"The Wilderness, Fire Snakes, and Finding Freedom in Repentance:" Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B

"The Wilderness, Fire Snakes, and Finding Freedom in Repentance:"  Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mar 11, 2018

Passage:Numbers 21:4-9

Preacher: The Rev. E. Courtney Jones

Series: Lent

Category: Hope, Salvation, Penitence, Gratitude

Keywords: complaining, healing, repent, repentance, salvation, truth, wilderness


While this story in numbers may seem weird to our modern eyes, a closer look reveals some big truths for us today: (1) Sometimes you've got to go through the wilderness to get to the promised land, (2) complaining rarely helps, (3) but repentance will.


Some of you may know that I'm a science teacher at Boys Ranch High School.   What you might not know about being a science teacher, is, for some reason, teens want to ask the science teacher religious questions.  Now, I've been a public school teacher for 15 years, and I cut my teeth in a very large urban district that had a basic policy of "Teach the science standards, and don't editorialize."   So when I get these questions, my standard response is:  "The question that you're asking passes outside of the scope of our curriculum for this class.   If you're still curious about my opinion after you graduate, ask again then."  Then we get right back to [whatever we were learning that day] . . . how blood travels through the circulatory system. 


So, in the past I would get maybe ten religious questions in a school year.  But you all know that I've recently gotten ordained.  And Boys Ranch is not a big place.  So, despite me  not mentioning my ordination to my students the news of me being "a minister" has spread like gossip spreads in a small town.  And in the past few weeks, the number of questions has SKYROCKETED.    But there's a common thread in all of the questions . . . they tend to go something like "Hey, Ms. Jones, do you think ____________ is true?"   "Do you think the whole burning bush thing is true?"  "Do you think the story of Noah's Ark is true?"  "Do you think creation is true?" 


And I thought of my students and their obsession with knowing if things are true when I read today's reading from Numbers.


In today's reading, we find Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  The backstory goes like this:  The Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  God heard their cries in their oppression and sent Moses lead them out of slavery.  Moses and the Israelites make a break for it.  Pharaoh and his armies chased them, and God parted the sea for the Israelites to pass on dry land, and thwarted the Egyptians.  God promises the Israelites "a land flowing with milk and honey . . . a promised land."   


BUT . . . after a while in the wilderness, the text says that "the people became impatient on the way,"  --   some of the people start to ponder aloud if they might be better off in Egypt.  Today's passage is the 5TH in a series recounting these "murmurings"  and In today's passage, the grumble is against Moses AND against God. 


"Why did you bring us out of slavery in Egypt to die in this terrible wilderness?"  


 And text says "Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died."  Technically, the Hebrew word that is being translated here as poisonous can also be translated as "burning" or "fiery" (and in fact, if you read this passage in the King James Version it reads "and the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people").  For the record, I suspect "poisonous" is the better translation, but I find the image of fire snakes to be compellingly terrifying.  


The people beg Moses to intercede on their behalf to God.  Moses prays for them and God says "Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."  So Moses fashions a snake out bronze, puts  it on a pole, and whenever someone gets bit, the person looks up at the bronze serpent and lives.



I can only imagine that my students, hearing all of this would ask "But, Ms. Jones, is that true?  Did that really happen?"  


If I could answer them . . . there are several brief answers I might give: 

  •  I don't know.  I wasn't there.  
  •  Nothing is impossible for God.  Not even fiery snakes.   
  • I think our modern eyes read everything as if it's a history book or a science book.  When in fact, language before the Industrial Revolution was much more likely to have been interpretive language.  Poetic language.   Metaphorical language. 


But really, "Is it true?"   . . . is the wrong question.  


I think it's far more interesting, far more instructive for us to ask:  WHAT about this is TRUE?   I think sometimes we get caught up in details of a story, and when what we doesn't gel with our scientific minds we get tangled up and miss the bigger picture.  So here are three things that jump out to me as being big TRUTHS in this passage:   (1) Sometimes you've got to go through the wilderness to get to the promised land.  (2)  Complaining rarely makes it better,  (3) But repentance will.  


ONE.  Sometimes you've gotta go through the wilderness to get to the promised land.

I think this is a universally true idea that we can all relate to -- difficult times in our lives often precede times of great joy.  

We may have little moments of wilderness, or we may have whole seasons of life.  

Even if our lives are relatively free from suffering:  

We  wander in "the wilderness" of Lent before experiencing the excitement of the Easter season.

We will walk  through the solemnity Holy Week before we triumphantly ring bells at the Easter Vigil.

It's a pattern of life:  first wilderness, then promised land.  As the psalmist said:  darkness may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning. 

Jesus' crucifixion comes before His resurrection.

The cross comes before the empty tomb.  



TWO.  Complaining rarely makes things better.  

Lily Tomlin once joked that "Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain."[i]

As I mentioned earlier, today's reading in Numbers is the fifth and last in a series of "Murmuring" stories.  

You see, after being in the wilderness for a while, some of the Israelites are ready to go back to slavery.  Some would rather be slaves than be dependent on God in the wilderness.  At least with slavery, they know what to expect.  They know their place.  Perhaps they complain to try to get more control over their situation.  Perhaps they complain to recruit allies in their "Let's go back to Egypt" campaign.   Either way: Their mumblings, their complaints, didn't make things better for the Israelites . . . every time that God through Moses provides for them -- water from a rock, manna to eat, quail to eat -- there's something else to complain about.  Today's text has truly champion-level complaining "There is NO food, NO water, AND the (nonexistent) food is TERRIBLE!"  


The Israelites have been delivered from slavery, and they're on their way to the promised land.   


From our vantage point, we want them to be grateful for their liberation.  We want them to be hopeful about their bright future.  


But, deep down we aren't surprised by the mumblings.   In fact, I think we're a little embarrassed because we see ourselves.  




Our Gospel passage today mentions this all-too-human tendency to choose to wrap ourselves in negativity instead of praise:   The text from John says "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light"


We complain for many reasons -- to get attention, to excuse our own poor performance, to inspire envy -- or even to try to get power over others.  But ultimately, the complaining is like throwing a rock into otherwise calm water -- the ripple effect is hard to calculate.  One complaint leads to another leads to another.  It's hard for us to gauge how much our embrace of a little darkness here and a little darkness there really reverberates through our lives and the lives of those we love.


What would this collection of wilderness stories look like if God's people had chosen gratitude and hope instead?

What would our stories look like if we'd choose gratitude and hope?  


And that brings us to the third truth from today's passage . . . (1) Sometimes you've got to go through the wilderness to get to the promised land.  (2)  Complaining rarely makes it better,  


THREE.   But repentance will.  


I think repentance gets a bad rap in the modern world.  I can remember being in Las Vegas for a convention.  Michele and I were on Freemont street sightseeing when we heard a man shouting at people about how they were going to hell for the bad things they were doing.  He had a list of these things on a sandwich board that he was wearing and he held a long stick that had attached to it a sign . . . that way above his head in big, tall letters read "REPENT".  And I remember feeling uncomfortable -- like people were going to get the wrong idea about Christianity.  


Repentance is more hopeful than the street preacher made it out to be.  When we encounter the word "repent" in the Gospels, we are encountering the Greek word "metanoia".   This word means:  "to change one's frame of mind or feelings".  So when we hear that Jesus is preaching ""the kingdom of God has come near, REPENT and believe in the good news," that's not a condemnation.  It's an invitation.  We too, can participate in the kingdom of God.  We too  can reorient our lives towards something more purposeful and meaningful.  


So, now the Israelites have NO Food, No Water, Terrible food, and a bunch of poisonous snakes.   And they break down and seek God's provision for them.  They say to Moses, "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you."  


In short, they repent.  The change their frame of mind.  They acknowledge that doing it their way isn't working, and they ask for God to save them.   And God's provision comes in the form of looking at a bronze snake lifted up on a pole.  It sound[ii]s weird, right?  I suspect that this remedy is not magical --  I suspect that it has little to do with the snake at all, and a lot more to do with taking a good hard look at what's really killing them -- their own hardness of heart.   The remedy is lifting their eyes towards God.  Letting go of Egypt.  Remembering how God is saving them and will continue to save them all the way to the promised land.


And wow.  Now that starts to ring true for us too doesn't it?  Isn't that what we're invited to do in Lent?  To take a good look at what's killing us?  The things that are poisoning our lives?  The ways in which we are favoring darkness over light?   


We reflect and we repent.  We consciously change our frame of mind.  We take steps, in both large and small ways, to choose the light over darkness.   To choose life and freedom in the kingdom of God as opposed returning to slavery in our own Egypts. 



So, do I think this story is true?






[i] Bowen, Will. A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted. Doubleday, 2013.


[ii] “Numbers 21:4-9,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Gen. Eds. John Knox Press, 2009