This story of Moses’s bronze serpent and of snakebite healing is part of the tales from the era of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. For Christians, it’s one of the more popular Bible stories because John’s gospel associates it with Jesus. The snake is lifted high on a pole as an antidote to death in the wilderness, and Jesus is lifted high on a cross as an antidote to spiritual death. It’s in the same place as that famous John 3: 16 passage: “God so loved the world.”
But long before John compared Jesus to this bronze snake, this story was a scene from a larger story Israelis told (and still tell) their children about “how our nation came to be.” It was like the stories we tell our children about “Washington cutting down the cherry tree”, or “the adventures of Johnny Appleseed”. And, in the same way Washington cutting down the cherry tree has it’s own lesson we want our children to learn, the story about the bronze serpent in the wilderness has it’s own lessons for us.
I’d like to focus this morning on two of them.
The first lesson of the bronze serpent comes from the beginning of the story. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. They are going from place to place trying to get from Egypt, where they were living in abject slavery and abuse, to the Promised Land where God has promised to make them a new home. On the move from place to place, they are nevertheless under the watchful care of the Almighty. They have everything they need for the journey. The ancient Biblical writers have made that background crystal clear. They have manna to eat in the wilderness. They have God’s protection from all enemies. They are not lacking.
Even though they aren’t lacking anything they need, things start to go sideways when the people start to complain about the food. “Why have you brought us out here into the wilderness to die?” they whine. “There’s no food. We detest this miserable food.”
If you ask me, that’s a lot like when my teenage son mopes around the house complaining that “there’s never anything to eat around here.” The refrigerator is full. We have stocked the freezer with family-sized boxes of hot pockets and hash browns. There are ready-to-heat soups in the cupboard. There is plenty of food, but he’s complaining that there’s nothing to eat. What he really means is, “There aren’t any of my favorite chips.”
There’s a common saying nowadays about problems like this. They’re called “first world problems”. Most of us have everything we really need. Compared to millions of people around the world, we Norwood, NY area folk who attend church on Sunday mornings live pretty comfortable lives. We eat every day. We go to the doctor when we need to – and some of us more often than we wish we had to. We have heat in the winter, roofs over our heads and cars to get around in. And if we don’t drive, we have friends who do and help us out when we need it. A first world problem is something like when the TV isn’t working. Or we go to a restaurant and the service is slow, or the sandwich doesn’t have the right amount of mayonnaise.
The Israelites in the wilderness are free from slavery and abuse. They are protected from their enemies. They have food and water. They have it pretty good. But they’re complaining about it. “The food is miserable out here,” they say. “We may as well be back in Egypt.”
So the first lesson is: when you have it pretty good and you’re thinking of complaining about things anyway, Stop. Just shut up!
To drive the point home, the story continues. The Israelites find themselves, sure enough, with a real problem. Poisonous snakes. People are getting bitten, and people are dying. Not having the right mayonnaise on your sandwich is not a real problem. Getting bit by a poisonous snake is. There’s a difference.
So the second lesson of this story is a lesson about where to look for solutions when we have a real problem.
The solution Moses works out with God is to make this bronze serpent, put it on a pole and have the people look at it. On its surface, the solution is easily dismissed as divine magic. And if we leave it at that, we’d be completely right to ask ourselves, “How is that going to do us any good today?”
Even if we are inclined to believe the story at face value as literally true, the way some people believe the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree is literally true – how is divine magic back then going to help us out with our real problems today? Sure, we hear stories all the time about how miraculous things sometimes work out. If those stories are true, they’re miracles because they’re exceptions to the usual way things work. We can pray for a miracle – pray for divine magic – but most of the time, even while we’re praying, we’re well advised to have a backup plan that doesn’t rely on magic.
When I was a seminary student, I remember, it was during exam time. I was having lunch in the cafeteria. I was sitting at a table of maybe 8 people, most of us students, but also one of my professors. This professor had been born and grown up in Holland. When the Nazis invaded Holland at the beginning of World War 2, they rounded up all the young men. My professor was a teenager, and he was taken away from home and forced to work in shipyard building U-boats for the German navy. He was forced to do that slave labor in the U-boat shipyard through most of the years of the war, enslaved to taskmasters building machines that were being used to destroy everything he loved back home.
As I came to know him, he was a man whose faith ran deep. At times it was the only thing that sustained him throughout a long life during which never a day went by that he didn’t relive in some small way the pain of that experience of his younger years. For him, the gospel was life itself, all that kept him from falling into oblivion.
We were eating lunch that day during exam week, when a student stood up at the microphone at the end of the cafeteria. The mike was always there for anyone who wanted to make an announcement. The student stood up at the microphone and announced that there was going to be a prayer meeting that night. They were going to start after dinner, around 7, and pray all evening and into the night, around midnight. He was inviting anyone who “felt lead” to “come tonight and pray for our exams,” because, he said, “so many of us feel unprepared for our exams, and we’ll just be praying to the Father all night that He will just help us pass our exams, thank you, Jesus.”
When the announcement was over, my professor, a man of the deepest most abiding faith in God’s power to deliver, who was just by his presence at that table, a walking, breathing demonstration of a miracle if ever there was one, sat there with a look of utter disgust. He said: “He’d do much better to spend that time just studying the material.”
It may appear on its surface of this story that there is some kind of magic going on here, but the point is not magical at all. Moses raises the bronze serpent in the midst of the camp, and the way the Israelites are told to live requires them to look directly at the very thing they fear. The solution to the real problems lies in our ability to look directly into them, because the solution to every real problem lies within the problem itself.
The antidote to snake venom – the stuff they give you when you go to an emergency room with a snake bite, as it turns out, really is made from snake venom.
The solution to not being ready for your exams, as it turns out, really is studying the material for the exams.
The way to live with yourself when the memories of evil haunt you, as it turns out, is reaching into those memories and using them to teach the next generations how not to repeat it.
Whatever your real problems are this morning, the solution can’t be found by blaming others, or by complaining, or by going to lie down hoping it goes away. By all means, pray. But also keep in mind that prayer is not the same as a magic incantation. To be effective, prayer directs us back to looking directly at the thing that we most fear to find the solution there.
What’s the snake lurking in the wilderness of your life? If the worst thing that happened to you this week is not enough mayonnaise on your sandwich, or you ran out of your favorite chips, it’s probably time to be thankful for mayonnaise and chips. But if there is something lurking there that scares you to death, chances are that’s where you’ll find the thing that will save your life.