Look at it and live
I come to you in the name of the One in whom all our hope is founded, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen
From the book of Numbers: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people died…. 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.”
A 2017 National Geographic article is titled this: BABIES CONFIRM: FEAR OF SNAKES AND SPIDERS IS HARDWIRED
And fear of snakes, known as “Ophidiophobia” tops or is close to the top of things many humans fear.
So it is hard to comprehend a God whose response to the Israelite’s complaints against him is to send poisonous snakes that bite and kill them.
In some ways it reads as some sort of sadistic use of power on the part of God.
Over these weeks of Lent, we have been exploring the nature of God’s covenants, these promises of God to be in relationship with God’s people – the sign of the rainbow after the flood, a promise to Abraham and Sarah of a child whose descendants will number the stars, a set of laws in the Ten Commandments. How do poisonous snakes and a serpent of bronze even fit into this theme of covenant and relationship?
The book of Numbers is the culmination of the story of Israel’s exodus from oppression in Egypt and their journey to take possession of the land God promised their forebears. It is called Numbers because the book begins and ends with a census of the Israelites making their way to the promised land. And it is important to note that most of those named in the first census are not among those found in the second. Over the course of this arduous and fraught-filled 40 years journey to Canaan, many Israelites die, and the ongoing thread throughout Numbers is the story of the Israelites coming to terms with the recognition that the old generation will not see God’s promises come to fruition. It is the new generation named at the end of Numbers who stand at the Plain of Moab ready to cross the River Jordan.
And the deaths of those who fled the oppression of Egypt into a wilderness journey of unknown lengths are not at all pleasant – plagues, leprosy, and today snake bites. And they are deaths that appear to be brought on by complaining and rebellion against God’s commands.
And in today’s passage, it is the complaints that there is no food and water, and the food we have is miserable. We detest it. We left Egypt for this? And what is different about the complaint today is that the people are complaining not only against Moses but against God. So how does God respond? Not by sending better quality manna or more quail. No, God sends poisonous serpents who bite the people and kill them.
The people beg Moses to intercede, and he does, and God, rather than removing the snakes, sends a cure for snakebite. They’ll still get bitten; that danger doesn’t go away, although God does offer healing if they look in the right direction.
So what are we to make of this. It would be easy to gloss over the challenging parts of this text and say that God sends healing right when we need it. And there is some truth in this interpretation. But I believe we can’t push to the side the harsh realities that the text brings to our attention.
God’s response to Moses’ intercession to save the people is to force those who want to be saved from the venomous bite of the serpent to look at what they fear most head on. God sends a snake, the thing that is killing them, to save them. Look at it and live.
That one line grabs me every time I read it. Look at it and live. It is no easy thing to look squarely at something we might fear in a visceral, recoiling way and trust that facing it can be what will save us. Yet that is what God is asking the Israelites and us as well, to do.
This text invites us to look, to see, to cast our eyes in a less than comfortable direction. In Numbers, God requires the Israelites to look up to be healed from the venom of the snake. To gaze without flinching at the monstrous thing their sin has conjured. In order to be saved, the people have to confront the serpent — they have to look hard at what harms, poisons, breaks, and kills them – to receive God’s merciful healing. What we think might kill us becomes instead an opportunity for transformation, for healing. And for me, what feels so scary about this is the amount of trust in God’s mercy it calls for. God’s promise to us, God’s covenant that if you look at it, you will live requires a willingness to face head on our fears,our demons, our sinfulness and truly believe that we can be healed. And it requires that we return again and again – because God doesn’t take the snakes away or make them any less poisonous.
And for me, this is the purpose of Lent. In wanting to rush to the joy of resurrection, it is easy to skip right past the Cross. Lent,however, invites us to look squarely at the cross. Our gospel today hearkens back to Numbers with Jesus telling Nicodemus that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Look up and live.
“When we look at the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the other wreaks.” (Debi Thomas) And in looking at this head on, we can even more clearly our need for a God who will take the most horrific instruments of death and transform them for the purpose of resurrection.
The cross invites us to look up, to face the discomfort, and to depend wholly on God to bring life out of death, light out of shadow, and healing out of pain. To believe in the power of the cross is to rely on Jesus for our very lives. It is to trust that the Cross is our only means of rescue.
Look at it and live. Just as the Israelites had to look at the serpent to live so must we look at the Cross, to see Jesus there, so that we too might live. Look at it and live. Amen