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Facing the Snake

In the Old Testament reading today from the book of Numbers, we hear the voices of our ancestors, the people of God.  Our ancestors were taking the long way around, in the wilderness, and they became impatient.  Entirely understandable, as far as I’m concerned—I also hate the feeling of being lost and unsure which way to go.  One translation of the Hebrew in this section of the Torah says the people of God became discouraged, which is a combination of two words: short and breath.  The people are so tired, they are short of breath. 

 

They are miserable, complaining to anyone who will listen—to Moses, to God—and instead of reassurance or comfort, here come the venomous snakes, biting their tired legs, injecting damaging toxins, even killing some of the people.  Other symptoms of a venomous snake bite include pain and swelling, difficulty with breathing, blurred vision, nausea, paralysis.[1] 

 

Now if you were bit by a snake today, you’d probably go to a hospital and the treatment would include antivenom.  I might have wondered: what’s the opposite of a snake bite, what can work against it?  Apparently antivenom is made with snake venom—you start with the stuff that’s so damaging in the first place, and then with the help of other mammals and their immune systems, antivenoms are created that can help humans.[2] 

 

But where are the Israelites going to access antivenom in the wilderness?  All they’ve got is God, so they pray for the snakes to go away.  That makes sense, right?  Take away what’s killing people.  Maybe God could stop people from being bitten in the first place. 

 

Instead God tells Moses a strange thing: “Makes a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”[3]  The antivenom in this case is to face the thing that’s been biting you.  Do you want to get better?  Do you want healing?  Then, in a phrase I learned from Pastor Heidi Neumark, you have to face the snake. 

 

Can you think of anything that ever went wrong in your life that got better just magically, through no effort of pain or honesty or vulnerability?  Does brokenness ever heal itself?  Do injuries ever just disappear?  Are broken relationships ever reconciled unintentionally?  

 

Facing the snake means facing the truth, acknowledging what is broken. Pretending there’s no problem can only lead to death. 

 

This story of the Israelites in the wilderness is a story of forgetting where they’ve come from and forgetting the God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, the God who preserved their lives.  That doesn’t mean their journey was easy; it was not.  But the God who saved them once can absolutely save them again.  And this time, they’ll be saved by facing the snake, facing the truth of their sin. 

 

Sin includes all the things that separate us from God, the things that make us forget God’s power to save.  We usually don’t want to talk about these things, like racism or sexism or anti-Semitism, especially if we might be found guilty by way of our actions or attitudes, even if we don’t mean it. 

 

During this season of Lent, we’ve looked at how anti-Semitism can creep into our understanding of Christianity, even when we’re not trying to be against Jewish people or Judaism as a religion.  It’s not a fun conversation—it’s really kind of a bummer—and it’s particularly disheartening for those of us who care deeply about justice and who are earnestly trying to do the right thing. 

 

I think of myself as someone who cares about justice, and I don’t think of myself as a believer in a theology that needs to blame Jews for Jesus’s death or who persists in a relationship of suspicion against Jews.  But learning some of the more insidious ways that anti-Semitism presents itself has felt horrifying. 

 

Have I purposefully instructed people to hate Jews?  No.  But have I preached in such a way to set Jesus against his own Jewish community?  Have I suggested that Jewish groups named in the gospels—like the Pharisees or Sadducees or scribes—just don’t get it?  Yeah, I have done that.   Pretending that I’m innocent will not make me more righteous; it only makes me more arrogant, while death is allowed to continue slithering about. 

 

Instead, I’ve had to face the snake.  It’s painful and humbling work, but it’s also the pathway to abundant life.  Do you remember how it felt to learn that you could be participating in racism, even if you never joined a white supremacist group?  Have you felt the shame of being alerted to your sexism or gender bias or homophobia?  Then you have an idea what it takes to face the snake.

 

Facing the snake requires profound humility and a willingness to seek reconciliation, not for the sake of your own righteousness but for the sake of abundant life for your neighbors as well as for yourself.  Racism or anti-Semitism or sexism may not kill you personally, but people are still dying.  Would you rather be part of the death-dealing agenda of the snake?  Or would you rather be on the side of life? 

 

In a worship service dedicated to justice and reconciliation, Pastor Heidi Neumark preached about facing the snakes of injustice.  Referencing this story of the Israelites, she said,

“They discovered that when you face the snake, you find yourself facing God. God was right there in the midst of what was biting them. God was right there in the middle of the attack with the anti-venom. Right where they thought was only poison, pain and death, there was God with power to heal and save.

 

“John’s gospel has it’s own mini sermon on this text: Jesus says “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must I be lifted up.” When we see Jesus lifted on the cross, with nails biting into his arms and legs, we never again need to face what’s wrong in us and what’s wrong around us, without seeing at the same time what’s right in us and what’s right around us.

 

“And what’s right in us and around us and above us and below us is the love of God…for God so loved the world. That’s what we see when we face the snake. When we stare down evil, when we face racism, and any godless ism that has its teeth in us…what we find staring back at us is the love of God, more potent than any poison. The antidote of LOVE. The remedy of LOVE. For hate cannot drive out hate Only LOVE can do that. For God so LOVED the world…Death where is your victory, death where is your sting?!

 

The work of salvation is finished. But the work of love goes on. We have not yet reached the Promised Land. Cornell West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Peace and Justice-making love is the work we’ve been given to do along the way in THIS wilderness.”[4]

 

Friends, we are not left alone, not abandoned in the desert to die in our misery.  We are gifted with life, graced with God’s presence, and healed by God’s mercy.  May God give us the strength to face the snakes that weaken us in this world, trusting God’s power to bring life. 


Amen. 

Pastor Cheryl

 


[3] Numbers 21:8

[4] Sermon by Pastor Heidi Neumark, https://hneumark.com/2015/01/17/face-the-snake/ 


 


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