Monday, March 19, 2012

Snake on a Stick Theology

My husband's sermon yesterday centered around a Bible story in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, verses 4-9.

In this strange little story God's people, the Israelites, were grumbling, complaining, whining, snivelling and generally showing a complete lack of gratitude for God's provision of manna to eat on their desert journey after being miraculously delivered from 400 years of captivity under the Egyptians.  How much like them am I? 

"O haven't given us any food........and the food you have given us is awful!!"  Yup, that was their "logic" as it is sometimes my own when life isn't a lot of fun.  "Hey haven't provided for me (at least not what I want to have provided) and the provision you have given me is awful!! (doesn't satisfy my greed or ego or other selfish desires)  Yup, I "get" the Israelites!

Anyway in the midst of their grumbling a bunch of snakes arrived and began biting people, as poisonous snakes will do, and the people began to die and suffer.  So God directed Moses to to create a bronze statue of a snake and put it up on a big stick.  The people who had been bitten had only to look at it to be healed.

The point of the story here isn't completely clear. Why would God send snakes to bite his disobedient people?  Did he do that deliberately? Perhaps, if he did, it was a trial to cause them to stop and consider the bigger picture once again, to cause them to remember who they were dealing with and repent of their own selfishness.  A little pain now can result in safety later.  (I didn't allow my son to play in the roadway as a child, and when he disobeyed he received discipline he thought unfair and painful, for the sake of preserving his life.) 

Is this a record of a true event or an allegorical myth created to explain the workings of God in preparing a later Saviour ( his son Jesus Christ) to also be crucified on a "big stick" and become the One to whom we all look for salvation and spiritual healing? It isn't completely clear, but Jesus himself referred to this Old Testament story in the New Testament book of John, chapter 3, verses 14-21.  His reference occurs immediately prior to that most well known verse of the Bible, John 3:16. He himself draws the comparison of looking to Moses' snake on a stick to receive physical healing and looking to himself on a wooden cross for healing between ourselves and God.  

In Moses' story it seems like such a ridiculously simple solution to merely look at a snake on a stick to experience the cleansing of poisoned  blood.  But isn't it just as ridiculously simple in some ways to merely look at Jesus on the cross  to be cleansed of the poison of our sin and rebellion against our Creator? He takes away our "poisoned blood" that causes us to sin and leads to death, and replaces it with his own clean blood that leads to eternal life.  In both cases people have to simply believe in the power of what they are looking at to receive their cleansing.  They have to trust that what/who they are looking at, trusting in, believing in, actually has that power.  Looking at the "big stick" and the figure on it, believing there is power there to cleanse and restore is an admission that we need help beyond ourselves to receive cleansing and restoration......the first step in the AA 12 step programme is admitting we can't help ourselves sufficiently.

Looking at Jesus on the cross and admitting we need his assistance, that we can't become sufficiently more loving of God and our neighbour, no matter how many self-improvement courses we take, is like that first step in the AA programme.  In the Anglican liturgy we confess our failure in that area at each week's church service:  "Lord, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent....."

As I read the story in Numbers, and about Jesus in John chapter 3, the message I receive is quite simple: look and live, look and live. 

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