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Numbers 21:4–9 | Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22 | Ephesians 2:1–10 | John 3:14–21
It’s like crying wolf. You know that old fable, right? As Aesop tells it, the Shepherd Boy is “bored” out tending the sheep—with little to do but talk to the dog and play his flute—and so, one day, thinks of a way to “amuse” himself. The owner of the sheep had said that if he saw a wolf, he should cry “Wolf! wolf!” and the villages would come and help drive it away. The boy wasn’t too worried because he hadn’t seen a wolf yet, but saw this as his opportunity: One day he puts on his best act and cries “Wolf! Wolf,” and sure enough, the villagers drop all their daily tasks and come running to help. The boy “doubles-over in laughter.” He does it again a few days later with the same gratifying result. And, of course, when a wolf actually shows up, the Shepherd Boy cries out a third time. The villagers do not want to be made into fools again- and besides, there probably is no danger- so they do not come and the boy loses many of the sheep to the wolf. The lesson is in the trust that is broken when manipulating others to meet superficial wants, when actual needs may arise— and we might be left hanging.
So, the tribes of Israel are making their away from Egypt, roundabout, and it’s a hard thing: In the desert landscape where water and food WERE scarce; where they were exposed to the elements and wild animals and hostile tribes. AND, despite what we hear the people say, we have also heard that God had been providing and there was enough. Note the giveaway in that line today, “There is NO food and water,” oh “and we detest this miserable food.” Which is it? Is there really no food or water? Or is it more that they aren’t happy with the food they have? Or water? With their ongoing complaints —again, maybe not totally undeserved, but also not entirely true—they are constantly eroding the trust between them and God; twisting the facts to get Moses or God to give them something more or better. And not the first or second time.
What happens next seems a little extreme, I agree. And I would always be cautious in assigning causes for things like disease, famine, drought, flood, fire. These natural events CAN at times be connected to things like human activity: Like, viruses can’t actually spread unless virus-farms like us move them around. And we DO. There’s really nothing inherently bad about that, it just IS. We do have other practices as humans that aren’t motivated by a desire to harm (maybe a desire for More instead of Enough, which is a lack of trust in God)—and that also have a bad effect on air and water—which eventually comes back to harm humans. But we don’t need to assign causes to unrelated things like “personal morality.” Ok. What we DO hear today is that the serpents ARE sent on account of all the questioning, complaining and looking backward to the “good old days.” This seems pretty harmless—at least not life-or-death—until they cry “wolf” a few times. “We have NO food!” Not expecting that things would actually get worse: Now people are sick and dying… what to do?
What God has Moses do now is one of the great mysteries of scripture—and one that also captures our imaginations. The people have come around to feeling guilty about letting their state of minds and emotions lead them to complaining and demanding. They talk to Moses. Moses talks to God and here’s the response: Make a bronze or copper likeness of the serpents that are biting, lift it up, and for those who are bitten—they can look upon it and be healed. It’s almost too easy. How, exactly, does this even work? What is the mechanism by which the poison is counter-acted? It seems that other cures would have made more sense; or at least to pack up and move; or God now to remove the serpents. But the symbol of suffering is raised up and God heals.
I wonder if it isn’t partly that biting serpents is a bit how life is sometimes. I think of Carl Jung and the psychology that speaks of our “shadow selves” —hidden aspects of our unconscious that we don’t want to acknowledge- maybe something as basic as our drives for security and affection and control. But that it’s important to see how these things come up and “bite” us in our daily lives, eroding trust in our relationships and in God’s sustenance and goodness at work all around us: In which case, it’s a good thing to look boldly at the symbols of our sufferings in order to let God heal us. Looking at the symbol of the serpent for the Israelites was key to facing and healing from the wounds of both serpents and discontent. We might say, it “opened their eyes” to their inner agitations, but reintegrated body and soul: Putting God back in place of #1.
Maybe it’s not so mysterious- although some, still—that John picks up this imagery for the life and work of Jesus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes/ trusts in him may have eternal life.”
The gospel of John brings out the “antipathy” of humans as being our problem: Our aversion to others and their suffering; a focus on our own instead—by which we create MORE suffering in our ploys to satisfy what we think we need. (Like the boy who cried wolf and was bored… so used others for his enjoyment.) For Jesus to be raised up is to shift our focus and attention; to be “blown away” by the one who gives everything in love; acknowledging that there is still a mystery inherent in why just beholding this symbol and act has such power to heal. But somehow it draws us out of ourselves. And gives us a chance to see what’s really going on: As John so poignantly states, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” for the sake of life eternal, that begins now. Thanks be to God. Amen.