Once upon a time a few thousand years ago, a family loaded into a worn out old van and began a journey from the south Florida orange groves to the Promised Land of Pasadena, California. Grandpa, stoic, grumpy, and decidedly old school, sat silently in the front seat fiddling with the maps. He only spoke to Uncle Moses who insisted on driving the whole way. The AC conked out before they crossed into south Georgia; a cloud of oily smoke trailed them by day, and back-fired flames shot out at night. The kids constantly complained about baloney sandwiches, sticky vinyl seats, and stuck windows. Outside a filling station in Opelousas, Louisiana, Grandpa banned Uncle Moses from entering the Promised Land for kicking a reluctant Coca-Cola machine. The cursed machine ate five quarters without delivering the children’s grape sodas until Moses gave it a shift smack. On a hot day just outside of Flatonia, Texas, the van overheated, and everyone united in a grumble fest demanding, “Why did we ever leave Key West to just to die in some God-forsaken Texas desert?” Having had just about enough of their whining, Grandpa reached under his seat and pulled out a box of angry rattlesnakes and tossed the fiery serpents into the back four rows. The whole van begged for mercy.
In perfect frustration, Uncle Moses tore into Grandpa with words rarely spoken in church. After that chat, Grandpa and Uncle Moses whipped out their pocket knives and carved a rattler on a walking stick. Equipped with the snake stick, they managed to get the snakes out of the van. No snakes were harmed when Uncle Moses told this tale for the first time! Everyone who looked upon the Snake Stick agreed it reminded them of the worst but somehow the best moment of their Promised Land journey. When Grandpa bought everyone double dipped chocolate sugar cones outside a truck stop in Moab, Utah, the whole family laughed around the Snake Stick. They held onto that Diamondback Rattlesnake totem as an icon of suffering and salvation. When they built a church in Pasadena they put the Snake Stick in the foyer to remember their journey. Worshippers rubbed the Diamondback Totem walking into church for 100 generations until Uncle Hezekiah burned the Snake Stick along with some banned books after attending some fiery revival services.
That is some wild story, isn’t it? When I looked at today’s lectionary passage, I wondered what the lectionary committee was thinking when they put Numbers 21 in our preaching cycle? You might wonder why the editors put this troubling tale in the Bible? I don’t know what I would do with this passage if I was still a literalist; I might not preach from it! How do we read Numbers 21:4-6? “The people became impatient on the road, speaking against God and Moses, ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water? And we detest this miserable bread!’ So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.” How trustworthy is a God who sends snakes to bite thirsty people for complaining about church leaders? Is not such a chaotic God more of a devil than a saint? How do we reconcile such a fiery God with a God of love willing to die on the cross?
In the equally puzzling Numbers 19, the Lord gives Moses the recipe for Holy Water or the water of purification. Rest easy, friends, no one at Belmont, Congregation Micah, or anywhere else prepares holy water according to the Lord’s ancient recipe! 1. Add cedarwood, hyssop, and crimson cloth to the sacrifice of a red heifer; let that offering burn down to ashes. 2. Take a bath. 3. Wait seven days. 4. Gather the ashes form the fire pit. 5. Sprinkle some ashes into water and there you have it: holy water for purification. 6. Use this ash filtered water to make people spiritually clean.7. “This will be a permanent regulation.” How do we understand this once “permanent” rule now that everyone has set it aside? Do we rip this ancient recipe out of the Bible or smash it like King Hezekiah’s smashed the Bronze Serpent to bits? (2 Kings 18) Do we go as far as the writer of Hebrews who called these once trusted rituals “obsolete, old, and outdated”? (Hebrews 8) If we think we have come to a better understanding of God, does that mean God was not with us when we believed differently? Jesus promised that God’s Spirit will always be with us: going before us. God is still sending prophets to us and empowering us to loosen and tighten up our rules! (Matthew 18:18; 23:34; 28 and Acts). God’s New Covenant always stretches and sometimes pops our older traditions because God’s Holy Spirit ferments new life and fresh understandings of the old, old stories. (Mark 2) God was with us. God is with us. Christ is “going before” us- wooing us with Love. ( Matt. 28)
While calling some rules obsolete, the writer of Hebrews ironically reminds us of God’s promise to Jeremiah: “The Lord proclaims, ‘I have loved you with a love that lasts forever; with an unfailing love. I have drawn you to myself. I will build you up and you will play your tambourines and dance with joy in the Sanctuary! For look, the days are coming, when I, the Lord, will make a new covenant, placing my laws in your minds and engraving the rules on your hearts. I will be your God, and you will be my people. …I will forgive your wrongdoing and never again remember your sins.’”(Hebrews 8, Jeremiah 31) Maybe it just felt like God was against them when the baby was sick, the van broke down, the border patrol pulled them over, and a snake bit Miriam in that Texas wilderness? I have felt like that; maybe you have, too?
What will theologians say about God and this terrible pandemic? What will these masks remind us of in a year, in ten years, or in a thousand years? Will we see the mask and remember how we loved our neighbors and together passed through a fiery ordeal? Will the church come to understand God speaks healing through science? Will we remember that God was with us in our suffering, God is with us, and God is going before us?
The Bronze Serpent, lifted up in the wilderness, is the strange symbol of hope and healing, but so is the cross. John’s mysterious portrait of Jesus invites the religious scholar Nicodemus into the mysterious world of icons and symbols. Pointing toward the cross, John’s enigmatic Jesus says, ”Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted.” Like many preachers, church folks, and scholars, Nicodemus was more comfortable with verifiable Bible facts and tidy theological formulas than unclassifiable holy mysteries. Twice Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How is this possible?” Three times Jesus repeats that “one must be born of the Spirit”, “you must be born anew”, “you must be born again” if you hope to understand heavenly things, if you hope to find eternal life. Oh, dear ones, we see in a mirror dimly. We know in part! We can’t contain God’s Holy Spirit in even our strongest theological wineskin. (1 Corinthians 13, Mark 2)
The Cross is a strange doorway into eternal life. The earliest disciples understood that the cross was an instrument state-sponsored killing. It is only the forgiveness and love of God that transforms Christ’s cross into an icon of forgiveness, resurrection, and life. Only the mystery of God’s complete Incarnation with humanity and God’s deepest identification with our capacity for injustice and suffering can make sense of the cross. Ideas of a strict blood atonement, demanding that God must make atonement for human sins, subjugate God to some deeper law in the universe. Like any parent, God can forgive our sins in any way that God chooses. God is not bound to make someone pay. The prophets remind us that God never really wanted or needed the blood of bulls to pay for our sins (Isaiah 1, Hebrews 10). God is not bound by some higher law. God is only bound by love because God is love. (Jeremiah 31, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, Ephesians 3, John 3:16, 1 John 3-4)
How do we understand the cross? How do we comprehend the mystery of humanity’s greatest injustice and love’s deepest incarnation? “Sages leave your contemplation, brighter visions burn afar… come and worship.” (Angels from the Realms of Glory) We must lay our fixed formulas, our tidy theological wineskins, and fall on our faces as did Moses in the Wilderness- as did Christ before the Cross. Wrestle with the Holy. Let the Light blind you along the road. (Paul in Acts know Listen to the poets and playwrights who seem to understand love better than the professors and prosecutors! About 300 years, Isaac Watts lifted up the cross like the Holy elusive irreducible mysterious Icon that it is. Let us give up on trying to force Our Holy God into our bound boxes, unstretchable formulas, and hardened hearts.
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them through Christ blood.
See, from Christ’ head, Christ’s hands and feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did ever such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen
(When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts)