Snake-Handling

Scripture Passage:  Numbers 21: 4-9 (Lent 4B)

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

OK, this is just odd!  It’s one of those passages that probably wouldn’t have made it into the lectionary except that the Gospel writer that we know as John included it.  (We’ll read that this week too!)  Personally, I think it’s a little over the top–sending poisonous snakes.  I mean, it seems that the people were only asking for a little variety in their menu.  Isn’t this a little out of proportion?  I mean, really:  complaining…bad; poisononous snakes all over the place…REALLY bad.

But from the very beginning of Creation, as one of the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible explains, the snake has slithered on its belly and eaten only dust and yet it has done so without a word of complaint.  So, then, what better character to rule over the people who have murmured over a choice of food?  Essentially, the snake comes to teach humility and patience.  But we as humans cannot resist being more than a little squeamish at the character.  There is something about a snake that demands our full attention.  When someone mentions that a snake is nearby, we don’t ask what lessons can be learned.  Instead, we climb on the furniture or over one another to get out of the way.

Our full attention…to how many things do we give that?  And how many things would we rather climb on the furniture or run to get out of the way rather than dealing with them?  And it is interesting that in order to save the people from the plague of snakes, God gave them a snake.  So, when someone is bitten by a snake, he or she is to look at a snake.  What sense does that make?  Think about it…we are to look at our fear; we are to look at those things that tempt us; we are to look at those things that distract us and pull us away from God.  (Goodness…that sounds a lot like this season of Lent!)  And God, in God’s infinite wisdom puts them on a pole so that we cannot avoid seeing them.

But only in the wisdom of God do we counter something that we fear with that which we fear.  Here, God’s antidote for the snakes is a snake.  Isn’t that sort of paradoxical?   We have to look beyond that with which we are uncomfortable.  We have to look into a sight that brings such fear, such loathing, that it is hard for us to find God’s presence in it.  And, deep within it, is the sight of humility and patience, a creature that, according to Creation mythology, had resigned itself to surrendering to that which ruled its life.  And by looking into one’s fear, by looking into one’s death, one is freed—the ultimate paradox. 

It is notable, too, that nothing is said to imply that God destroys the snakes.  Essentially, God does not destroy the enemy—God recreates it.  Isn’t that an incredible thing?  You see, we need to recognize that the traditional Jewish reading of the “Garden of Eden” story differs from the classical Christian version.  While the snake has often been identified in both faiths as Satan (or haasatan), the Jewish understanding is not that of something or someone outside of God’s command or a rebel against divine authority.  Rather, it’s sort of a prosecuting attorney, entrusted with testing, entrapping, and testifying against us before the heavenly court.  It’s part of God’s way of maintaining order.  It’s part of God’s way of showing us a mirror to look at ourselves.  So, from that standpoint, these snakes or serpents are not enemies but, rather, part of our ourselves.  (On some level, maybe that’s more uncomfortable even than enemies!  I mean, it makes it a whole lot harder to run away from it then!)

So, the simple equation is this:  the cure for snakes is a snake…the cure for something is to stare it straight in the face.  Where have we heard that before?  Centuries later, God did it again.  The cure for our death is death—death of those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God, death of those things that make us less than human, death of those things that are not part of who we are as images of God.  And, if you remember, the cure for a life of pain and suffering and temptation is life eternal.  Snakes for snakes; death for death; life for life.

Those whose eyes are fixed on the Son of Man as he is lifted up ultimately see God’s healing of the world.  The Cross is that thing at which we are forced to look, forced to see a part of us that we do not want to see, forced to see the way we murmur and complain about our lives when they’re really not that bad.  In an odd way, the cross is that snake on a pole.  So as hard as it may be, stand still.  It doesn’t make sense in this world.  It’s gruesome and loathsome and filled with danger.  But God, in God’s infinite wisdom, takes it and turns it into life.  We don’t need to become snake-handlers; we just need to be aware of that to which we should be looking.  So, in this wilderness season of Lent, walk now, toward the cross—the instrument of death that gives you life.       

Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose it must be at an end.  Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists!  Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine. (H.J. Iwand)

Grace and Peace,

 Shelli

The Wilderness of Fear

peter-adams-statue-of-jesus-known-as-cristo-redentor-christ-the-redeemer-on-corcovado-mountain-in-rio-de-jaScripture Text:  Genesis 28: 10-17

 10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”   16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

 

Jacob came to a certain place, a certain place in the wilderness. I don’t think it was a magical place. I’m not sure that it was even “destined” for him to be there. It was just an ordinary place with an ordinary stone. But then Jacob dreamed. And what a wild dream that was! Now, remember the “back story” of this. Jacob is not just wandering through the wilderness to get a little exercise. He is actually fleeing from his family and fleeing from the hatred of his brother Esau (you know that one that Jacob tricked into giving up his birthright.) So Jacob is also fleeing from himself, from his trickery and his duplicity. Perhaps he has had enough of himself. He is at the lowest point of his life. He is afraid, afraid of what will come next, afraid of Esau, probably a little afraid of God. The wilderness was nothing but for the fear.

 

And then a dream, a remarkable dream, probably the world’s most famous dream, fills his night.  He dreams that a ladder or, as interpreters claim is more likely, a stairway or a ramp extends from earth to heaven.  (Although, that really messes up that song!)  The Hebrew word is sulam, which is from the same root as “to cast up”, and so a ramp or a stairway probably does make more sense.  And on this ladder (or stairway or ramp or ziggurat or whatever it was), there were divine beings traversing up and down.  In this dream, we on earth were not left, as we sometimes think, to our own devices, to wander in the wilderness alone, and the place of the Divine, the Sacred, Heaven, or whatever you want to call this realm, is no longer off-limits to us.  In the wilderness, the two are intertwined, a part of one another.

 

The point is that, when the dream had ended, God was there.  The Hebrew is a little ambiguous.  It’s not clear if God was “before” Jacob or “beside” him.  I think maybe the ambiguity is the point.  No matter where we are, God is there.  And then, Jacob, this trickster, this one who is always looking out for himself, is given the promise that those before him had been given—land, prosperity, presence, and, homecoming.  God promises to bring Jacob home.  Upon awakening, Jacob realizes the importance of his dream and he proceeds to interpret its significance.  He recognizes that he has a completely new idea of who God is.  He has moved from revering and even fearing the God of his family, the God of Abraham and Isaac, to realizing that God is present even for him.  He also realizes that he has to respond to this God of Jacob, because he has encountered God.  So Jacob takes God’s promises and claims them as part of who he is.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Jacob was still Jacob.  He was not miraculously healed of his own sinfulness.  Jacob was still “the trickster”.  The experience does not make Jacob perfect or even, I would say, all that righteous.  It does not give Jacob early access to heaven.  God is God; we are not.  But what it does is opens his eyes to the realization that God’s presence is always and forever with him.

 

We are like Jacob.  Sometimes we, too, are wandering in fear—fear of being found out, fear of our past and what we’ve done, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear that it will not go as planned.  Perhaps we are afraid of what it means to encounter God, to follow Jesus, to come near to the Cross (not the cleaned-up one…the Golgotha one).  Perhaps we are afraid that our lives will change beyond our control.  We want to encounter God but we want to do it on our terms. And we don’t want to overstep. We don’t want to overreach. We don’t dare to even imagine that we could possibly do what God is calling us to do. And so we stay here, feet firmly planted in what we know. In her book, “A Return to Love”, Marianne Williamson contends that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…[but that] we are powerful beyond measure.” She reminds us that “playing small does not serve the world…We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” In other words, we are born to scale to new heights because that is the way that we encounter God. That is the way we find the God who has been with us all along.

 

That is what this season calls us to do—to scale new heights.  I’m not sure that we are called to let go of fear.  After all, it’s a normal and a sometimes healthy human emotion.  Personally, as I’ve said many times, if I quit being a little nervous about what I do, if I don’t fear just a little every time I step into the pulpit, then I need to go do something else because this is a really big deal!  Maybe God’s “fear not” (That supposedly occurs 365 times in the Bible! I haven’t actually COUNTED them, but maybe that means that you can only fear on leap day!) is not asking us to stop fearing but rather to let the God who will never leave us take our fears and turn them into who God envisions us to be.  Maybe “fear not” is calling us to encounter the God who walks with us.  For surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!  I was so wrapped up in fear that I did not realize that God was holding it.

 

Be patient.  When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness.  Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off.  Let it teach you in wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving.  Gradually you will become one, and you will find that [God] is living in your heart and offering you all you need.  (Henri J.M. Nouwen)

 

FOR TODAY:  What do you fear?  What stops you from being what God is calling you to be?  No more excuses.  Give God the fear and go forward.

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Staring Into the Face of Resurrection

Snake (Coiled) Scripture Text:  Numbers 21: 4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Well, as if we weren’t having enough problems in this wilderness! It seems that all through the Scriptures, there is always lots of complaining going on in the wilderness. The people complained because there was no food, so God gives them manna enough for an army. They complained that there was no water, so God tells Moses to strike the rock and the waters supposedly gushed forth. The complaints continued. Nothing was ever enough. Nothing was ever right. The one here always sort of cracks me up. “There is no food and no water!” “Oh wait, there IS food but we don’t like it.” (OH, that’s the REAL story!) But, regardless, this is the oddest passage. Without its mention in this week’s Gospel passage, chances are we would have avoided including it in the Lectionary altogether.

But in their defense, the wilderness sometimes seems to be unending torturous despair. The people are weary; they are frustrated; and they are no longer convinced that their leader really knows where he’s going at all. So, of course, the group that doesn’t like change, that wants to go back, becomes louder and more influential. I don’t know. I’ve always thought that perhaps the poisonous snakes notion might have been a little over the top. I mean, sure…complaining…bad, poisonous snakes all over the place…REALLY bad. You know, there is just something about a snake that commands your attention.

So God comes up with the oddest solution. Make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole and when someone is bitten by a snake, have the person look at the snake. Well, that is very strange. Essentially, God’s antidote for the snakes is a snake. So, let me get this straight. The more we look at our fear, at our evil, at those things that invade us, at those things that plague us, the less hold they have on us. I think the point is not the snake; the point is what God does with it.

It is notable, too, that nothing is said to imply that God destroys the snakes.  Essentially, God does not destroy the enemy—God recreates it.  Isn’t that an incredible thing?  You see, we need to recognize that the traditional Jewish reading of the “Garden of Eden” story differs from the classical Christian version.  While the snake has often been identified in both faiths as Satan (or satan), the Jewish understanding is not that of something or someone outside of God’s command or a rebel against divine authority.  Rather, it’s sort of a prosecuting attorney, entrusted with testing, entrapping, and testifying against us before the heavenly court.  It’s part of God’s way of maintaining order.  It’s part of God’s way of showing us a mirror to look at ourselves.  So, from that standpoint, these snakes or serpents are not enemies but, are rather a part of ourselves, a part of who we are, the part that we would rather not see. (And, yes, now we would rather they all be snakes rather than that!) Redemption is free but it is not given freely; one has to be willing to surrender the part of oneself that we’d rather not see. That is the only way that it can be healed.

So, did you see what has now happened to the story about “the dress”? (You know the blue and black that sometimes looked white and gold that brought the internet, social media, and the news world to its knees as people argued over the color of the dress.) Well, the Salvation Army in South Africa has come up with a stupendous global advertising campaign to raise awareness for domestic violence. There is a billboard in England that shows a picture of a bruised and battered woman that also employs the use of facial recognition technology. Each time a person looks at the billboard, the camera will take a picture of their face and the battered woman will heal a little bit more on the billboard. How incredible is that? If we look, the healing begins. (http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/new-anti-domestic-violence-campaign-features-the-dress/17wrjfdwt)

That’s the crux. If we look at the snake, if we look at the billboard, if we look to the Cross, the healing begins. Redemption does not happen by ignoring evil or turning one’s eyes away from that which is uncomfortable; it happens by staring it square in the face and seeing God’s Presence come through as it is re-created.

Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty. There seem to be two sides of this world, presented us at different times, as we see things in growth or dissolution, in life or death. And seen with the eye of the poet, as God sees them, all things are alive and beautiful. (Henry David Thoreau)

FOR TODAY: Open your eyes. Look it square in the face and encounter God in a way that you never have before. Encounter redemption; encounter re-creation; encounter resurrection.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli