Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2024

Numbers 21:4-9 Commentary

The people of Israel have been wandering around in that desert for quite awhile. You know how this goes: slaves in Egypt, they are freed by God’s mighty hand, some plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. They make it to the border of the Promised Land, send in some spies who — with two notable exceptions — report back “Everything is terrifying!” And the people tell each other, “Everything is terrifying! This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us!”

And God sends them back into the wilderness for a 40 year time out to consider their fear in the light of his salvation. So they wandered and complained. God provided manna. They wandered some more and complained. God provided quail. They wandered some more, complained, God provides … over and over and over. Until we get to this story — the last of the book of Numbers so-called 7 “murmuring stories.”

The people are upset because they can’t take the straight way through the land of Edom. They grow impatient with the detour. Echoes of “Everything is terrible! This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us!” (You want to say: “You’ve got 40 years to kick around out here. You think the scenic route’s going to kill you? But perspective is in short supply for the Israelites.)

“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The Old Testament is filled with a narrative motif that goes like this: The people complain. God provides a punishment, a wake-up call, if you will. The people confess their sin and their need. Moses intercedes for them and they are saved. It’s happened so many times by this point in the book of Numbers that the writer just sails through the details like “y’all know how this goes.”

And, sure enough, the complaint and punishment are followed up, predictably, by confession and Moses’ intercession. Then, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’” A reasonable request, right?

We can appreciate the impulse behind the Israelites’ “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to us!” Its easy to get caught up in the doom scrolling, the facebook outrage. And all of this to say nothing of the fact that life goes on. We worry about failing relationships, safety for our families and in our communities. Justice for the marginalized and the “other” in our midst. It can feel like living on high alert all the time. Eyes searching for what might bite us next. So we, like the Israelites, find ourselves wary at the least or outright fearful, praying, “Take these snakes away.” A reasonable request, right?

“So Moses prayed for the people.” And God acts. But note carefully, does God do what the people asked? They asked, “Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” And God says, “I’ve got this. Here’s what you’re going to do, Moses: ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’”The ask was for God to take the snakes away. To heal their problem. To make it go away. A reasonable request. God’s counter-proposal is to put a bronze snake on a pole. Which is strange.

Sometimes God doesn’t take the snakes away. But there is a subtle genius to God’s solution to the Israelites’ problem. They seem to forget one-time fixes pretty quickly — I submit into evidence their willingness to return to Egypt. But an on-going witness, an on-going solution, an on-going salvation changes the dynamic. The people are far less likely to forget that God healed their snake infestation way back when if God is in the snake-bite healing business every day.

All that is required, God tells Moses, is for the people to look up. “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” That’s God’s promise. And, sure enough, “When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” That’s tricky too, though, isn’t it? The solution to the problem is to take your eyes off the problem. And you have to look at the very thing — a snake on a pole — that put you in this agony in the first place.

The New Testament takes this story and spins it. Jesus, himself, in the lead up to that most famous verse — John 3:16 “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” — says this: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

The solution of Christ’s death on the Cross may be one time for all time but its application is daily. It is a solution lifted high above the problems of our world, requiring us to refocus. And what we may forget after a lifetime of seeing Crosses on buildings, in sanctuaries, on necklaces and the like, is that, when we gaze upon the Cross, we are looking at the very thing — the weight of human sin, the cruel and unjust application of human power — that put us in our agony in the first place. Just as a bronze snake-on-a-pole can suck the venom out of a snake bite, Christ-on-the-Cross can pull the sting out of even death itself.


A friend of mine has a daughter — a really intense kind of little kid — who gets totally focused and absorbed in whatever project she is working on. This is fine unless my friend needs to get his daughter to do something. He can repeat an instruction 3 or 4 times and it just doesn’t get heard. Finally, one afternoon in frustration, my friend sent his daughter to “the step.” He told his daughter, “What we are doing here isn’t working. I need you to pay attention when I give you an instruction! So I want you to sit on this step until you can come up with a way that we can help you listen and obey.” He was worried that his daughter might be sleeping on the step that night but it was only a couple minutes until she said, “Dad, I’ve got it!”

“At school, when the teacher needs our attention, she says, ‘eyes up!’ And then, when we’re all looking, she’ll tell us what we need to do. You could just tell me ‘eyes up!’ and I’ll be able to listen better.”

People of God, wandering around in the wilderness, complaining about everything? Thinking this is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? “Eyes Up!”

People of God, obsessed with the news, addicted to your social media feed? Are the problems of life all consuming? Can’t seem to put anything in proper perspective? The wisdom of Christian discipleship for such a time as this may be summed up in a 7-year-old’s two simple words: “Eyes Up!”


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