Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Over and done. The Israelites were ready to be over and done with the wilderness. They wanted rest from uproar and flight, fear and conflict. All they wanted to do was to safely touch down on the land God had promised them.
But their flight from Egypt had just been re-routed around Edom. They’d applied for entry to transit via Edom’s well-provisioned main roads. They mentioned how both nations were descended from Abraham, saying, “after all, we’re brothers!” But the Edomites turned them away, as if that bit of unpleasantness between those brothers from a few generations back should still matter.
Who even cared anymore about the birthright that Jacob had stolen from his older twin Esau with his mother Rebecca’s help. While their father Isaac looked the other way. But it turns out that Esau’s descendants had an uncomfortably long memory about the second-class status to which their whole tribe had been unjustly relegated.
So Edom closed their borders to the Israelites and warned that if they tried to enter illegally they would be hunted down and even killed. And the Israelites wondered, why are we being punished for something our ancestors did? All that’s in the past. Over and done. We’re not those people!
Feeling the sting of Edom’s rebuke, the Israelites grumbled their way onward. This unavoidable path was longer, more barren and harder. They were thirsty and found the waters on the way bitter and hard to drink. When they got food it was bad. Manna…who can eat that stuff? In the moment, the Israelites actually forgot that God was saving them through this journey and accompanying them on the way.
Moses was to blame for taking all his cues from God. So the people complained. They unloaded all their grievances on Moses and demanded a fix from God. Now.
Suddenly there were snakes. A lot of snakes. People got bitten and many died. Unexpectedly, Moses, whom they had just treated as a power-driven co-conspirator with God, became their greatest hope.
With something like a tiny shred of humble regret the people called back God’s HR guy Moses and asked for relief. Deliver us from our sin, and from these snakes. We’ve learned a lesson here. Give us relief and rest.
That shining moment of self-awareness made intervention possible. Moses put a serpent on a pole and the cure was to look straight at it. To come face to face with the very stuff that was causing them to suffer and die. Looking with unflinching honestly was hard to do, but on the other side of that soul-piercing work was a sweet new life.
The actual cause of their dying was something within them. So the deliverance that Israel got from God through Moses wasn’t to make war on the snakes. It was to offer deliverance from their own venomous poison of arrogance, ingratitude, blaming, and shaming. Own it, and feel the relief, the blessing of rest.
So, said Jesus, remember that story? God is going to rescue you again, give you relief, and bestow on you the blessing of rest from sin. The evidence of this will be the Son of Man lifted on the cross. All who look straight at the cross see the tragedy of human sin revealed and in response, God’s own redeeming love raised high.
But we need more shining moments of self-awareness to properly see how amazing this gift from God really is. When are we going to stop saying we’re not those people and admit that we are those people! Like the Israelites we have long painful history we’ve never resolved. Like Paul’s small scattered communities of faith, we become dead people walking when we get sidetracked by society into activities that are destructive to life rather than affirming life.
We also need to admit that we can’t save ourselves. Oh, we do have endless schemes for saving ourselves. Enough and more than enough to match our impressive capacity for sin.
Preserving our own lives is a major industry. It comes with an enormous economic and social footprint. Self-preservation is a matter of pride too. Of self-sufficiency and maybe seasoned with a dash of rugged individualism as well.
Do you see that, just as in the desert encounter with snakes and inward venom, it isn’t necessary for God to judge anyone? For we are our own judge and jury. So, what then is the point about condemnation for those who, “…have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The answer again, and always, is that Jesus, (Yashua in Hebrew) means “God saves”. Believing in the name of Jesus means believing that we do need saving. Believing in the name of Jesus means believing that God does all the saving that we need.
And the beautiful thing, as Paul pointed out, is that God saves us before we’ve even recognized or let go of our sins and trespasses. Perfection is not necessary to approach God in Jesus Christ. Actually, perfection is a myth. And those who say they have achieved it are very mistaken.
So when we are still as stuck as can be, it’s very good news to hear this: It’s over and done. Those are words of grace. You know grace is unmerited love, right? It’s how God gives us breathing space; room to back up and turn around on all our bad roads.
We were not created bad. God created everything good. Jesus Christ came to remind us who we really are. When we listen to Jesus we can find our way back to that goodness. We can fully take up the beautiful lives of blessing that God has been waiting to give us. Since, forever.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.