Reading and studying the text from Numbers that we read today I have realised why the Israelites were sometimes called the Children of Israel. I haven’t found the place where they say, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ But I am sure it’s in there.
God through Moses had done a wonderful thing for the Israelites; he had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. This story is central to both the Jewish and Christian understanding of God, of his care for his people and his saving power.
But after the initial euphoria had worn off the children of Israel spent much of their time whinging and moaning, they disobeyed God and failed to trust him. They even went so far as to say they wished they could have stayed as slaves in Egypt. Because of their disobedience and lack of faith in God the length of time they spent in the wilderness was much longer than it need have been.
Today’s story occurs near the end of their wanderings, the Promised Land, was in sight and Moses asked the King of Edom if the Israelites could pass through his land. But the King said no so the people had to make a long detour through very inhospitable country. Not surprisingly they were frustrated and discouraged and they started to complain once again. ‘They spoke against God and against Moses and said, ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’
After wandering for about 35 years—35 years in which God has provided everything they needed, from quail, to manna from heaven, to water gushing out of a rock, the ungrateful shower say to God and Moses, Manna, manna again, we hate manna. We want a change. And we read that God answered their complaints in a far from sympathetic way by sending poisonous snakes that bit many of the Israelites who died! That did the trick, almost immediately the people changed their tune from whining to grovelling, they rushed to Moses and urged him to pray to the Lord to take the snakes away.
But God didn’t! What God did was a very odd thing. He told Moses to make an image, an image of the very thing that was causing all the death and horror a bronze image of a snake and put it on a pole. And when anyone who was bitten by a snake looked at the bronze snake then they did not die. Now of course in the Ten Commandments the Israelites had been specifically told not to make any graven images because of the temptation to worship them and in fact in time the Bronze snake did become an object of worship It was called Neshutan which means ‘piece of bronze’ and was eventually destroyed by King Hezekiah hundreds of years later because it was in fact being worshipped
When the people asked God to take the snakes away, God didn’t do that. Instead, God forced the people to look at the very thing that had caused so much pain and grief. The statue didn’t cure anyone, but by looking up at it the Israelites could see the loving, merciful God who gave them this chance at healing.
Now we might have a bit of a problem with this story because our understanding of God is not I hope one of a God who punishes people when they complain to him. Through Jesus we have been permitted to have a better understanding of Gods nature and we see him as the God of love, the good parent. On Mothers’ day when we think about our parents we can probably all remember times when they punished us for our naughtiness. But I hope that none of us had a parent who would have thought the appropriate punishment for a bit of moaning and complaining, even quite a lot of moaning and complaining was to be bitten by venomous snakes!
In the Old Testament there was a belief that when bad things happened it was a punishment from God for the bad things people had done, the sins they had committed. This view is still prevalent in eastern religions with the belief in Karma. In the book of Job, Job’s so-called friends were sure that the trials that were inflicted on Job were the result of some misdemeanours on his part. But as Job worked his way through his debate with God he came to the understanding that bad things are not punishments from God.
Sometimes we bring bad things on ourselves by our choices. When a drunk driver crashes his car and kills himself then that is a case of cause and effect but in a lot of cases bad things happen for no reason. Poisonous snakes just exist and on occasion they bite and kill people. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people, where bad things happen to everyone and often there seems no reason behind it.
For some people this seems a good reason for rejecting God. Either there is a God who wills bad things to happen or there is no God and bad things are just part of life. This is known as ‘the problem of evil’, why an all-powerful and all loving God allows evil to exist and it is a problem that has never been fully answered. It’s a problem we all have to face at different times in our lives and is a problem that we may find different ways of dealing with at different times in our lives. If God as it says is a popular chorus is ‘a God who didn’t care who lived away out there’ then people would be right to want nothing to do with him. But Jesus let us see that God is not like that. God is love; God is here with his beloved people caring for them more devotedly than the most loving parent.
So Jesus used this story from Numbers to point to his own crucifixion, he says, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “
In this time of Lent as we approach Easter it is important that we take time to confront every part of the Easter story. Without the pain of Good Friday we cannot truly experience the joy of Easter morning. We have to stop and ponder on the meaning of the cross not see it as only a means to a happy end.
Just as the people looked up at a snake on a stick, not because the statue had magic powers but because God’s love and mercy could be seen there, Jesus says that his crucifixion is necessary so that the true extent of God’s love can be seen for all time. How much more shocking is the sight of a man dying a brutal death on a cross than a bronze snake on a stick. Yet both are symbols of God’s love and compassion. When we focus on the cross then we can see the loving, merciful God who gives us eternal life.
In the second half of the twentieth century after the horrors of the concentration camps and the dropping of the atom bomb many theologians including the German Jurgen Moltmann believed that a major concern of men and women was trying to make sense of a world where there was so much suffering and I think we can agree that this is still the case today. The media continually tell us about fresh horrors, during the week I was particularly upset to hear about twenty two school children and six adults being killed when a ski bus crashed in Switzerland. Why does this happen?
Moltmann’s answer is that God does not condone or will suffering but that through the suffering, crucifixion and the death of Jesus God allies himself with all who suffer in the world. Right from the start God the father and God the Son knew that the cross was necessary. They chose to accept that degree of suffering, Jesus chose to share the human experience of pain and death, God chose to give up his son Jesus to betrayal, humiliation, torture, pain and death and finally to abandonment. As Paul writes in Romans God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.’ The pain that Jesus feels is real pain the death real death. The grief that the father feels is the infinite grief of love. The physical fact of the crucified Jesus means that when we cry to God ‘do you know what it is like to suffer pain and death?’ God answers ‘yes I do’. And when we ask ‘Do you know what it is like to watch a loved one suffer and die?’ God answers ‘yes I do’.
The cross tells us that everywhere that there is human suffering God is there, not condoning it, not allowing it but with his beloved people in their pain. And it also tells us that through the suffering and through the pain comes eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God chose to allow himself to feel our pain so that he can lead us to eternal life, as Mark writes ‘to give his life as a ransom for many.’
In the wilderness God did not punish the Israelites for their complaining. As he had always done he provided for their needs, Moses to lead them out of slavery, Manna and Quails to eat, fresh water to drink, a bronze snake to enable them to be healed and eventually the Promised Land. God is faithful, he knows our needs and continues to provide for us. He loves us so much that he sent Jesus to suffer and die alone on the cross so that we never need to be alone and to lead us to eternal life in him. The crucifixion is necessary so that the true extent of God’s love can be seen for all time. God thinks that we are worth it.