have grown accustomed to.
Nearly 1 in 7 Coloradans struggle with hunger - facing times when there is not enough money to buy food for their families or themselves.
Nearly 1 in 5 Colorado kids may not know when or where they will get their next meal.
Nearly 1 in 7 Colorado seniors struggle with hunger, leading to choices between food and medication.
And - while these are difficult statistics- it doesn’t stop there.
Not only do we have a hunger issue in the dessert: We also have a snake issue.
We live in a broken system where hunger and food insecurity is but one symptom of deeper challenges. In our world- hunger is not an issue of a lack of food— rather it is an issue of a poor distribution of food and resources. There is deep injustice in how our food system works.
While 21,000 people in the world die each day from hunger related causes- 21,000 each day: 27 % of adults in the United States are obese.
We do not have a lack of food or resources.
These are symptoms of a broken system where income inequality has expanded exponentially in my lifetime, where an industrialized food system has manipulated food quality and price, and where 1 in 8 Coloradans live in poverty.
We are immersed in interconnected systems that benefit some and harm others. These systems have become all we know. We take part in them- even if we disagree with them- Like the Israelites in the wilderness- it is the only reality we see. It’s all we know.
It was in a context of broken systems that Jesus came and called the people to a different reality.
A reality where life overcomes death.
Where equality wins against disparity.
Where full bellies replace hunger and poverty.
Where grace and faith overtake fear and condemnation.
These are the ways of life. When we hold onto - and work toward - love, and feeding, healing, justice, compassion and grace— as the elephant holds a stick- we can break through the suffering of the broken systems we are trapped in.
Sometimes it takes something bizarre - like a bronze snake on a pole- or something extreme like the crucifixion of one who stands for love- or something seemingly simple like an elephant holding a stick- to get our attention.
To remind us that there is another way than that which we are trapped in. To shake us from complacency and open our eyes to both the way things actually are, and the way things can be.
Standing in solidarity with those who struggle to put food on the table helps open our eyes to the deep brokenness in our way of life that creates such disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. As we strengthen our ‘empathy muscles’ we begin to cry out like the israelites in the wilderness longing for a way out of this certain death we are trapped in. We cry out and are invited to look up- to see that Yes! Yes! there is another way.
In this lenten season we are reminded that Jesus was lifted up to show that there is another way - that the way of life overcomes the way of death. That the way to break down unjust systems is through solidarity, compassion, and speaking truth to power.
We are called to hold onto - and to walk toward- these ways of being — with focus and intent—
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who looks away from the ways of brokenness- and looks toward the ways of life- may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might find life and thriving and justice forever for All - through him.
May it be so.