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Look Up And Live

Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit
Series VI, Cycle B
Do you like snakes? Not many do. No other creature on the face of the planet so universally brings forth a sense of revulsion and disgust. True or not, we think of snakes as icky, slimy, nasty, and as our text reminds, dangerous.

It seems that the children of Israel, in the midst of their wilderness wandering after the escape from slavery in Egypt, had stumbled on to a location south of the Dead Sea that is infamous for its lethal snakes. "Big deal," they no doubt thought. "Why should we expect anything different? This trip has been one big fiasco from beginning to end."

Fiasco? Perhaps. Adventure? Absolutely. You can read all about this extended hike in the book of Numbers. In fact, the Hebrew Bible titles the book more accurately "In the Wilderness." The narrative begins about a year after the exodus. God tells Moses to take a census of the people to determine the number (thus the name of the book in our Bible) of men available for combat should such necessity arise. Then following about ten chapters of further instruction, they set out for the promised land.

As we know, it did not take long for the griping and grumbling to start. Sometime back, they had begun their diet of manna -- those small round grains or flakes, which appeared around the Israelites' camp each morning, which were ground and baked into cakes or boiled. The name may have come from the question the Israelites asked when they first saw them: "What is it (mah nah)?" But now those cakes were getting old. "How about some meat, Moses? Yeah, Egypt may not have been perfect, but at least we had some fish every so often ... not to mention cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions, even garlic. Give us some meat. Meat! Meat! Meat! Meat!" These were not happy campers.

Poor Moses. God says that some help would be forthcoming -- seventy men should be set aside to assist. Not only that, meat was on the way -- quail. God says, "You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month -- until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it ..." (Numbers 11:19-20a). So there!

The wilderness wandering continues. They arrived at the border of Canaan and were instructed to send in a spy team for a forty-day reconnaissance run -- twelve men, one representing each of the tribes of Israel. You remember the result from Sunday school: the report of a land "flowing with milk and honey" (and to prove it they had brought back a bunch of grapes that was so huge that it took two of them to carry it), but the populace matched the grapes -- also huge. Two of the twelve spies -- Joshua and Caleb -- said, "So what, let's go." But the other ten said, "No way; they would turn us into dog meat."

Again, the weeping and wailing and whining starts: "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (Numbers 14:2-3). Then they wanted to choose a new leader to replace Moses, someone who would take them back to the Pharaoh. Joshua and Caleb try to calm the crowd with new assurances of coming victory, but folks wanted to stone them into silence.

By now, God is getting steamed. Once more, Moses intercedes on the people's behalf, calms God down and extracts a promise that they will not be wiped out. But there would be a price: The wilderness wandering would continue -- forty years worth ... one year for each of the forty days the spies were in the land; and the only men of Israel now alive and over the age of twenty who would finally live in the promised land would be Joshua and Caleb, because they were the only two who had enough faith to believe that their God would give the victory.

As you well know, the story does not end there. There would be more grumbling and grousing. One outright mutiny against Moses' leadership ended up costing the lives of almost 15,000 people in a plague. There are complaints about not enough water, so God arranges for Moses to be able to strike a rock with his staff and bring forth enough for all.

Now, the end of the long journey is near. And they have encamped in this desert region that is infamous for the snakes. The griping and moaning resume: "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" (v. 5). For God, this was about the last straw. Their venomous tongues would be repaid in kind ... with more venom. And people began to die.

They come to Moses. They finally admit that they have done wrong: "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you" (v. 7). Aha! All the twelve-step programs tell us that the only way to correct a problem is to recognize that you have it. They agree that their mouths have gotten them into this trouble. "Now Moses, please, please, please pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us."

So he does. Moses intercedes in prayer, gets this strange instruction about making a bronze image of a serpent and hanging it on a pole in the center of the camp. Then he is to inform the people that anyone who is bitten will survive if he or she will just cast their eyes toward the snake. Strange. Why not just get rid of the snakes? Was this God's way of saying that healing will not come until we recognize the disease? Perhaps. So, the prescription was given -- look and live -- and they did. And the grumbling finally stopped. At least for these folks.

One might wish that this encounter in the desert with serious venom would have marked the absolute end of venomous complaining and criticizing among God's people, but we know it did not. It goes on all the time, even to this day, despite the fact that it does no one any good. Some wag has noted Jesus could turn water into wine, but has never been able to turn whining into anything.

Sometimes we might need snakes. There is a story of three men who live on a ranch out west, the father, John, and his sons, Jake and Joe. They never had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. When he arrives, the parson is asked to offer a prayer for Jake: "O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen."1 Hmm.

Ancient Israel needed the snakes. Yes, they focused on the brass serpent when they were supposed to and found healing. But, as the years wore on, that brass serpent became an idol to which the people brought sacrifices. Finally, the practice became so outrageous that good king Hezekiah smashed the thing to pieces (2 Kings 18:4). It is easy to lose focus.

That is a good lesson for the church -- keep the focus. Look and live. And to remember how contagious that sort of thing is: look up, and everyone else wants to look up with you. What a witness! "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.


1. Robert Hutchinson, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 03 09," #73, 3/6/97.

2. "Turn Your Eyes," words by Helen H. Lemmel, 1922.
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